Food & Wine

Unraveling the mysteries of an Indian grocery store

Photo Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier

The Namaste Plaza Indian Supermarket at 865 El Camino Real in Mountain View is the Indian grocery closest to Los Altos.

Visiting an Indian grocery store for the first time can be an overwhelming experience. It is easy to feel lost, surrounded by so many choices. For those of you who like to cook Indian food, the experience of shopping in an Indian grocery store can be quite unique but also one in which you might find it hard to navigate.

I have often gone to an Indian store and had people ask me to help them select spice boxes and dried ingredients, as there are so many different brands and varieties to choose among for even one simple product. The variety of spices, condiments, Indian relishes, pickles, rice, breads, lentils, prepackaged foods, beverages, fresh produce – the list is endless and can be quite daunting and really confusing for someone new to Indian cooking.

I also have to admit that Indian grocery stores can be chaotic compared to an American grocery chain, but some of them in the Bay Area are fairly organized and follow a particular style. You can simply do a search on the Web to find stores close to your home.

Indian stores are organized according to fresh produce, frozen items, packaged dry spices and condiments, rice and flour followed by prepackaged snacks, bottled pickles, curry paste and chutneys.

Spices are the key ingredients in an Indian meal, and it is best to stock up on a few basic ones such as cardamom, cumin, coriander, garam masala, turmeric and chili powder. Of course, it would be neat to buy them whole and grind them at home, but given the lack of spare time we all have, buying packaged boxes is an acceptable compromise – the ground mixes last a long time and taste good.

When visiting an Indian grocery store, keep a list or glossary of Indian terms and their English equivalents. I include such a list in my cookbook "Indian Flavors to Savor – The Easy Home Cooked Way" (2006). This way if a label does not have sufficient information, you can still find your item.

It also helps to familiarize yourself with Indian cuisine and learn the names of your favorite dishes before your first trip to the store. Most of us have exposure to Indian cuisine due to its popularity and availability in restaurants. Learn the names of your favorite dishes and what they complement.

For your first cooking project, start with a simple curry and rice. The next time, add something else – try an appetizer like pakora (fritters) or samosas, then experiment with a chutney.

Get familiar with the ingredients. Graduate from the curry powder sold at American supermarkets and learn that "curry" is a dish and not a spice. Experiment with ordinary dishes using simple spice combinations, and look for cookbooks with easy recipes that cater to beginners.

Everyone's spice tin looks different, but begin your collection with a few basics. Mine, for example, includes sea salt, whole mustard seeds, garam masala powder, coriander-cumin powder, turmeric powder, whole cumin seeds and chili powder.

Most recipes rely on some variation of the basic fresh flavors: chopped onions, fresh chilies, grated ginger, grated garlic, curry leaves, tomatoes and cilantro.

After becoming familiar with the dish names and the basic ingredients, you'll have an easier time getting around the grocery store because you will know what to look for. Ask questions and have a curious spirit – most owners or associates are more than happy to recommend something and are enthusiastic to show you.

Also, feel free to approach another Indian customer – if you are at the freezer section and can't decide which type of bread or brand, please ask. Most people are delighted to share their favorites or give advice – I do when I am in local markets. After all, what could be more flattering than to have a non-Indian ask about Indian food?

The basic precept is – be willing to learn and don't be afraid to ask. Indian food is not hard to cook and finding your way in an Indian grocery store is not that hard either.

Gitika Baveja is a cookbook author and Indian food enthusiast. For more information, visit www.flavorstosavor.com.

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