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Is it safe to buy fresh vegetables at the Asian grocery store?
January 29, 2009 10:00 PM   Subscribe

Is it safe to buy fresh vegetables at the Asian grocery store?

I am not a health nut or anything, and I don't normally demand the purest organic produce, but I am just wondering if it is safe to eat the produce from the local Asian market. It is always cheaper and fresher than the normal supermarkets, but I have qualms about where it comes from and how it has been grown. Not that I know where the other produce comes from either, but it just seems like it has gone under more safety checks.

I am not particularly worried about the salmonella outbreaks or anything, just wary about not knowing what type of chemicals or pesticides might have been used to grow it.
posted by roaring beast to Food & Drink (52 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Eat it! It's fantastic
posted by Arbac at 10:03 PM on January 29, 2009


It's under the same flood safety regulatory regime as the food sold elsewhere
posted by Pants! at 10:10 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your belief that a big box grocery outlet is more attentive to its food sourcing is erroneous. They are all getting food produced under the same regulatory umbrellas: the checks on the issues you're concerned about do not occur at the retail level. If it's fresher and cheaper it is because they are sourcing it more directly and providing it with fewer middle-men. Always wash your produce thoroughly, and you'll be fine.
posted by nanojath at 10:10 PM on January 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


They are just going to the wholesaler and selling it cheaper than those supermarkets can with their enormous overhead. Just wash your veggies as you should anyway.

Asian grocers are a great source for seafood too: you can get fresh-frozen fish for a fraction of what you'd pay elsewhere. This was 6+ years ago, but I lived off the tilapia and milk-fish that my vietnamese grocer was selling for for 2 and 3 dollars a pound.
posted by BinGregory at 10:12 PM on January 29, 2009


Go for it. I suggest herbs and cabbages - both at non-Asian groceries tend to be flavorless.

If you don't believe the previous few posters, consider that it's at least as good as the stuff you get from your local Asian takeout restaurant. If you're willing to eat there, there's no reason you shouldn't try the stuff from the market.
posted by saeculorum at 10:15 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Probably the exact same chemicals and pesticides that your fancy whitebread stores sell. Maybe less wax and less time put in at the sorting plant to weed out the bruised or disfigured ones.

Is it safe? Well the folks in my chinatown are hardly dropping dead.
posted by megamanwich at 10:15 PM on January 29, 2009


I prefer to shop at asian and hispanic markets because in my area the produce and meats are much fresher than what is offered at local mainstream grocery stores (and in the case of meats, the ethnic markets employ actual butchers vs people who only know how to run a shrinkwrap machine). Based on the identical logos on the discarded cardboard boxes from both types of stores, it appears the produce is coming from the same growers too.

FWIW, my local asian markets are not unionized; perhaps that accounts for some part of the difference in shelf price.
posted by jamaro at 10:22 PM on January 29, 2009


It's kind of sad that this question has to be asked, though it's understandable in the scheme of things. Vegetables from an Asian grocery store are fresher and cheaper (in many cases) because they're closer to the source. Organic vegetables aside, Asian grocery store vegetables are probably less likely to be subject to the use of chemicals and pesticides than supermarket ones. They're likely to taste better, too. Supermarket vegetables are "checked" mostly for "proper" size, color and look - not "safety." I was impressed when I first saw the produce section in an American supermarket - everything looked so perfect and good! Less impressive was the actual tasting of items from the produce section . . . nothing had much real flavor or character. The same processes that lead towards perfect, uniform looking vegetables lends itself to heavy-handed methods, from what I can tell. I always go for produce on the basis of freshness and "natural look." In other words, the best strawberries aren't as big as small apples. The best apples are medium-sized and often oddly shaped. The best potatoes are not the size of shoe boxes.

Go to any real market in Eastern Europe and you'll find endless produce that undergoes exactly ZERO safety checks - it's straight from the ground to the market, often the same day. This is also the healthiest and tastiest produce you'll enjoy. A small Asian grocer could conceivably get their produce from the same place as a supermarket. But frequently, they don't. In my books, the small grocery with fresh produce is always the better bargain in taste and freshness. Often in cost, too.

The only caveat is that small-time produce may not undergo the washing process as fully as mass produce does. But you can handle that at home. Enjoy!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:27 PM on January 29, 2009 [9 favorites]


I used to work at a produce warehouse for a major grocery chain, and we filled orders for asian grocery stores every day.
It's the same stuff.
[sometimes it might have been better stuff if it was an asian grocery my friends frequented.]
posted by Acari at 10:31 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


"but I have qualms about where it comes from and how it has been grown."

You, unfortunately, are a victim to large grocery chains' advertising. My experience is that the big box stores pick out the aesthically appealing fruits and veggies, and the smart guys get the rest. The kicker is that the former is almost always worse than the latter.

nothing had much real flavor or character

Dee seems to back up my experiences.
posted by spiderskull at 10:42 PM on January 29, 2009


Where on earth do you think it comes from?

The mainstream vegetables and fruits are the same as the ones at Safeway. The more exotic items are often local-ish, grown for flavor rather than good looks or shelf life. In any case, they are all under the same regulations as goods from non-ethnic (non-scary?) stores.

Seafood and meat are good bets at the big Asian groceries, too, particularly flash-frozen whole and live fish and unusual cuts of meat (I can never find hangar steak at even the fan-dancy grocery meat counters, but the real live butcher at my local Grand Mart is able to actually order/save them for me).
posted by peachfuzz at 10:45 PM on January 29, 2009


My wife is Asian and she's cleaner than I am. I think I'll show her this question. I wonder what she will think. Obviously, she will be a little hurt that Asian = dirty.

For some reason, I feel compelled to answer your obviously racist (just because you're ignorant, doesn't mean you're not racist) question anyway. Besides what other people have already, I would also point out that grocery stores also pay for the privilege of ordering first at a local produce wholesaler. Chains or stores that are unwilling to pay the higher fees have to wait their turn each day, which means these stores have less quality produce to choose from. This cuts costs... and sometimes quality.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:48 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's pretty much the same stuff. They go through it a lot quicker in my area (since most of the Chinese ladies in my neighborhood cook at home), so it tends to be fresher, in my experience. The only downside is occasionally, I've found signs some of the produce had been frozen, which supermarkets don't do. But it tasted fine and was used up within a couple of days in my house.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:07 PM on January 29, 2009


So glad you asked this question, because now you get to drop the silly preconceived notion and fearlessly enjoy the food! Seriously, prepare to have fun grocery shopping.

(I just visited a huge asian grocery store in my new city...it was wonderful!! Exactly* like ye olde Safeway/Kroger/Vons, but its cheaper, fresher, and filled with waaaaay more interesting stuff!)

*By "exactly" I mean "nothing at all like."
posted by iamkimiam at 11:16 PM on January 29, 2009


wary about not knowing what type of chemicals or pesticides might have been used to grow it

There's no reason to take things personally, KoKoRyu. China has been in the news a lot lately over the melamine thing, for one, and pesticide use is a lot less regulated there than in the States. In Malaysia, there are frequently China-sourced and Aussie-sourced vegetables side by side at the supermarket, and the Aussie-sourced stuff sells for double the price. People are willing to pay the premium because they trust that the Aussie stuff is grown under stricter regulations. The OP claims to be worried about similar issues; I don't see any reason not to take him at his word.
posted by BinGregory at 11:23 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Echoing BinGregory here. I didn't think it was racist at all. Your Chinese wife being cleaner than you has about as much to do with pesticide use in China as my husband's cleanliness has to do with pesticide use in the U.S.

I feel like if the OP was actually racist and thought that all Asian things must be dirty, that he wouldn't bother asking the question and wouldn't even consider shopping at the Asian market. On the contrary, I think it's a good idea for people to understand the food they were eating, where it came from, and how it was processed. When it comes to big chain stores, people who are curious about such things have some idea about their country's laws. For everything else, they need to ask. I think it's a shame to call someone racist for asking.
posted by Nattie at 11:36 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


* My bad, you just said "Asian" wife and not specifically Chinese. I was still thinking about pesticides. Anyway, the point remains.
posted by Nattie at 11:57 PM on January 29, 2009


KokuRyu: "My wife is Asian and she's cleaner than I am. I think I'll show her this question. I wonder what she will think. Obviously, she will be a little hurt that Asian = dirty."

Nevertheless, the local asian markets do tend to be dingier than safeway-- the bins are recycled crates, the refrigeration units look like they were bought second- or third-hand. This doesn't stop me from shopping there, but they are what they are. (Of course, there are clean-and-shiny asian markets as well, if you prefer.)
posted by alexei at 12:31 AM on January 30, 2009


A lot of the vegetables sold in Asian grocery stores near me are locally grown, even those that are mostly used in Asian cuisine. Can't say for every single one, especially if they require certain temperature, but if there are more than one location of that particular grocery store, then even if there aren't not as many as safeway, they buy large enough quantities from basically the same farms.
posted by icollectpurses at 1:35 AM on January 30, 2009


The US has a much larger agricultural engine than any Asian country right now. This results in Korea and Japan importing rice and other farmed products from California. It wouldn't make sense for Asian grocery stores in the US to ship produce (most types of produce, anyway) from Asia. By buying locally or at least domestically, they get a cheaper price, and as you've noticed, a fresher product.

I can't find the article right now, but there was a profile a few years ago of a Korean grocer (a small grocery operator, not someone that works for Super H Mart or something) that said he got to where the farm trucks showed up at 4 AM or so to make sure he got the first crack at the best stuff.

It is always cheaper and fresher than the normal supermarkets, but I have qualms about where it comes from and how it has been grown. Not that I know where the other produce comes from either, but it just seems like it has gone under more safety checks.

It sounds like you have no logical reason to believe that Asian supermarket produce is less safe than "American" supermarket produce, yet you're inclined to believe it anyway. I just want to let you know that Asian Americans and Asians living in America have, on average, the same standards of cleanliness and interest in fresh and safe foods as white Americans.
posted by ignignokt at 2:17 AM on January 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


jeepers. YES
posted by evil_esto at 3:23 AM on January 30, 2009


Well, it hasn't killed me yet.
posted by demagogue at 3:28 AM on January 30, 2009


They're fine.

That said, y'all are being a bit unfair here. It's not racist to worry more about groceries that come from an Asian grocery store than you would about groceries from a supermarket. If you've actually been to China, you know that things--and, yes, people--are dirtier there. Hygiene isn't as highly valued. That's a fact, and it's not unreasonable to wonder if that cultural practice carries over to Asian grocery stores. (Japan, however, is extraordinarily clean. And Koreans wash up compulsively; they bring toothbrushes to work!)
posted by smorange at 3:53 AM on January 30, 2009


I wish there was an Asian market nearby. I can't find baby bok choy and when I do find bok choy it's neon green because they picked it in some far flung country far too early.

Totally explore and be brave about the asian markets, they have much more interesting variety particularly when it comes to produce. And they haven't yet gone down the route of pre-packing every damn thing, which I also find to be more environmentally friendly and keeps costs down.
posted by like_neon at 3:55 AM on January 30, 2009


There's no reason to take things personally, KoKoRyu. China has been in the news a lot lately over the melamine thing, for one, and pesticide use is a lot less regulated there than in the States. In Malaysia, there are frequently China-sourced and Aussie-sourced vegetables side by side at the supermarket, and the Aussie-sourced stuff sells for double the price. People are willing to pay the premium because they trust that the Aussie stuff is grown under stricter regulations. The OP claims to be worried about similar issues; I don't see any reason not to take him at his word.

It's maybe a little racist to conflate China with ethnically Chinese people living in Virginia, no? If the produce is fresher, presumably it is not being grown in China and being shipped over really really quickly.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:54 AM on January 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yes, and once you discover sriracha you'll thank us. :)
posted by silentbicycle at 4:59 AM on January 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Regarding seafood, here in Minneapolis, we have one of these selling certain items (notably shrimp) at up to twice the price as this notable Asian market, despite being practically across the street. How do they get away with it? I think part of it is a lingering reluctance for non-Asians to shop at an 'exotic' or 'odd' grocery, even though that grocery might have quality items at low, low prices.

I doubt their sources can be that different--this is Minnesota, we don't exactly have shrimp boats pulling into port every morning.
posted by gimonca at 5:17 AM on January 30, 2009


The main reason that the produce is cheaper in those small ethnic markets is that they buy the stuff that's closer to fully ripe or overripe as it will keep less time and is worth much, much less on the general produce buying market. So while you can buy bananas in your supermarket that are very or slightly green, and won't have a brown spot on them for a couple of days, the ones in your local Asian market will be fully yellow with possibly a hint of brown on them already. Your supermarket pays a high premium for those underripe items since they want their displays of produce to be unblemished and for you to not return those items tomorrow saying they've gone off already. The stuff your supermarket is selling on the 1/2 off sale shelf is not much further gone than the stuff your Asian grocer is still selling at their regular prices -- which was half off in the first place.

The main thing you have to deal with when buying groceries from those markets is the fact that it is closer to ripe/overripe already, so you need to use it within a day or two instead of a week (specific timelines obviously vary with the particular type of produce). If you're shopping for tonight's dinner or tomorrow's, no problem. If you're shopping on Saturday for the whole week, you're going to have a lot of rotten produce by Wednesday.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:46 AM on January 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I agree to let the poster have the benefit of the doubt. I will confess to being cautious about buying certain Chinese products because of food supply/chain issues in China. Heck, check the threads on the Chinese food issues on the Blue and if you are in China, there serious concerns about foods and environmental damage.

To Gimonca, Coastal Seafoods will vouch for the raising of the shrimp and the fish being sold being sustainable and all that. There have been issues about shrimp aquaculture raised.
posted by jadepearl at 5:53 AM on January 30, 2009


I feel compelled to answer your obviously racist...

Sorry for the derail, but this reminds me of a friend who once wanted to take me to a local Asian supermarket.

Friend: *driving* We need to go to the yellow place! It's just down here.
Pointystick: OMG, how can you say such a thing! You shouldn't call Asians yellow, that's racist!
Friend *sighing* Look. *points out building, painted bright sunshine yellow, yellow shopping carts, and cheerfully dressed in yellow employees*
Pointystick: Oh. Whoops.
posted by pointystick at 6:40 AM on January 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


gimonca asks- How do they get away with it?
A much, much smaller profit margin. They make it up or hope to make it up on volume. Hence, less frills in the stores.

A dirty Chinese wife here ;) who has shopped at Asian grocery stores her entire life!
posted by typewriter at 6:45 AM on January 30, 2009


jadepearl, this question is about fresh vegetables in the US, though, not food products in general. What amount of fresh produce is likely to be imported directly from China? It doesn't seem to make much sense.
posted by odinsdream at 6:52 AM on January 30, 2009


The origin and farming practices used for some varieties of seafood could be worth some caution. Packaged food from China with the additives issue, ditto. But the poster asked about fresh vegetables specifically.

I think the accusation of racism is overkill for this thread, but it seems to me that there is certainly some prejudice at work here, and I think, roaring beast, that you're perhaps letting it override your own common-sense. Check it out:

It is always cheaper and fresher than the normal supermarkets, but I have qualms about where it comes from and how it has been grown. Not that I know where the other produce comes from either, but it just seems like it has gone under more safety checks.

Fresher is not compatible with "grown in a far-away country (where they use unsafe pesticides)" right? And I'm sure that you know that the US has national standards for produce inspection. Maybe you're a little squicked by the contrast to the ultra-stage-managed grocery stores, where you don't see produce stored in dusty cardboard boxes, ad hoc signage, the occasional squashed overripe fruit, and merely utilitarian decor. Maybe you're a little more intimidated by shopping in Asian markets than you'd like to admit. I hope this thread convinces you that you were right in the first place to just enjoy the fresher, cheaper produce.
posted by desuetude at 6:58 AM on January 30, 2009


have qualms about where it comes from and how it has been grown

not knowing what type of chemicals or pesticides might have been used to grow it


If you're like me and nearly everyone else in the US, you probably couldn't answer these questions about the produce anywhere, be it at the little mom-and-pop market down the street or at Yuppieford's Breadfruitery: The Fresh Store! at Suburbhamwoods Crossings. The difference is that Yuppieford's has really attractive presentation, shiny floors, and the automatic veggie-mister that plays a few bars of "Singin' in the Rain" every ten minutes - all of which give a convincing air of freshness and cleanliness, where the smaller store has gray floors and fading signs that may not inspire confidence. That's just for curb appeal, and I can understand how if you're used to the shiny supermarkets, a smaller and less pretty store would be a little bit of a shock.

It's good stuff. In fact, I'd advise hitting as many different ethnic grocery stores as you can find in your town, because you will discover all sorts of wonderful foods.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:06 AM on January 30, 2009


Asian markets are ethnic markets. I prefer to buy produce at ethnic markets. Here in Glendale California that means Armenian markets. In some neighborhoods it means Latin markets and so on and so on. Regardless, the produce is way more affordable and the variety is more varied. I do think that it is a lot closer to being ripe which means it is also a lot closer to being over ripe. You need to eat it sooner. Conversely the food at Ralph's and Von's are farther away from being ripe and therefore their shelf life at home is longer. I say eat and enjoy your Asian produce!
posted by snowjoe at 7:15 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


she will be a little hurt that Asian = dirty.

This isn't fair. I had the same knee jerk reaction to the question, as an enthusiastic shopper at all Asian groceries and fish markets, but then I realized that I too have been wondering the same thing about my local vegetable market, which appears to be run by Jews, Italians and Latinos. It's a dingy joint on the west side and just so cheap it's eye popping. Ten lemons for a buck - like that. I load up there, but I worry that the prices, often a tenth of the supermarket across the street, mean extra pesticides or whatever. How can the prices be SO different? Something must be up, right?
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:46 AM on January 30, 2009


like_neon They're probably shanghai bok choi which is doesn't have white and is a light, bright green colour
posted by captaincrouton at 8:09 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


sriracha!!! Oh my god, I have to keep a bottle at home AND work!
posted by orme at 8:32 AM on January 30, 2009


My friend's family runs a Buddhist-style poultry farm. Her chickens are grain fed, fee-range, in Chinatown stores by 8am the day they're killed, and are generally sold out by afternoon. According to her, the secret is very high volume and turnover. It's a virtuous circle -high turnover means the chickens are always fresh, so she sells a ton of them, so she can support lower margins, further stimulating demand. Her chickens are sold to fancy restaurants, little old Jewish ladies, Chinese cooks - anyone serious about fresh poultry. They're also delicious (although I was taken aback when they showed up with heads intact).

Produce is the same -- the model is based on the assumption that everything will be sold and eaten quickly (often the a same day). It helps allows them to lower margins (fewer inventory costs) and stock less expensive, shorter shelf life food. It works because their main customers are restaurants and people like my grandmother who go shopping every day.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:01 AM on January 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


How can the prices be SO different? Something must be up, right?

Yes. Major chains have huge quantity pricing benefits for shelf-stable products like crackers and cans of soup. Packaged things that travel well are usually cheaper at chain grocery. However, perishables work against this in two ways: they're perishable, and they don't travel well so economies of scale do not work for them as well with fruits and vegetables, etc. Produce is always extremely expensive at the chain stores here in San Francisco. Like $1+ per lemon expensive. This is not the produce/ethnic market's fault, so you should not be so suspicious of the lower prices. You should be suspicious of the chain stores exorbitant prices.
posted by rhizome at 9:43 AM on January 30, 2009


My experience with Asian groceries has been the same as jaquilynne's — that they're better if you want perfectly ripe fruit and veggies for tonight's dinner, but not so good if you want to stock up for a whole week in one trip.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:13 AM on January 30, 2009


Here is San Diego, you can sub Mexican for Asian. I buy half of my produce at the little Mexican market on the corner and half of my stuff at the farmer's market. Here is what I've noticed:
● At the Mexican market the produce is excellent, but it's certainly not free of pesticides. They don't claim that it is.
● The farmers market offers organic produce, but at double or triple the price.
● Neither the farmers market nor the Mexican market offer out of season items. In Von's I can buy strawberries year round but they'll be pretty tasteless when they are out of season. The ethnic and farmers markets only offer fruit when they are locally in season.

It hasn't killed me yet - and I don't even wash the fruit usually. I like to live on the edge.
posted by 26.2 at 10:55 AM on January 30, 2009


jadepearl: Yeah, that is a decent point.
posted by gimonca at 11:00 AM on January 30, 2009


The larger the market, the more brightly lit it is, and more often with chilly blue lights, which makes things appear more sterile.

Ethnic markets are, on average, smaller than the giant box stores. Just go in and look at the quality of the light in each.

That is probably a good portion of the perception.
posted by adipocere at 11:11 AM on January 30, 2009


I have for the past year or so and I'm not dead yet. Try the giant brown Korean pears...amaaaazing.
posted by bondgirl53001 at 11:44 AM on January 30, 2009


Here in Toronto, I presume that everything you can get through chain grocery stores, Asian markets, Good Food boxes, or student housing co-ops comes through the Food Terminal. A lot of the produce is local (well, not as much this time of year), but some things almost always seem to be imported, like the ubiquitous Chinese garlic.

I agree that a lot of Asian market produce is at or near the peak of freshness, especially fruit, but the greens seem to hold on very well for a week. I got a huge bag of Yu Choi on Spadina earlier this week and I expect it to still be gorgeous, green, tasty and nutritious for another few days.
posted by maudlin at 11:47 AM on January 30, 2009


I purchase all of my produce (veggies & meats & fishes) almost exclusively from Asian markets. They are indeed fresher and cheaper. Why?

Higher turnover.

When you sell more, you can sell it for less; since you have higher turnover, it's always fresh. In fact, I never purchase meat or fish from big supermarkets for exactly this reason - at Ralphs or Vons, it is more likely to be old, even rancid (known through experience). Blech.

This may be a cultural thing - I suspect that Asians in the US tend to eat more fresh produce than your typical Caucasian. But I have no hard facts to back that up outside of my own multi-cultural upbringing.

YMMV. Many other ethnic markets have similarly cheaper / fresher produce (Persian or Armenian come to mind).
posted by jabberjaw at 11:56 AM on January 30, 2009


Hi everyone, sorry to jump in late but I guess I should say that I am a Chinese American and have pretty much grown up eating food from from Asian supermarkets my whole life. (I haven't dropped dead yet either, but that's not completely reassuring.) But I can understand how the question might have come across sounding racist and I appreciate those who pointed that out since I probably would have had the same reaction.

Having said that, perhaps a better way to ask the question would have been to ask what types of safety checks and regulations that food from these stores have to go through compared to other stores. And that seems to have been answered in the first few responses more or less. I am still curious as to exactly what these checks and regulations entail, but I guess that is another AskMe question in itself.

And for the record, I full realize that I'm a victim of marketing, where things in nice shiny packages seem more appealing than others, but hey, aren't we all? :)

Thanks everyone!
posted by roaring beast at 2:45 PM on January 30, 2009


roaring beast; they go through the same checks that other stores do, which is whatever the minimum is required by federal and state law.
posted by odinsdream at 10:40 AM on January 31, 2009


Amusing coda: here in Korea, most people (who are, you know, Asian) are terrified, and rightly so, of Chinese produce and manufactured foods, and rightly so, because there is a new scare (the latest being melamine) about additives and pesticides and parasites and all manner of nasty things every couple of months, with clockwork regularity.

For what it's worth, I avoid all foods imported from China, when possible. (Rice aside, Korea imports more than 70% of its food.) What I don't know is how much food makes it over to North American from China, or how well-regulated the quality of those imports are.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:34 PM on February 1, 2009


er, and rightly so!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:36 PM on February 1, 2009


Again, I'd love for someone to explain how the Chinese Death Imports applies to fresh produce available in the United States, regardless of the store it ends up in.
posted by odinsdream at 7:24 PM on February 1, 2009


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