Whether you're experimenting with Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays or you've gone all-out gluten-free, vegan, or paleo, chances are you've spent a little time (and a lot of cash) shopping for alternative ingredients. Gluten-free grains, alternative sweeteners, and everything coconut may be trendy, but these are also traditional foods in many cultures. Look beyond markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and step into Southern California's many ethnic grocery stores to broaden your options and save money, too. (And yes, we know "ethnic" is a problematic term. And thoughts on replacement words?)
Here are seven "hot" ingredients to look for:
• Ancient grains: The ancient grains fad may be driven by folks looking for wheat alternatives, but anyone can enjoy the way these grains bring new flavors and textures to the table. Look for quinoa and amaranth at South American markets, buckwheat at East Asian and Eastern European markets, millet and sorghum at Indian markets, teff at Ethiopian markets, and freekeh or farik at Middle Eastern markets. An assortment of brown, black, and red rice may be found at larger Chinese and Korean grocers. Packaging may not always be in English, so familiarize yourself with what these grains look like before shopping (or have your cell phone ready for Googling images).
• Gluten-free flours and starches: Indian markets can be a gluten-free baker's playground, with a huge variety of flours including besan or gram (chickpea), jowar (sorghum), urad dal (black lentil), ragi (finger millet), and bajra or kambu (pearl millet). East Asian markets carry rice flours; you may also be able to find acorn flour, buckwheat flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch. For corn flour and masa harina, visit Mexican and Central American markets.
• Gluten-free noodles: Many Asian noodles are inherently gluten-free and provide interesting textures for soups, salads, and stir fries. Look for an assortment of noodles made from rice and mung beans at East and Southeast Asian markets. At Korean grocery stores, try noodles made from acorn (dotori guksu), buckwheat (naeng myun), and sweet potato (dang myun). Japanese noodles include shirataki made from konjac, a starchy tuber, and soba made from buckwheat (regular wheat flour is often added, so check labels).
• Coconut products: Coconut products are all the rage these days, from coconut oil to coconut water, milk, cream, vinegar, sugar, and the fruit itself. This is nothing new to Southeast Asian cooks, and you'll find an arsenal of coconut products at stores that carry Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino ingredients — often at dramatically cheaper prices. Indian markets frequently have a good selection of shredded and flaked coconut.
• Alternative sweeteners: Cutting back on refined white sugar? Bricks of whole cane sugar called panela and raspadura may be found in Latin American markets; in Mexican cuisine the sugar is shaped into cones called piloncillo. At South and Southeast Asian markets look for unrefined sugars like jaggery and palm sugar, which may be made from date palm, coconut palm, or sugar cane.
• Fermented foods: Just about every culture has fermented, probiotic-rich foods, so keep your eye out for interesting examples at any market. In Southern California you might find Russian sauerkraut, Persian torshi (pickles), Korean kimchi, fermented soybean pastes like Korean doenjang and Japanese miso, and cultured milk products like Armenian kefir.
• Superfoods: If you're searching for nutrient-dense "superfoods" like green tea, chia seeds, seaweed, and goji berries, ethnic stores can be much cheaper than upscale markets like Whole Foods. Note, however, that the products often aren't organic, and pesticide use is a particular concern with foods from China.
Finally, always read labels and note that processing and labeling regulations may vary by country. Products may not be certified gluten-free, for example, so if you are especially sensitive you may want to exercise caution.