Ethnic Markets: Not Just For Ethnics?

Jun 24, 2011 11:01 am

An experiment in affordable eating

Illustration: Nora Murphy
Illustration: Nora Murphy
 

Experiment 1: Curry Chicken

The other day, as I was perusing the hyper-local organic foodstuffs at my favorite gentrifier-approved Fancy Mart, my Indian girlfriend let out a squeal of disbelief in the spice aisle. “This is outrageous,” she said, holding aloft a jar of dehydrated chili peppers priced in the neighborhood of your average Korean automobile. “My mom gets these for next to nothing at the Indian grocery.”

Well, you can imagine my surprise. “People actually shop at those things?” I inquired in an imperial tone I soon learned she didn’t appreciate whatsoever. Once tensions cooled, I got to thinking: Would trading in my Fancy Mart for an ethnic grocery really save me money? Let the experiment begin!

I decided to take one recipe and shop for it twice. In order to test my girlfriend’s specific Indian market claims, I settled on a simple Curry Chicken recipe by Food Republic co-founder Marcus Samuelsson that I found online:

While this experiment is wildly unscientific, I did want my findings to be as accurate as possible, and so I came up with a few simple rules:

  1. We’ll assume my pantry is completely empty (a safe assumption, actually). That is, I need to buy everything from scratch. Perhaps the recipe calls for only 1 bay leaf, but unless you can actually purchase a single leaf, I’m counting the full price of whatever quantity I actually am required to purchase at each store.
  2. My personal shopping decisions are relevant. If the store carries 40 different olive oils, I’m going with the one I’d really buy if I needed olive oil.
  3. That said, whenever possible I will purchase the same size item at each store.
  4. Since ethnic markets often don’t function as supermarkets, I’ve decided to compare my single Fancy Mart with a city block full of Indian markets, namely those located on Lexington Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets in Manhattan.
  5. I’m not going into every store on the block to comparison-shop the price of a lime. Again, my shopping habits count. I’m lazy. In real life, I’d buy the first lime I see.

DATA

1 Star Anise
Fancy Mart: $7.99/jar
Indian Market: $4.99/jar

1 Bay Leaf
Fancy Mart: $6.19/jar
Indian Market: $4.99/jar

2 cloves
Fancy Mart: $11.99/jar
Indian Market: $4.99/jar

1 tablespoon curry powder
Fancy Mart: $4.99/jar
Indian Market: $3.99/bag

3 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken
Fancy Mart: $16
Indian Market: $9

2 tablespoons olive oil
Fancy Mart: $9.99/16.9 oz bottle
Indian Market: $7.99/16.9 oz. bottle

1 red onion
Fancy Mart: 99 cents
Indian Market: 38 cents

2 inch piece ginger
Fancy Mart: 20 cents
Indian Market: 20 cents

2 garlic cloves
Fancy Mart: 43 cents
Indian Market: 28 cents

3 tomatoes
Fancy Mart: $1.99
Indian Market: $1.99

1 cup coconut milk
Fancy Mart: $1.49/can
Indian Market: $2.99/can

2 limes
Fancy Mart: 40 cents
Indian Market: $2

Items I Could Not Find at Ethnic Markets, so Settled for Bodega:

2 carrots
Fancy Mart: 50 cents
Bodega: 66 cents

1 Asian pear
Fancy Mart: $1.99
Bodega: $2.49/lb (Bartlett)

Jalapeño peppers
Fancy Mart: 99 cents/lb.
Bodega: $2.99/lb

RESULTS
Fancy Mart: $66.13
Indian Markets: $49.93

CONCLUSION
My girlfriend was absolutely right (what else is new?). By shopping for dinner at the Indian markets, I saved a grand and not insignificant total of $16.20. Not too shabby. On purely financial terms, this is a slam-dunk.

Three quick observations, though, that somewhat temper my enthusiasm for ditching the supermarket experience altogether:

  1. Difficulty — shopping at the ethnic markets constituted much more of a schlep. Time is money, if you believe some people.
  2. Availability — I was disappointed to have to use a bodega to round out my grocery list. Perhaps the Asian pear was hoping for a bit much, but carrots?
  3. Quality — The biggest surprise for me, by far, was the lesser quality of the produce in ethnic market land. Fancy Mart’s produce section bordered on the pornographic, while most ethnic market produce looked like something from The Grapes of Wrath.

Yet, on the other hand (is that a third hand?), doing my shopping at the ethnic markets was a ton of fun. So there’s that, plus $16 in my pocket…not too shabby.


Other columns by the Unemployed Gourmand:

 

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