It’s always an adventure to visit an international grocery store. To see packages without a trace of English on them, or to find products you’ve never heard of. But sometimes, it can be just as overwhelming as it is fun.
Thankfully, in Birmingham, we have several Asian markets to choose from. My personal favorite is about the size of your average supermarket and dwarfs the competition. While I love how many options they offer, the first few times I visited, I would purchase only one or two items because I was equal parts overwhelmed by the amount of products and a little nervous to buy a grocery cart full of totally new things.
But one of the main reasons to visit an Asian market, besides just expanding your culinary horizons, is that they provide a huge range of familiar vegan-friendly products at a fraction of the prices found at regular grocery stores. This means you can happily fill your fridge, and pantry with wholesome, cheap foods during your next shopping trip.
Below are some of my favorite vegan food finds at Asian markets:
A staple for the many Asian cuisines, you can find just about every type of tofu imaginable in the refrigerated section. Soft, silken, firm, extra firm, baked, fried, puffed, you name it, they probably have it. I usually buy the firm tofu, which rings in at around $2.50 per container and has 19 ounces of tofu. That’s about one and a half times the amount of tofu, for two-thirds of the price at a regular grocery store.
This past year has seen jackfruit grow in popularity, with recipes popping up everywhere using it as a meat-substitute. And while you can purchase it already seasoned and prepared in most health food stores, you can get the canned stuff for significantly cheaper and customize it as you wish. At my local store, the jackfruit is in the canned fruits section near the coconut milk. Be sure to get the canned jackfruit in brine and not in syrup. Each can has about two servings (at least for the amount Peter and I eat) and rings in around $1.49 a piece. Then you can easily shred the jackfruit and dress is up for tacos, a baked potato topper, or whatever your little vegan heart desires.
Be warned, when buying soymilk at an Asian market, don’t be expecting the thin product from brands like Silk. Their non-dairy drink is very thick in comparison, with a much richer mouth-feel. It’s not something I would use for cooking or drinking straight, but a dollop in a mug of coffee does wonders, and it can make very moist baked goods. If you like the thick texture, most markets have adorable individual-size cartons, usually in fun flavors like chocolate or strawberry.
It never ceases to amaze me how vast (and bizarre) the vegan meat alternatives are in my Asian market. In the frozen section is a collection featuring the likes of vegan ham tubes (see above), seitan shaped like an entire chicken, bite-size shrimp, tuna steaks, and more. In the canned section, you can find mock meats like duck or chicken, which are eerily similar, down to the lightly dimpled skin texture impressed upon the wheat gluten. And while I don’t eat meat alternatives all the time, sometimes it’s a nice change of pace, especially when serving omnivores who would prefer something closer to “the real deal.”
Sauces, Oils, and Vinegars
The majority of Asian grocery stores have an entire aisle dedicated to oils, vinegars, and various sauces or condiments. You can get cheaper versions of many commonplace products like oils (olive, canola, sesame) and vinegars (white, rice, apple cider). For sauces, if you’re like me and cook Asian food a lot, you can get huge bottles of soy sauce, sambal oelek, and sweet chili sauce for a serious bargain. And this is my favorite part of the store, not just because of the nice price points, but because there’s a world of new flavors to discover in the condiments aisle. Besides products that contain fish or oyster sauce, most are vegan-friendly. Try out a new chili paste, curry sauce, or new stir-fry base with dinner tonight. You might just find a new favorite.