If you think that Indian food is no more than curry, prepare your taste buds for a great surprise. Here are some ideas on where to learn more.
I have what you might call an international stomach, which is to say, I love food of all types. It’s what lead me to become a chef (that, and the desire to avoid washing dishes). Given that, one of my great joys in life is discovering new foods, and new ways of preparing them. If I go out to a restaurant and enjoy a new dish, I want to immediately go home and recreate that dish, or improvise on it. Because of this, I love shopping in ethnic markets and groceries. An added joy of this kind of shopping is that if you enter into one of these establishments, more often than not family-owned, you will typically find that the owners or employees are pleased to see someone who is genuinely interested in their food and culture, and are happy to assist you in learning more about them. Louisville has reached that point of maturity where it now has a fairly diverse ethnic base, and as such, a reasonably complex landscape of ethnic groceries. In this series, we will explore some of the options which we Louisvilleans have available, and which those of you in similar-sized cities may find as well. We will start our exploration with groceries specializing in one of my favorite cuisines, Indian food.
For those of you who think that Indian food is largely variations on the theme of curry, a visit to an Indian grocery will be a revelation. Indian cuisine varies by region and the availability of local products. Even curries themselves will vary from region to region, with the Punjabi region placing emphasis on chiles and heat, while a region such as Gujarat, in the northwest of India, will emphasize cloves in their curry compound. In the South, a largely vegetable diet is common, while coastal regions will, of course, emphasize fish and seafood. The Hyderabadi region in the South features rich sauces redolent of curry leaves, fenugreek leaves and ground nuts.
There are two major sources for Indian groceries in Louisville, Patel Brothers, part of a national chain, on Hurstbourne Parkway, and Subzi Mandi, on Bardstown Road. While the selections are largely similar, there are unique characteristics to each. Patel Brothers has an excellent selection of the fabulously tasty Indian snacks, while Subzi Mandi has frozen meats and fish. Patel Brothers has a larger produce selection, but Subzi Mandi will sometimes have available the wonderful samosas cooked by neighboring Dakshin restaurant (same owners). But what we want to focus on here is, what you can get at a good Indian grocery which may not be available elsewhere.
First, there is the produce. You will find produce here that is unique to Indian and other Asian cuisines, and likely not easily available in conventional supermarkets. A great example is tindora, a small green vegetable which looks like a small cucumber, and can best be described as tasting like a cross between okra and a cuke. Tindora is wonderful in a variety of cooked preparations, taking on the flavor of attendant sauces without losing its own distinct taste. It also adds a nice taste and crunch to salads, served uncooked. Or, there is karela, or bitter melon, a gourd-like veggie which looks something like a large cucumber with a bumpy skin. Karela has a bitter snap (imagine that!) which adds a complexity to many vegan dishes, curries and soups. Karela is available in fresh or frozen form in both stores, which brings me to another of the joys of Indian groceries;frozen foods. There is no way to sugar-coat this, so I am going to say it flat out; Indian frozen foods are generally far superior in quality to most American frozen foods. Texture, taste, variety, this is simply true. Bitter melon takes some time commitment for prep, and you may actually find that you also get more bang for your buck from the frozen packages. One last comment on produce; many of us are used to dried fenugreek seeds as a spice, but you will also find here fenugreek (methi) leaves. These leaves look something like cilantro or Italian parsley, but have a taste which is a cross between bitter and musky. These make a great aromatic addition to many sauces, including those with a tomato base.
Finally, do not ignore the grain and flour sections of these stores. Indian cooking utilizes a great variety of flours for specific dishes, and there are gems to be found here, such as gram flour, a flour which consists wholly of ground chickpeas. This is, quite simply, one of the most flavorful flours I have ever tasted, and there is nothing like it for a breading.
If I haven’t convinced you yet what a treat it is to shop in one of these stores, just give it a try. If you are adventurous about food, one trip will do so. And do not hesitate to ask for help, because unlike what you might find in a large, impersonal store, the people working here will have great knowledge of the foods available and their uses.