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