Sunday, April 20, 2008

Passage to India

Many vegetarian cookbooks feature a vegetable or chickpea dish with Indian influences, made from ingredients you can buy at the neighborhood market or health food store. But in order to create an authentic Indian dish,* it helps to have an Indian cookbook, and to visit an Indian grocery.

My exploration of Indian cooking has been guided by Maya Kaimal’s cookbook, Savoring the Spice Coast of India. With a helpful glossary of South Indian ingredients, simple recipes, and beautiful photographs, this book makes it easy to create delicious Indian dishes in your own kitchen. Although not exclusively vegetarian (of the 8 chapters, one is devoted to fish, and another is devoted to chicken, eggs and beef), most of the recipes are meatless. My one complaint is that the sole samosa recipe is meat-based.

In visiting Indian groceries to buy ingredients for these recipes, I have encountered dhal in a multitude of colors and sizes. The word “dhal” encompass a broad array of dried legumes used in Indian cooking. Because there so many different kinds of dhal, it helps to write down the specific type that your recipe requires before heading to the store.

Indian groceries also stock a variety of spices, including cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek seed, star anise, tumeric, and black and brown mustard seeds (the milder yellow mustard seeds are not used in India).

Ghee is form of clarified butter, but you won't find it in the refrigerated section of an Indian grocery store. Ghee is made by simmering butter until all of the moisture evaporates. It can kept at room temperature for extended periods, so long as it is tightly sealed and does not contain any moisture. Ghee is composed almost entirely of saturated fat, so I generally use canola oil or sesame oil in its place when preparing Indian food. If you choose to use ghee, Maya Saimal recommends making your own, and provides a recipe in her cookbook.

Curry leaves are used to flavor a number of South Indian dishes, and were a staple at Indian grocery stores until a recent (and hopefully temporary) ban on the leaves. As long as this ban is in effect, the best source of curry leaves may be a home grown curry leaf plant (murraya koenigii). Curry leaves do not have any relation to curry powder.

Papadum is a thin wafer made from legumes. If you've ever visited an Indian restaurant, you probably received a complimentary basket of papadum before the start of your meal. You can buy packaged papadum -- in flavors including plain, cumin, black pepper, and green chili -- at Indian groceries. Just as store-bought tortillas should be heated before they are served, store-bought papadum should be roasted in a hot skillet, turning occasionally, until it is covered with bubbles, and then cooled before being eaten.

I recently visited three Denver-area Indian groceries: Indus Imports, World Bazaar, and Star Bazaar.

Indus Imports
3020 W. Mississippi
Denver, CO

Indus Imports is located just west of the intersection of West Mississippi and Federal Boulevard, in a neighborhood predominated by Vietnamese restaurants and Mexican grocery stores. Although it was the smallest of the three groceries I visited, Indus Imports was well stocked, with a variety of dhal and spices. Like the other two stores, Indus Imports also carries an array of rices, prepared foods (including papadum), curry pastes, chutneys, relishes and sauces, as well as some frozen and refrigerated foods, such as paneer. Indus Imports has a small selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.

World Food Bazaar
242 N. Havana
(North of First Avenue on Havana)
Aurora, CO

I missed World Food Bazaar on my first pass, as the storefront does not face the street, and the grocery sits behind Massa Auto Pawn. The largest of the three stores that I visited, World Food Bazaar had the biggest selection of products, and slightly higher prices. In addition to Indian imports, World Food Bazaar carries groceries from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. World Food Bazaar carries some fresh vegetables but does not appear to carry fresh fruits, although it had an extensive selection of dried fruits. A refrigerated case at the front of the store holds a variety of ready to eat sweets.

Star Bazaar
3102 S. Parker Road
Aurora, CO

Star Bazaar is located in a strip-mall on the northeast corner of the intersection of South Parker and Dartmouth. It carries a comprehensive assortment of groceries, and its selection of frozen foods appeared to be more extensive than Indus Imports’. Star Bazaar also stocks fresh fruits and vegetables, including fresh chilies.

*Authentic, from this non-Indian, midwesterner’s perspective, means “like something I’ve eaten in an Indian restaurant.”

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