I've always considered myself very lucky to have been raised by the type of parents I had. They were all about teaching me, exposing me to as many new & different things as possible, only leaving out things that were obviously age inappropriate. As a result, I've learned a little bit about a great many random things, and that, of course, includes food. I've been a fan of spicy Thai and Indian food since the age of 6, watched how sugar and coffee is picked & processed into the products we're familiar with when I'd spend summers with my family in Colombia, and have been to a huge number of restaurants in the South Bay Area and Peninsula. Many of these things have been a part of my life since I was very young, so it's been nice to see more Americans joining me in a bit more adventurous eating. Gone are the days of the boring 1950's Jello molds, constantly present at any major function, and eating healthy is no longer considered to be reserved for vegetarians only, opening the door to the amazing world of fruits and vegetables more widely than just coconuts or cilantro.
I can tell this not only by perusing the menus of any restaurant I happen by, showing titles of very creative-sounding dishes, but by what I see in the stores. These days something like a mango is considered a rather commonly-found fruit, whereas 15 years ago it was still a novelty in large grocery stores. There was a time when most fresh herbs were only sold in gourmet stores; now they have their own little section in the produce department. Americans are eating naan and quinoa and porcini mushrooms, they cook by making port wine reductions and beet & feta salads for everyday dinners. We've woken up to the idea that all food is fun. Of course, this will inevitably require some exotic ingredients, and many of these can be found at regular grocery stores. However, it will cost you, and very dearly. If at all possible and you have one near you, make an extra trip to save some money and head to your nearest ethnic foods store.
Those of you who live in larger cities probably have one within a 20 minute drive, so you know what I'm talking about. They're the little hole-in-the-wall establishments that don't look like much and smell way different when you walk inside. The amazing stores that carry a cornucopia of things we could never find at Safeway, Trader Joe's, or even Whole Foods. Six to seven brands of soy and fish sauce, an endless supply of curry pastes, exotic teas, and a variety of Asian cooking staples abound at your local Asian market. Things like curtido, a Salvadoran side made of pickled cabbage and carrots with lots of oregano (served with pupusas), ten different types of chipotle peppers from one brand alone (I didn't realize you could do so much with them!), and a wide assortment of drinking and cooking chocolates are among the many things you'll encounter at a Mexican & Latin foods store. Produce at prices that will astonish you, cuts & parts of meat & poultry you can't find at a regular store; I could go on forever about the wonders of these great little markets. And the best part is that all of this "ethnic" stuff is sold for way less than you'd think.
Granted, this doesn't apply to everything in these stores, so don't go in thinking you'll save a bundle if you do a full cart of groceries. However, if you're like me and love making foods from all over the world, take the time to go to one of these stores to get your "weird" ingredients. It's also a good place to save on certain produce, so if you don't have access to a farmers market, you can grab a fair amount of fruits & veggies of amazing quality for next to nothing. Case in point: my trip to La Superior yesterday after work. Because of one of their recent mail circulars, I noticed they were having some great deals on produce and, since it had been awhile since I'd been there, I figured I'd check out the rest of the store. For a mere $20, I bought:
~ 2 lbs key limes
~ 3 bunches cilantro
~ 1 giant mango
~ 3 lbs roma tomatoes
~ 2 Braeburn apples
~ 2 cucumbers
~ 1 large can of chipotle peppers in adobo
~ 3 lbs large chicken legs & thighs
~ 2 lbs large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
My bill was $20.22. Incredible! Especially when you consider the amazing quality of the meat & produce. I left that store happy as a clam, knowing I had some great food and didn't even hit the $25 mark.
Again, not everything is so well-priced in these markets, so shop wisely. National brand name products will usually come in smaller sizes than you're used to and for a lot more. Some things cost just a couple pennies less than they would at a regular grocery store. But if you want to get good spices and other staples like beans and rice, in addition to your fun ingredients, this is a great way to shop. In fact, I found full-sized cans of sweetened & unsweetened coconut milk at one of the Asian food markets near me a couple months ago for just $0.69/can! Usually it costs about $2 or more. Just think of how many batches of tom kha gai or sweet, creamy curries you can make with those prices!
So if you're an adventurous foodie and love to cook different foods, take the time to Google your nearest stores and go enjoy your little budget shopping adventure!