Taking a Walk on the International Side of Food
In the mood for something a little different for dinner today? How about some rabbit stew? Or sauteed milkfish? These aren't exactly the kinds of ingredients you'd find at your local Safeway or Giant. But I recently discovered that you can find them at one of the various large international food stores that have been cropping up in our area.
You may have seen them in your travels. They're as big as traditional grocery stores like Safeway and Giant but they're filled with aisles and aisles of food that you can't find at those stores, as well as some food staples. But mostly it's the food that you'll find on the plates of the ever-growing immigrant population in the D.C. area.
It's hard to say how many of these stores have entered the Washington region over the last few years. The Food Marketing Institute in Washington says there hasn't been much tracking of the trend. Small mom and pop ethnic food stores have been around for awhile but the larger ones have definitely accelerated in the last few years, according to an institute spokesman. "At the same time, conventional supermarkets have expanded their ethnic foods," says Bill Greer of the Food Marketing Institute.
Greer says it's not just immigrants who are drawn to these stores. As many as 40 percent of its shoppers are Anglo-American. As people have become more sophisticated in their cooking and have been exposed to more ethnic restaurants, they've been drawn to these kinds of supermarkets, Greer adds.
I recently went to Grandmart, which has six stores in the Washington region and one in Baltimore. The business started out as a wholesale food supplier to retailers but then went to a retail format in 2002. "We thought we could supply the retail customer with a better price than everyone else," says Seung Lee, director of Grandmart's investment team.
The business has done well, he adds, with mostly Asians and Latinos shopping at its stores. Lee says the success of the stores is due to the fact that many produce and meat items can be found all year round at Grandmart. For example, guavas are carried at Grandmart 12 months of the year, whereas you may only find them at Giant and Safeway in the summer. The company plans to open more stores locally this year and in 2009.
I found that Grandmart also offers some deals on food staples. A dozen eggs were selling for $1.99, compared to Giant's price of $2.19. Grandmart had Florida Natural Orange Juice for $2.99, compared to Giant's price of $3.79. But then I was also struck by the wide selection of produce, fresh fish and meats. Most of the stuff I had never heard of, such as milkfish and spotfish. The store did have Tilapia filets for $4.99 per pound, Spanish mackerel for $2.99 per pound and monkfish for $4.99 per pound. And yes, they did sell frozen rabbit meat for $2.59 per pound, as well as a whole young duck for $1.99 per pound and beef tongue for $2.99 per pound.
The produce section was impressive enough just to browse around and see all the fruits and vegetables from all over the world. There were Chinese eggplants, Israeli fuyu, huge avocados from the Dominican Republic, Korean pears and Mexican mangoes.
The wine and beer freezer was also another interesting glimpse into international beverages, with Korean Pear wine and beers from all over Central and South America. The store even had a small jewelry counter and a small selection of pots, pans and other kitchen appliances.
What have you found at area international food stores? Have you been to Grandmart? Where do you shop for exotic ingredients? Post a comment below.
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