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8 Things You Should be Buying at International Grocery Stores

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Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Why you should seek out international grocery stores to introduce new ingredients into your kitchen.

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Bok Choy

Maybe you already have your favorite grocery store -- the kind of place where you know exactly where the trail mix is and how many people you'll have to knock out of the way to get to it -- but today I'm going to encourage you to shop at international grocery stores. You might save a few extra bucks and, more importantly, you will expand your knowledge of different types of rice, balk at the sheer number of ramen varietals, and buy a few sodas you've never heard of before. 

Don't forget to stock up on these ingredients before you leave -- if they aren't already staples in your kitchen, they're about to be:

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Soy Sauce

1. Sauces

You already know how to use this guy, but you'll be (pleasantly) surprised by the varieties you can find beyond the international food aisle of your local supermarket. Darker soy sauces tend to be less salty and pungent than their lighter cousins. I like double dark Chinese soy sauce, which is thicker and slightly sweeter than the soy sauce of sushi restaurants. Kecap manis, a thick, sweet, and syrupy soy sauce, is a key ingredient in many classic Indonesian dishes (and if you're feeling like nasi goreng is too ambitious of a project, it will even make a nice addition to your grain bowl). 

Mirin, a sweet rice wine with low alcohol content, is a great addition to your pantry. I keep some around to add a touch of sweetness to Asian-influenced dressings or broths or to toss on root vegetables before roasting.

I've already waxed poetic about fish sauce, but at international stores, you can also find types derived from different sea creatures like squid, anchovies, or crab.

If you're bored with your typical rotation of hot sauces, try Korean gochujang, Georgian ajika, or Chinese la jiao jiang

 

Dried Chili Pepper

2. Spices

Most international grocery stores offer good deals on whole spices. Take this opportunity to grind your own spices: Yes, it is actually worth the hassle and the $10-cost of a cheap coffee grinder. Make sure to toast your spices first to get the most flavor out of them, then become your own spice merchant and create some custom mixes.

I always put some whole chili peppers, mustard seed, cardamom, star anise, whole cinnamon, and cumin in my cart, which prepares me to make pho or curry paste or spicy hot chocolate at the drop of a hat.

More: You already have a spice grinder? Good for you. Here's how to keep it in tip-top shape.

 

Ginger

3. Produce

Your kitchen should never be without garlic, but you should try out black garlic for an umami-packed punch. Try adding it to hummus for a new take on your favorite dip.

If your greens repertoire is stuck in an endless loop between kale and more kale, take a stroll through the produce section. From bok choy to shiso to tatsoi, you'll emerge inspired.

Try out produce that you might not have tasted before. Peel a pomelo instead of an orange, roast Japanese yams instead of sweet potatoes, churn some prickly pear ice cream rather than your usual strawberry, fry thinly-sliced jackfruit instead of potato, or add yuca to soup in place of squash. 

 

Tofu

4. Refrigerator items and dairy products

Not only is tofu typically less pricey at international markets, it's also more diverse. In addition to firm and extra-firm, you can find soft tofu, silken tofu, and even tofu skins (yuba). Read up on how tofu is an excellent source of protein and a broke kitchener's best friend here.

You may think that homemade dumplings are unattainable. You haven't met pre-made dumpling skins. They come in a dizzying arrays of colors, shapes, and sizes and are waiting to be filled with chicken, shrimp, or lamb.

Seek out labneh, a strained yogurt cheese, and use it to make a tangy tart, or simply eat it by itself, topped with jam. And once you're addicted, start making your own. While you're in the refrigerated section, pick up some paneer and kefir, too.

 

Vegan Pad Thai

5. Noodles

Stock up on fresh and dried rice noodles in all shapes and sizes for homemade versions of pad Thai or drunken noodles and impromptu rice noodle salads.

Thick, chewy, fresh udon noodles are one of my favorites; you'll typically find them in the refrigerated section, neatly wrapped and ready to be added to chicken soup or tossed with a spicy chili-garlic sauce

While you're there, pick up some bright yellow ramen noodles; I typically prefer the fresh, refrigerated ones, as the dried ones are often flash-fried. Then you can make ramen at home and pretend you just whipped up the noodles like whatever.

 

Rice

6. Rice

Sushi rice is the kind of rice I want to be eating all of the time. Not only is it always perfectly sticky and chewy, but I also seem to have better luck cooking it than other varietals. It's also the perfect bed for your curries and stir-fries. I've even heard tell that you can use sushi rice in place of Arborio for risotto, since they're both so starchy. I've used sushi rice, with great results, in Marcella Hazan's smothered cabbage soup. Next stop: rice pudding.

If you haven't tried sticky rice with mango and coconut cream, you haven't truly lived. 

 

7. Beans

There's a whole world of beans beyond the bulk food bins you're familiar with. Buy dried mung beans and urad dal (otherwise known as black gram), then combine them with some specimens that might already be lingering in your pantry -- kidney beans, chickpeas, and black-eye peas -- in this spicy 5 Bean Curry.

 

8. Candies, Confections, and Teas

Don't forget to sample the sweets you might pass on your way out. I don't leave a Middle Eastern market without a square of sesame halvah, and I always make sure to pick up a variety of laddu and burfi when I'm at the Indian grocery store.

International markets are also great for experimenting with new types of loose tea. They're also the places where you'll find tapioca pearls and bubble tea mix, setting you up to make your own bubble tea at home.

What do you stock up on at the international grocery store? Tell us in the comments!


Tags: cheap, budget, cooking, weeknight, quick, easy, ethnic grocery store, asian, latin american, mexican, indian, exotic, how-to