See if this sounds familiar. It's 5:30, getting close to dinner time, and you're monumentally uninspired. You don't have the time or energy to cook a big meal, and the idea of eating another pizza turns your stomach. You could always go the convenience food route -- mac and cheese is quick, and pot pies are easy -- but you're worried about the mess of unfamiliar chemicals and unpronounceable additives that seem to fill the frozen food section of your supermarket.
If you find yourself caught between a rock and a hard place -- or, more accurately, the freezer section and takeout -- there may be another solution: your local Asian market. In addition to bottles of soy sauce and bags of rice, most Asian markets have a solid selection of low-priced convenience foods that are more flavorful, more interesting, and healthier than many mainstream offerings. As an added plus, unlike American convenience foods, which often sport a long, confusing list of unpronounceable chemicals and additives, Asian convenience foods are often a bit easier to figure out.
This isn't to say that Asian convenience foods are completely healthy. Like their American counterparts, they tend to be very high in sodium. What's more, some labels are only printed in non-English languages, which means that you may be flying blind when you pull something off the shelves. But with low prices and hundreds of intriguing options, chances are good that you'll find something you like.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Savings Challenge: Finding Cheap, Fast, Reasonably Healthy Dinners at the Asian Market
Want Fast, Cheap, Healthy Food? Try Your Local Asian Market
If your only experience with Asian noodles is cheap grocery store ramen, Asian markets will blow your mind. Admittedly, their noodles tend to cost a bit more: rather than six packs for a buck, you should expect to pay at least a dollar a pack, and sometimes up to $6 or more, depending on the brand. On the bright side, a good Asian noodle soup is a serious meal, with added vegetables, seasonings and, often, meats. And even the noodles are different: some, like udon, are thick and almost fluffy. Others, like soba, have a more complex texture and flavor.
One warning, though: watch the sodium! Just like American-style Oodles of Noodles, Asian soups tend to be very high in salt.
Big, fluffy Asian buns are a solid, stick-to-your-ribs meal that doesn't cost a whole lot. This kind, filled with cooked cabbage, contain a handful of ingredients, only one of which, "emulsifier," is not immediately recognizable. The package costs less than five bucks, and there are only 105 mg of sodium per serving -- a fairly low amount for a convenience food. Best of all, they taste delicious!
Just like your local supermarket, most Asian grocery stores have a big premade food section. In addition to the usual sushi rolls and seaweed salad, you can sometimes find fun, surprising offerings, like these Korean-style seafood/vegetable pancakes. Sort of like a cross between a crepe and an omelet, they have a slightly crunchy, chewy texture.
Most Asian countries have some version of dumplings, from Japan's tiny, shrimp-filled gyoza to China's larger shumai. And, depending on its clientele, your local Asian market will probably have a pretty impressive selection of options. These leek dumplings are pesco-vegetarian (they contain pureed milkfish), and don't have any unrecognizable ingredients. The sodium levels are a little high, though: they have 365 mg per six-piece serving.
Some Asian markets, particularly those that cater to Indian customers, offer a decent selection of boxed foods. Unfortunately, the one where I shopped was aimed at Japanese consumers, which means that pickings were slim. This golden curry, made in Japan, has a few unpronounceable ingredients, including disodium inosate, and a pretty heavy salt load. But mixed with rice, it makes a solid, vegetarian meal.
If you used to love chemistry sets and plastic model kits, Asian markets will be right up your alley. In addition to the Japanese noodle kits, which often contain three or four different food packets, all of which must be cut open and added at different times, there are often other, equally intricate food experiments that you can conduct in your home. This Thai noodle kid has the added benefit of being fun AND fairly healthy: there are almost no additives in it!