$50/week grocery challenge – Asian greens

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chrysanthanum leaves.jpg

Another two weeks of my $50 challenge gone, and another two weeks of managing it well.  The week before last I only spent $44.70, and last week I spent $32.50.

My big spend last week was a visit to Oriental Groceries, a wholesale/retail Asian store which in my opinion has some of the cheapest grocery prices in Canberra and also some of the best quality fruit and vegetables – especially super fresh Asian greens.

One of my secrets to spending less than $50 a week on groceries is that I avoid the big supermarkets as much as possible.  By doing so not only do I avoid the temptation of using a shopping trolley, but I also get to buy some of the freshest produce for the best prices.

The fresh fruit and vegetable sections of major supermarket chains are improving compared to where they were at five or even ten years ago, but still I rarely find that they are the freshest (or cheapest).  Actually what they have to offer is pretty uninspiring and there isn’t a lot of choice – it is pretty one dimensional.  Part of the problem is their logistics chain: by the time something gets into the stores it may have been days or weeks since it was collected.  Have you heard of birthday apples?  They are apples that have been stored for around a year by the time they are actually sold to you.  And make no mistake – you are paying for all of this at the checkout.

As a savvy frugal shopper, I find that the best way to make sure I get the best possible produce for my family at the best price is to eat seasonally and to buy outside of major supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths.  Which is why I shop at places like Oriental Groceries, whose Asian produce is delivered fresh from Sydney. I don’t even try to buy Asian vegetables at supermarkets; they are always wilted and lifeless in comparison.

I have been shopping at Oriental Groceries for around twelve years.  I shop there because they stock a wide range of Asian groceries, but I keep going back (even though I have moved from the area) because in my honest opinion, it has some of the cheapest prices, the freshest Asian produce and cleanest shelves for an Asian grocery store in Canberra.

The store was previously owned by three Vietnamese sisters, who were incredibly hardworking and always smiling and friendly.  Two have now retired but one of the sisters still works there. “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” she noted when I was there last. “How old are your boys now?”

Annie Lu
Annie Lu, one of the owners of Oriental Groceries

The sisters have now sold the store to a young couple, Annie Lu and Tommy Ha, who appear as committed and friendly as the three sisters were. When I have needed to order in special things such as a pork trotters (to make a dish with sweet vinegar for new mothers) or a 20kg bag of soy beans, they are happy to oblige.  They also regularly stock other Asian staples such as whole green papayas, which are definitely not something I would be able to buy in a regular supermarket.

green papayas
Green papayas, used in Southeast Asian salads and an essential ingredient for new mothers as the green papaya helps promote breastmilk

The three sisters also set up a Vietnamese restaurant next door called Can Tho, which at lunchtime is always full of public servants from the nearby office buildings.  It is a secret and favourite place for a good value work lunch. I love eating there, too, especially because I know that the vegetables and ingredients used in the meals reflect the good quality of Oriental Groceries, which also supplies the ingredients. Can Tho was one of my favourite to go places when I was pregnant with my first son and in need of something warming and wholesome to eat in a hurry.

Morning glory aka kong xin cai
Morning glory aka kong xin cai

The best time to visit Oriental Groceries is on Tuesday and Fridays because that is when the van arrives from Sydney laden with fresh produce from the markets. For years my Friday night ritual involved calling into Oriental Groceries on my way home from work and then cooking up a Friday night special meal at home.  On my last visit my purchases included a whole green papaya (also used to make dishes for new mothers as green papaya has strong lactogenic properties), the freshest gai lan ever, bunches of Thai basil (also used extensively in Taiwanese and Vietnamese dishes), and my favourite, morning glory (also known as Chinese water spinach, kong xin cai, ong choi or kang kong).  I nearly bought some fresh purple green amaranth leaves, Chinese chives and my favourite hot-pot vegetable, chrysanthemum leaves (pictured above).

Amaranth leaves
Amaranth leaves
Chinese chives (jiu cai)
Chinese chives (jiu cai)

Before I sign off for another week of grocery shopping, I want to share my (former) Taiwanese mother-in-law’s recipe for cooking gai lan. It is so simple yet I promise it will cook the most succulent and perfect greens.  You can use the same method for broccoli or broccolini.  Gai lan is an autumn vegetable and it is ready now, so cook and enjoy.

Ingredients
1 bunch gai lan
1 clove garlic
1 dessertspoon oil
1 cup water
1 teaspoon good quality chicken stock powder (or salt)

Method

  1. Discard the bottom inch or so of the gai lan stems, and cut the gai lan into large pieces.  Place in a large bowl and cover with water (you can add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the water if you like – this is optional).
  2. Bring the water and chicken stock powder to the boil in a medium sized saucepan with a tight fitting lid.  The water should only come up around an inch or two from the bottom of the saucepan.
  3. When the water comes to the boil, add the oil and then immediately add the gai lan.  Top with the garlic (chopped) and then put the lid on and cook for around five minutes.  The gai lan will essentially steam cook this way, and will go a livid bright green.
  4. Remove and serve with or without oyster sauce.

Do you like eating Asian greens as much as I do?  Where do you shop to get the freshest and best quality produce?

This article is being entered into the Fresh Awards run by the Sydney Markets.  Check out the Sydney Markets website to see more inspiration from recipes and to find out what is in season.

16 comments

  1. Reblogged this on CBRfoodie and commented:
    Loved this blog post from Serina Huang at the “Ms Frugal Ears” blog. It’s inspired me to try and eat more home-cooked fresh food and also try out Oriental Groceries in Belconnen – which I’ve walked past too many times and not entered! She advises “The best time to visit Oriental Groceries is on Tuesday and Fridays because that is when the van arrives from Sydney laden with fresh produce from the markets.”

  2. YARM! Now this is my kinda recipe, simple and oh so delicious. Love me all the asian greens I can fit in my fridge and my belly :), however since moving north, I have found they are not as easy to find. I have become pretty good mates with the folk at my local green grocer – The Prickly Pineapple, and am amazed at some of the incredible deals you can get vs the giant food chains. Also… we are very much appreciating your frugal recipes with our very tight budget at the minute. Thank you. xox

  3. Dear Anna @ shenANNAgans, strangely enough many of the popular green vegetables grow really well in tropical or sub tropical conditions, but I am betting the big supermarket chains are not sourcing locally and/or have Sydney/Melbourne markets in mind when they decide what goes in stores. The Prickly Pineapple sounds amazing!!!!

    I know you are going through tough times after Debbie. I hope and pray things come good for you very soon. I’m sure they will.

  4. I live in Brisbane and there are plenty of Asian grocers here, but not really on the Northside where I live. Northside is mainly Indian-Asian grocers that don’t sell fresh produce (or much of it) – and I’m not really impressed with the price of the non-perishables at a lot of the Indian-Asian grocers. I have to get on a bus to Fortitude Valley where there is now only one Asian grocer instead of two huge ones and the expense and time isn’t worth it which is such a shame! Whenever I do need to go in there though, I make sure I take bags to bring home the produce!

    1. Oh, that’s such a shame? I used to live one train station away from Fortitude Valley when I was at Uni (still living at home!), but I would often go to the Saturday markets and then do some grocery shopping there.

  5. Love your blog, and Asian greens!! We’re in Korea at the moment, after spending some time in Japan, and the difference between supermarkets and markets in terms of price (and freshness of vegetables) is just amazing. In Melbourne, I always loved going to the markets and lived on a similar budget to yours (very Simple Savings life!) – Sarah at enrichmentality.com (a.k.a. ‘SunnySarah’ :))

    1. Hi SunnySarah, I am a former Simple Savings girl as well:) The morning markets in Taiwan were just incredible, so I hear you re supermarkets. It isn’t really the supermarkets fault – I can imagine how difficult the logistics is and how hard it is getting stuff from one place to store to another. With petrol and electricity prices rising in Australia, they are facing challenges as well.

  6. The Asian greens in shops like this always look so much fresher and more lively than the ones in the major supermarkets. Love places like this, and it’s extra special that you’ve built up a connection with the owners over the years.

    1. You are right – greens in a good quality Asian store just zing! The owners, previous and new, are just so lovely and never stare at me buying odd Asian food stuffs. They must wonder what this crazy lao wai (foreigner) is buying, but they never stay.

  7. You are so right Asian grocers, or any ethnic grocer, has a great variety of produce and the best place for me to find more unusual ingredients for some of my recipes. Funny enought I just did a video in a hypermakert (bugger than supermarket) in Beijing. That is like any huge grocer.

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