Why You Should Be Shopping In: Chinatown

Or as it's called here in Seattle, The International District.
These areas are popular tourist traps but looking beyond the gift shops or americanized asian megaplex stores you'll find these areas are littered with small chain groceries and family run businesses that carry not only culture specific food items, but familiar ones as well, most often at prices less than half of what you'll find in your own neighborhood grocery.
Once a month I take a trip down to Seattle's International District to hit up the Vietnamese grocery stores. There are nearly 10 stores of varying size within a 3 block radius and all of them hold equally amazing deals. If you are shopping on EBT you should know that Viet Wah off 12th and Jackson is the only store that accepts it. 

Grocery shopping in your local China Town has many perks. You'll be saving money while supporting a smaller business. 
Here are some pro's about International District shopping:
  • Shopping in stores culturally different than your own will inspire you to try new foods. A few of my favorite discoveries have been lychee fruit, seasoned nori snacks, champagne mangos, and fruit flavored jelly candies.
  • Often you will be supporting a smaller family business which is something to feel good about.

  • Unbeatable prices especially on produce and canned goods. $2.99 is the cost of 1 bell pepper at the QFC grocery by my house. I bought 3 at Viet Wa for the same price!
  • If you are a fan of asian cooking, you will find everything you need at these stores. Birds eye chili's, thai basil, kombu, fresh noodles, and more! Chances are, your favorite local stir fry restaurant does a fair bit of their shopping in the area as well.
There are, however, some cons to shopping in the area. Some of them are:
  • Often "Chinatown" is a far distance away. Don't plan a large shopping trip unless you are driving or have a fairly direct bus route with minimal walking. Bags are heavy.
  • I find the tanks of live "seafood" extremely depressing but it is difficult to avoid running into them in shops. I do not find confinement and slaughter to be appetizing.

  • The waste is a problem. Often items are pre-wrapped in plastic and sometimes packaged in styrofoam. Try to recycle as much of this as your city permits.
  • Stores can often appear dirty or messy. Some shops keep produce on display outside which can attract pigeons and other animals. Wash your food well before use.
  • Sometimes food is not the best quality. You will find bruised and sometimes rotten vegetables hiding among the others. Check the date and condition of your items to avoid wasting your money.

Now, I don't just shop in the International District. I actually have a few stores throughout the city which I enjoy visiting for specific items. That being said, there are a great deal of items and bargains in this are that keep me coming back. Here are my favorite finds in Chinatown groceries.

  • Shiitake mushrooms. I never liked mushrooms until I tried these but at a whopping $7.00 a lb at most stores they are often out of my price range. Here they are for less than $4.00! You can also find them dried for even less.
  • Coconut milk. I've found it as low as 50 cents a can. I like to stock up for future curries, soups, and even smoothies!

  • Fresh tofu. Here in Seattle there are several "tofu stores" near the I.D. where you can purchase freshly made tofu cakes. Fresh tofu is not packed in water which means you do not need to drain it before use. It is available deep fried as well and also in 2 flavors: onion or lemongrass. It comes pre-sliced, pre-cubed, or in whole cakes like the fried variety above. Try it and you'll never go back to the (more expensive) water packed kind again!

  • Where there is fresh tofu there is fresh soy milk. FRESH soy milk! I only just bought one of these for the first time and am very eager to taste it. Occasionally you can also find flavored varieties of soy milk. I was buying coconut Vita Soy every other week for a while and boy was it ever good!
  • Thai basil. They try to mark this stuff up in most stores like it's something ultra rare and exotic but you can buy giant bunches of it down here for only a couple bucks. You can't make decent Thai food without it but you can also swap it in to italian recipes for a slightly different herb flavor.

  • Noodles. Fresh and dried. Yakisoba, udon, chow mein, bean thread, soba, wide rice, etc. Buy shelf stable dry noodles or find fresh noodles like the ones above that have been shrink wrapped. I usually buy several packages of the shrink wrapped noodles and freeze them. Each of those packages makes about 4 servings. I like the noodles labeled as "stir fry noodles" the best. 

  • Mock meats. Yep, that's right, certain regions of Asia are CRAZY about mock meats! If you are tired of blowing $$ on soy and wheat based items out of the "natural" section at your grocery store then this is the place to go. Most of the larger vietnamese groceries have a special frozen area specifically for mock meats. Unfortunately, many of them contain whey but they have everything from "mock lamb" to "mock fish", from fake chicken shaped like a whole chicken to my favorite fake meat product ever- "Veggie Mini Chicken Ham". I am not making that name up. Some of the frozen "meats" can be a bit pricier than what you may have hoped but they often provide enough for several meals. Though it may seem strange, do not pass up the canned mock meats usually located near the canned vegetables. I've found canned "pork", "abalone", and "chicken" but the canned "peking duck" is definitely the best one. These flavored gluten's come canned in a savory stock which I usually mix with sugar, spices, and cornstarch to create a sauce for whatever stir fry I used the "meat" in. at $1.39 a can these are a shelf stable steal!
  • The sauce isle. Keeping a bottled stir fry sauce in the fridge is a great crutch for lazy evenings. A good sauce isle will give you several hundred options for such a thing. You will also find items like sesame oil and rice vinegar for increasingly low prices.
  • And finally, no chinatown trip would be complete without a haul of ridiculous mystery snacks! I like jelly straws, wasabi peas, sesame candy, and daifuku. What do you like?

My final note on Shopping these stores is that many pre package their produce. I've seen people tear open the bags and remove what they want but I'm not sure if it's frowned upon. If you are shopping at one of these stores only buy produce that you know you are going to use up. Having half a pound of bokchoy go yellow because you didn't eat it in time is a waste. This is where freezing comes in handy like I did for my green beans.

$50.00 later I return home with more food than I can fit on my counter. Broken down that comes out to:
3 ears of corn, 1 package "stir fry noodles", 3 lemons, 6 yams, 4 kiwi's, 1 bunch parsley, 1 bunch cilantro, 1 package fresh roll wrappers, 1 can coconut milk, 1 can coconut soda, 1 giant bottle of %100 pomegranate juice, 1 giant package rice vermicelli noodles, 2 avocados, 1 bunch bananas, 4 crowns of broccoli, 1 mega package of cherries, 2 fresh tofu cakes, 1 red onion, 1 bag yellow onions, 4 heads of garlic, 10 red plums, 2 champagne mangos, 1 9" piece of ginger, 1 lime, 1 huge package of snow peas, 3 red bell peppers, 2 green bell peppers, 1 bunch scallions, 1 bunch thai basil, 1 box seasoned nori snacks, and a bag of green beans larger than my head.

How's that for bargain shopping?
All food from Viet Wah.