|Clockwise, from L: hawthorn sweets, beancurd sheets, tahini, preserved black beans and date syrup|
- Take tahini, for instance; here in the UK you could pay over £3 for a very small glass jar of it from the speciality section of a supermarket or from a wholefood store- even more if it's organic. But if you look in a shop where they sell Middle Eastern foods you will find 900g plastic tubs of it for the same price, and although it's not organic, it has no salt added and is just as good quality as the more expensive brands.
- There are also natural sweeteners to be had; again, not organic, but substantially cheaper than the wholefood stores or supermarket chains. Date syrup is usually available from Middle Eastern shops, and of course dried and fresh dates from Middle Eastern and Pakistani supermarkets. In a Turkish shop I once found mulberry syrup, which combines really well with tahini to make an excellent sweet spread- who needs peanut butter jelly sandwiches? Gour (jaggery) and shakar are also available in any Indian/ Pakistani shop in a number of forms; as powdery crystals, in large 7kg blocks or in smaller lumps. Gour contains sucrose, but is unrefined and high in iron and other minerals. It can be from cane, date or palm juice, and ranges from pale beige to golden-brown Kolhapuri gour from Maharashtra (my favourite.) Good quality gour may seem quite pricey in comparison to something like ordinary sugar, but compare it to a similar product such as South American rapadura which wholefood shops often sell and it comes out as very reasonable. The fact that you can but gour in bulk is also convenient and contributes to its overall cost-effectiveness.
- Pulses are of course a great buy in any ethnic store. You can get them in larger quantities and often in greater variety than supermarkets. You're unlikely to find organic pulses, but they are very reasonably-priced, and you can get them in large bags. Mung beans for both cooking and sprouting are a good buy here, as are yellow chickpeas and the excellent and healthy kala chana. Look for black-eyed beans (lobhia) and red kidney beans too. Turkish and Middle Eastern shops also sell dried fava beans, which are like broad beans. My husband buys them for seed and they make great broad bean plants which yield well. Lebanese/ Egyptian ful medames is made from brown beans or fava beans. Of course, there are also all the various types of dal in Asian shops which you can't get anywhere else.
- Brown basmati rice is another good buy from Asian shops: it is not that cheap, but better for you than white rice and has a distinct flavour all it's own, quite unlike ordinary brown rice. I have found that brown rice, organic or otherwise, is often not available in supermarket chains, so buying a big bag of brown basmati may just save you a lot of time.
- Herbs and spices are some of the best things you can get in ethnic stores. They come in sensibly-sized small, medium and large bags rather than those silly tiny little glass jars we love so much in the UK, which have more packaging than actual product. You can get all your old favourites plus specific flavourings for Asian and Arabic cuisines such as kalonji seeds, panch phoron, hing (asafoetida), camphor, dalchini (cinnamon) etc. There are also such exotic things as dried pomegranate, star anise and so forth. If you love collecting herbs and spices, you will adore the herb and spice shelves here!
- Oils, I am just starting to appreciate, can also be good buys. In Asian shops you can get pure almond oil and coconut oil very inexpensively as well as products such as mustard oil and cottonseed oil used in Indian cookery. You probably won't get cold-pressed organic or extra-virgin, but (depending on how you use them) they will be a lot better for you than supermarket brands of mixed vegetable oils and sunflower oils. Don't forget ghee, either, if you eat dairy peoducts. It's a very stable oil and much healthier to use than vegetable oils for frying. (Not cheap, though.) Do avoid anything labelled "vegetable ghee", however, as these products contain trans fats and are really bad for you.
- Sesame seeds (til) are a fairly common ingredient in several international cuisines including Chinese and Middle Eastern and are now often used in European-style wholefood recipes, so they are an absolute must here. Seeds and nuts are extrememly nutritious foods, so you might want to buy a kg or two of almonds as they are considerably cheaper than elsewhere at certain times of year. Cashews and peanuts too are usually very reasonably-priced.
- Chinese supermarkets- Also hold many delights for the vegetarian, if you can stomach all the shelves/ freezers of strange dried animal parts that you tend to get in these shops! Tofu, beancurd, black beans, and various kinds of soy sauce are all good here. In my local Chinese supermarket, you can buy tubs of home-made firm-silken tofu for a fraction of the price of tofu in supermarkets and wholefood shops. (Again, though, you are sacrificing organic for economy.) Check out noodles made from various grains such as rice and buckwheat as well as wheat, but make sure they do not contain egg.
- Miscellaneous exciting ingredients- Vine leaves from Middle Eastern, Greek or Turkish shops are a source of iron, calcium and vitamins A and C, and you can have fun creating your own mezze. In some Asian supermarkets, you can find small and very hard dried apricots. These are very sweet so useful in sugar-free dishes and are very much like the expernsive Hunza apricots, only harder. A can of patra leaves has often saved the day for me when faced with endless school holidays and a horde of hungry children. Without resorting to junk food, you can make a quick and satisfying lunch by grilling them on both sides and serving in a wholemeal bun with salad and relish; instant spicy vegiburgers! My most recent find was a packet of hawthorn-berry sweets (like little discs of fruit leather) from a Chinese shop. They do contain sugar, however. They are just sitting in my cupboard patiently waiting until I find a use for them. The list is endless, actually; rose-petal jam, sandalwood, rose and fruit syrup, dried spiced mung bean dumplings... all waiting for you to come along and be inspired by them!