Cycle-Adventuring for Fun, Low-Cost Food at Ethnic Grocery Stores and Supermarkets

Large variety of freshly made sushi packs. Fujiya Japanese Supermarket. Vancouver, BC
Large variety of freshly made sushi packs. Fujiya Japanese Supermarket. Vancouver, BC

Yes, I know: in major to medium sized cities, you can drop by big, non-ethnic supermarket chains and load up on fresh ginger, pita bread or curry paste. Heck, even a deal on bitter melon is even possible these days.

No Need for Food Coupons
I have not used any food coupons over the past 3 decades. Instead, I’ve relied on low-cost food discoveries in ethnic grocery stores, farmers’ markets and only 1-2 national mainstream supermarkets.

By the sushi, sashimi and miso soup counter. Fujiya's, Vancouver BC
By the sushi, sashimi and miso soup counter. Fujiya’s, Vancouver BC.

I happily patronized 1-3 different ethnic grocery stores and supermarket stores when I have lived in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. It takes time to find them. But cycling does encourage me to explore, in search of food deals at a few select places that are kind to the food budget yet interesting places just to browse briefly.

Japanese Supermarket for Fresh, Cheaper Sushi
In Vancouver, we occasionally cycled over to the Japanese local supermarket chain, Fujiya near the Adanac bike route. If you want competitively priced, freshly made but packaged sushi and sashimi combinations, this is the place. Along with a tray or two of sushi, is their bowl of miso soup for a simple, cheap lunch at their little eating area inside, at the front of the store. Fujiya has some outlets in Metro Vancouver. Not surprisingly, the multi-generational local Japanese-Canadians go there and everyone else.

Chinese gunpowder green tea --trilingual packaging from a Middle Eastern store.
Chinese gunpowder green tea –with trilingual packaging from a Middle Eastern store.

At minimum, I usually end up buying a big pack of green tea or buckwheat noodles. But there is a diverse selection of Japanese teas, miso pastes and dried seaweeds. I don’t buy much from this suite of Japanese staples, but it still is interesting just to look at the differences in Japanese teas versus the Chinese teas.

A slice of historic Chinatown. Vancouver, BC. 2010. Mural reflects some aboriginal imagery, indigenous to northwest coast cultural history.Photo by J. Chong
A slice of historic Chinatown. Vancouver, BC. 2010. Mural reflects some aboriginal imagery, indigenous to northwest coast cultural history.Photo by J. Chong

  More Rice Diversity at Chinese One-Stop Supermarket
Maybe I’m not remembering correctly, but Fujiya doesn’t offer the same diversity of rice in sacks compared to some Chinese grocery stores. I do shop at the Chinese mega-chain (at least for North American Chinese supermarkets) at T & T’s — more for convenience instead of continuously great deals. Some of their prices are higher than independent Chinese grocery stores. Annoyingly, sometimes large bunches of Chinese greens are bundled  in plastic and sold by  weight. Not practical when buying for only 1-2 people.

From a wholesale bakery and a stop for snack: Middle Eastern phyllo pastry made of custard-like cream, sprinkled with pistachios
At Byblos wholesale bakery outlet and a bike ride stop: Middle Eastern phyllo pastry made of custard-like cream, sprinkled with pistachios.

But still, it’s just easier to manoeuvre around in wider shopping aisles.  The shelves are filled with a mind-boggling variety of foods that either I’ve never tried (and some I never will, since it’s processed and packaged junk food a la Asian-style) or my decision-making is challenged on which brand to try.  It used to be rice. But since I don’t eat much rice anymore, it’s Chinese noodles now –certain types of noodles. T & T has spread its supermarket empire across Canada. There are some differences between Vancouver stores and the single Calgary store. Vancouver locations offer a lot more fresh seafood and wider range of locally made fresh Chinese noodles.  I haven’t visited Calgary store often enough to see if they’ve gone as far as to introduce bison or venison to their customers. But it’s only a matter of time when they do.

Stacks of large couscous sacks and different types at Middle Eastern shops.
Stacks of large couscous sacks and different types at Middle Eastern shops. Calgary, AB

 Piles of Middle Eastern Couscous Sacks
For Middle Eastern groceries, we have the easy convenience near a bike route to access Byblos, a Middle Eastern wholesale bakery outlet in Calgary which also supplies Western Canada. It’s typical to see customers sail out of the store with over 10-20 packs of pita bread for their families or more likely, their own restaurants.

After packing away pita bread, some phyllo pastries with pistachios, hazelnuts and thankfully, less syrupy than Greek versions and freshly made hummus, we settle down for a sumach spiced flatbread, a pastry and drink before climbing back on the bikes.

East Indian tea brands with British colonial branding. Basha Foods International, Calgary AB
East Indian tea brands with British colonial branding. Basha Foods International, Calgary AB.

Just a block away is Basha Foods International, a large Middle Eastern supermarket that has instead, sacks of rice varieties with Middle East or Indian brands as well as whole aisles devoted to diverse selection and large volumes of beans, millet, couscous and barley.

Colonial Tea Branding in South Asian Teas, Not East Asian Brands
Packaged tea has Middle Eastern script with branding that reflects British colonial past — totally different from Chinese tea branding which retains more often, Chinese imagery and logos with no reference to British connections. But then except for Hong Kong and Macau, China was never colonized. Same for Japanese teas and their branding.

Giant moon cakes for Chinese mid-Autumn festival. Size for this cake is not typical. T & T's supermarket. Calgary, AB
Giant moon cakes for Chinese mid-Autumn festival –enough to feed a whole party for dessert. T & T’s supermarket. Calgary, AB

Someone mentioned to me that it would be cheaper and more satisfying that I made my own hummus. Sure, but there are limits how far I will go the homemade route. I shop at these favourite food stores in lieu of visiting many different mainstream supermarkets for good prices and fun while browsing different foodstuffs.

Oh yes, I forgot: they are fun cycling destinations while I also get a great work out to haul the goodies homeward.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. I love these kind of stores, Jean – we have a lot of ethnic stores and restaurants in Pittsburgh and they are a great source for food AND photos. My favorite part is the smell, though – a whole different world of spices and food odors that transport me to another world.

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    1. Jean says:

      I often find there are usually a few ingredients in such stores, that inspire me to both try and use more often. But most important realize that there is a wider range of brands to choose for a particular ingredient that has been important that type of cuisine. Of course, smell can lead to buying a snack right there. 🙂 It helps enormously when travelling overseas with prior exposure and tasting.

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  2. MB says:

    I love ethnic stores because they food you buy are such bargains. A can of bamboo shoots in the Asian section of the supermarket would be $2 or more while it’s only 99 cents at the Asian stores. I live in a small town of about 68,000, predominantly White population, so I have to drive out of town, once a week, for my Asian goods.

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    1. Jean says:

      I can relate to your extra effort for Asian groceries. But your children will grow up, appreciating this extra dimension and health to their diet. After all part of cultural identity retention, is tied to the cuisine and passing on knowledge of such recipes and cooking techniques. Not a hard sell to children. 🙂 I grew up initially in a town of 3,000 and then later another city of 30,000 (now probably over 150,000) outside of Toronto. Asian groceries in the 1960’s -1970’s were not typical in local grocery stores. So whenever my parents made their trip to Toronto (100 km. away) every 3-4 months, they stacked up on Asian groceries. That is when we got our first family car. Before we couldn’t until I was 14 yrs. old. Even though we were poor, I grew up with an appreciation of tracking down the “right” ingredients, instead of just settling for whatever was local produce. I appreciate local grown stuff but honest, we’re not going to ever get locally grown mangoes in Canada. Ginger root and ginseng, however is grown in interior British Columbia where it is much drier soil and hot. Same region as the wineries!

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  3. “After all part of cultural identity retention, is tied to the cuisine”. I totally agree with you. I’m not too fond of rice but I love Chinese noodles and I’m addicted to couscous because it reminds me of growing up in Africa surrounded with lots of Chinese and people from the Middle East or North Africa. I have started eating sushis only here in Canada. Even though it originates from Japan, to me sushis are part of the Western culture, a culture fascinated by the East…

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    1. Jean says:

      Never thought anyone would identify sushi as part of Western culture! Goes to show you how “global” sushi has become or er, maybe in someplaces. I was in New Mexico a few years ago where definitely sushi restaurant presence didn’t make much of dent. Couscous is so easy but then I’m probably using the quick cooking stuff to make a wonderful sundried tomato and mushroom with thyme couscous. You’ll find recipe in Eating Well magazine website. For the past few years, I’ve eaten hardly any rice: now it seems to raise my blood sugar so I end up feeling exhausted after eating rice. So sushi and sashimi is rare but greatly appreciated when I do have it. There are certain Chinese noodles I prefer since there is a wide range, but it is the lighter wheat based noodles and some rice noodle types. Again certain noodles raise my blood sugar. I know, this is surprising after eating rice for dinner nearly daily for the first few decades of my life. But one can still have and eat Asian cuisine!

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