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.

By Tania Anderson |  January 31, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Grocery Deals
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I absolutely love grand mart! I take my grandmother there all the time, the place also inspired me to start cooking more ethnic foods and to experiment with new fruits and different types of new snacks that they sell. The store never ceases to amaze me, its like shopping in a foreign country!

Posted by: Julie | January 31, 2008 8:19 AM

Exotic is a bit vague. Ah, this takes me back to Queens or suburban LA.

Grand mart is a pretty reasonable source of east Asian foods (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, southeast Asian to Indonesia, in order of decreasing selection), Latin American, and some east European. Produce is pretty well priced. It is worth checking out the meats, especially the Korean style beef cuts which are finely cut one meal sizes.

H-Mart is very similar, and perhaps a bit tidier with a Korean snack bar (Wheaton, Fairfax). It goes without saying these have a wide selection of tofu, but not as fresh as the Vietnamese specialty shops near Seven Corners.

Atlantic supermarket (NE corner of New Hampshire and University, Langley Park) has a wide selection of Latin American food (from Mexico to Argentina). The produce and meats seem quite nice. This is our supplier of beans. Across the street is a south Asian store, but I am not as familiar with it.

Magruders has eastern European dairy and kosher deli type sauerkraut and mustard.

Any recommendations on South Asian stores?

Posted by: Roger | January 31, 2008 9:14 AM

Dana Bazaar in Rockville.

Posted by: South Asian | January 31, 2008 9:28 AM

We go to grandmart regularly. Being a vegetarian I buy a lot of produce. At home we cook only Indian food, so that's the only place where we find Indian vegetables,and that too at much lower prices compared to the Indian stores around.
The only complain I have is that couple of the vegetables there for eg.Chinese okra are bad with fungus on it so I never buy those from grandmart.I heard this same complaint from my other friends too who shop at grandmart. Hope they can improve on this.

Posted by: vch | January 31, 2008 10:08 AM

Grand Mart is decent and I shop there regularly (Little River turn pike off I-395). I used to live near a Han Ah Reum (now H-Mart) on Gallows Road and miss it. The Super H-Mart out in Fairfax is sensational! We found culantro there (related to cilantro).

One other store worth checking out is El Grande off Back Lick road where it crosses the Beltway. It's got more of a Latino feel to it (advertised as a Super Mercado), though there's a similar availability of ingredients. It's a little further out of my way, so I've only been a couple times. I should check it out again.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | January 31, 2008 12:37 PM

Bow down to the original, Lotte in Fairfax. They've been around forever and they still stock it pretty well for all kinds of cuisine, Filipino, Latin American, etc., even if places like H-Mart and Grandmart are bigger. The noodle bar, sushi bar and other stands are a great place to grab Korean food quickly and cheaply without a huge formal fuss.

Without Lotte opening its doors 20+ years ago, you couldn't have places like these around DC.

I'm all about rooting for the little guy. After all, they did win the trademark infringement law suit against Lotte of Korea because they've been around forever.

Posted by: brcmapgirl | January 31, 2008 1:23 PM

I love Grandmart. I go to the locations in Centreville and Sterling. The fact that their prices are cheaper, doesn't surprise me. I love it nevertheless. I have been telling people for years that if you want good ingredients for a cheaper price, shop in the ethnic aisles of your regular grocery stores (Safeway, Giant, etc.). Now...I can just shop in the ethnic grocery store...PERIOD. Lastly, I think that not seeing enough white and black americans there is disappointing. It's different, so they don't like shopping there, which reflects the prejudices still prevelent in American Society. However, I am somewhat glad that alot of white and black americans don't shop there, because if they did, the store would lose its charm and edge.

Posted by: MBJohnson | January 31, 2008 3:00 PM

Grand Mart is great !! I love shopping veggies there!! It has lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. One can buy a cart full every week and it wont cost more than 20 bucks.

Posted by: AK | January 31, 2008 3:19 PM

Doees anyone know if World Market is still around in Dale City? I think that's where I used to go for its combination of Asian, Latino, and some mainstream general goods. The fish always seemed the thing to go for as it was often still swimming before your eyes.

Posted by: Tania | January 31, 2008 5:50 PM

These larger chain, ethnic supermarkets are really taking parts of the country by storm, especially on the West Coast (California and the Pacific Northwest in particular), the Chicago metro region, and the Eastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S.

They tend to be modern enough to draw non-Asian shoppers, but authentic enough to draw immigrants.

They also are having two big effects: First, they are influencing regular supermarkets chains like Safeway, Giant and so many others to carry more and more Asian foods; not just grocery products but meats, seafoods, produce and other perishable items as well.

Second, they are really hurting the original, small, family-run ethnic food shops. They can't compete on selection or on price with these chains.

These stores also offer a sensory--and sensual--experience (a bit of the exotic) which I believe is making them popular with all ehtnic groups. The Food Channel and PBS cooking shows also help.

You will see more of these ethnic supermarkets open--and in other parts of the country. Also eventually look for chains like Safeway and others to even expand further their ethnic foods selections and store sections.

Already Safeway is putting what are essentially small stores-within-a supermarket in a few of their stores in California which feature massive selections of Asian foods. They are doing the same in some cases with Hispanic foods as well.

This trend will grow, fueled in large part by these ethnic supermarket chains, along with the growing consumer demand for ethnic foods.

We write about these kinds of trends in our blog, Natural~Specialty Foods Memo, regularly.


Posted by: NaturalSpecialtyFoodsMemo | January 31, 2008 6:13 PM

The quality of the produce is far better at Grandmart than at Giant or SFW, especially in the winter. They must turn it over a lot faster.

Posted by: Elizabeth | January 31, 2008 7:22 PM

After living in Bangkok for 5 years, I returned to the DC area and experienced complete culture shock at the Giant. I stumbled across H-mart and then Grandmart a few months after my return to the States and was thrilled to find a little corner of Asia in the DC area. The produce is fresher, the fish sections are very similar to Asian "wet markets" and the variety of staple products such as rice, noodles, and frozen items has allowed me to keep in touch with my time overseas. I drag friends into H-mart and walk them through my Asian culinary experiences, showing them cuttlefish, dried prawns, and apples from across the globe.

Posted by: SEAsian Expat | January 31, 2008 9:03 PM

My wife is Vietnamese, so yes, I've been to all of these markets and more. I think HMart in Fairfax is the best, mostly because of their produce selection and prices. However, although they have seafood you won't find anywhere else, the quality is not always tops, as it is at places like BlackSalt fish market. My wife was used to eating fish caught the same day it was cooked until she was 25, and she is pregnant now (which means you have to be picky about the fish), and she agrees, the fish at BlackSalt, Wholefoods and similar markets is usually of superior quality:

Posted by: Kelby | January 31, 2008 10:02 PM

Love Gandmart although i think my problem is that i CAN"T READ IN CHINESE lol. I think it has nothing to do with racism. Usuall i pick out noodle bowls and such in the frozen food section and try all the samples. If I like it, I buy it. I think the prices on latino spices is excellent but do't know if the chili flower is the same as chili POWDER. Anyway the produce is good and HUGE and you just have to check it.

Posted by: Catherine | February 9, 2008 8:00 PM

Posted by: Vocascopy | October 4, 2008 12:46 PM

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