Monday, April 28, 2014

Finding the perfect Indian grocer abroad

(Pickle addicts in the pickle aisle!)

One of the first things that we did when we moved to Canada is locate an Indian grocer. Finding the perfect Indian grocery store requires some trials and errors. You have to find the one with the best selection and the freshest produce - preferably not too far from where you are living. Locating the Indian grocer is a must for every Indian family. There is always one in every major city (hello, there are Indians in Antarctica even, so you know there's probably an Indian store there!)

So, HOW do you find one? Ask any Indian who was born in Mother India - they will know the best one with the best selection.

(Dals aisle)

An Indian grocer is typically located outside the main city or on the outskirts of the city. It will carry spices in packets or bulk; have a great selection of basmati rices and dals; ready made spices (like the one I used for my pulao); batter for idly and dosas; fresh hard-to-find produce like taro root, bitter gourd, drumstick; fine tea powders and tea biscuits; yummy snacks like chevda; Maggi noddles; speciality chips like Kurkure and cassava chips; and kitchen tools like pressure cookers, grinders, and idly stands.

(Maya picking out spices)

It is a must for husband-ji, since he is picky about absolutely everything - from his rice to his beloved Andhra pickles.

(Husband-ji's favorite pickle....how would he live without it?)

Inside the Indian store you will see many Indian families, head-honcho aunty's in charge of the cooking (there are many joint families here), sometimes you will see other South Asians, and you will always see some random elder white lady looking cluelessly around for "curry powder" (I swear white people are the only ones who even use curry powder!)

A few weeks ago, there was a 50% off sale at the big Indian grocer, and husband-ji witnessed a huge fight over pressure cookers! This one guy wanted to buy all ten of the remaining pressure cookers for a bigger price and all these aunties started screaming at him, and screaming at the cashier saying he was not allowed to do that. Then their families came for back up and they were all screaming...like a live reality show! You never know what you'll see at the Indian store! It really is as much of a social place as the temple is...LOL!!!

Thankfully, I mostly get ignored at the Indian stores. Often stared at - but luckily, ignored. I think they're just grateful that I'm not asking them 5 billion questions like the other white people do, and I know my way around the store like a stealth pilot!

When we first moved here, the vendors were a bit unsure of me - looking me up and down - trying to figure out what I was doing there, if I was going to bother them, or kidnap one of their sons. Now after being a customer for 5 years, they mostly ignore me...but are happy to see my daughter running around and pointing at the gourds. In typical Indian esh-style, you have to earn respect!

(Khanda banners in Punjabi Market district, Vancouver)

In Vancouver, all the Indian stores are run by Punjabi's and they are located in an area of town called "Punjabi Market" which is basically two main streets (Main St & Fraser St) filled with Indian grocers, restaurants, jewelers and boutiques. The area has started to diminish due to high rent prices, so many of the vendors have moved to Surrey (located 1 hour outside Vancouver) - which is basically like the main Punjabi headquarters outside of India.

(Taro root)

(Mirchi)

Our Indian grocer is about 25 minutes away from us, and we go every few weeks to stock up. We are always purchasing a huge 20lb bag of long grain basmati rice that runs out all the time (what would we do without our rice?!), tons of jars of pickles, and idly powder (to make batter). They usually run out of shipments of certain things, so we make sure that when something is in stock, to buy at least 4 of them. You wouldn't believe how grumpy husband-ji was when the Indian grocer ran out of his beloved tomato pickle for several months!

(Betcha can't eat just one!)

We are currently planning a trip to Venice with both our families, and the first question my FIL asks is "Where is the Indian store there?" Hahaha!

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Dear readers, for those of you who live abroad, how far away is your Indian grocer? Do you think it is essential to find a good one?

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21 comments

  1. My husband and I live in the Sunnyvale/Santa Clara area of Silicon Valley, which is a thriving "Little India." We have access to a zillion different Indian restaurants and at least a half dozen Indian grocery stores. The one closest to our house, Madras Groceries, is less than two miles away and it's cute and tidy. We can get our basic produce, dal, rice, and spice needs there. If we need more specific items or freshly made chapatis, we go to India Cash and Carry, which is much bigger and a crazy, cluttered mess. Lately, I have been doing most of the Indian grocery store running after work and can whip my way around the store with ease. I too am mostly ignored, except for the occasional "Can I help you madam?"

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    1. We used to live in SFO and one time we were craving Hyderabadi Biriyani (like drug addicts LOL) and we drove all the way down to the Sunnyvale area to this Andhra restaurant. Then I was like whoa - tons of South Indians! You're so lucky you live there!
      OMG Madras groceries = home sweet home!!!

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  2. Sounds awesome, there are two Indian grocers in our town, the one is more Muslim-Indian though, different food than we eat usually, lot of meats (MIL eats pure-veg only) so we go to the one close to our house.

    It's a horrible store, I've found mold on "fresh" produce, and we've had boxes of spices or something that had expired three years prior, even though "the shipment just came in". The good stores are all 2 hours away in Toronto. I want to move to Vancouver lol!

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    1. My hubby is pure veg too!
      Yes it is hard because every region has different things, the Punjabi grocer would carry different than a Pakistani grocer or a Sri Lankan grocer, it is all so particular!
      Some of the stuff in the Indian stores are so freaking old - especially the mehendi!!! Those are like decades old. The mehendi artist that did my wedding says she always has to get it from India itself due to freshness.

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  3. We have two stores that are not Indian grocery stores (one is a smoke shop and the other a convenience store) that carry some Indian foodstuffs - spices, frozen things, biscuits, etc. It's better than it was when we moved here nearly four years ago and I had to bring spices from Seattle or Dallas because there was literally NOTHING!

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    1. Oh no!!!!!! My worst nightmare!!!! LOL.....my hubby would not survive without a grocer that had an aisle specifically for pickle!

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  4. Oh yum. Having some Andhra in. You background I love me my gongura pickle and just found a bottle at one of the local Indian stores (run by Punjabis). I live in an area fairly well populated with Indians but very few of the South Indian variety which means if I want to eat some good sambar/gojju/thokku in have to travel 3 hours north to the San Francisco area.

    Raina.

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    1. Same here, no restaurant has the Sambhar that is made properly. Our one Madras Saravana Bhavan was taken over by Punjabi's and is now called Sargam House and their Sambhar has turned to shit!!! LOL.

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  5. @Alexandra

    I saw you using MDH masalas. We use them too in India. Have you tried Haldiram's snacks?? I was surpriesed that you use 20 kg of Basmati rice. In Indian Basmati is only for special occasions. I guess Basmati is what gets exported and available outside India.

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    1. Haldiram's is one of my our faves :)
      Yes, we use long-grain basmati every single day, my hubby is such a diva LOL!

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  6. Hehe the foreigners do ask for curry powder in stores in India too! And the shopkeepers do not understand what it could possibly be because Curry powder does not exist in India, it is known as Madras curry in conventional shops in Switzerland, and is that yellow thing that apparently got really popular in the 50s but is essentially a western invention. Not bad tasting, but really really not Indian :-)

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    1. LOL so funny.....I was watching one of my hubby's cooking shows where Gordon Ramsey was bitching about "curry powder" and how it is the most useless thing ever! Even Gordon Ramsey knows!

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  7. You should tell your husband that I found Gongura chutney in my South Indian grocery store on Fraser. Did you guys go there at all?

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    1. Where??????? Tell me please!!! :)

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  8. Curry powder - ha ha on that. I roll my eyes when foreigners keep telling me about curry powder because what the hell is that? I have a different spice mixture for different dishes. And they call every single Indian dish curry! Including in Malaysia & Sg which have had Indians as a part of their population for generations.

    In Sg, there are many small Indian stores around and of course larger ones in Little India. There are 2 Indian stores near my house now! and one near my office. So, I have many choices. Lot of their produce is fresh and I am glad I have so much choice. Just walk down to pick up stuff whenever I need it. I rarely go to little India because it is so crowded and full of workers on weekends and I do not like the idea of carrying heavy grocery bags all the way back. I really do not see any necessity for that unless there is something really specific I am looking for and I cannot find in the smaller stores. Then, I will drop by to Mustafa (24 hours largest Indian mall) and pick it up coz I often go to that area for eating.

    For my masalas, I pick them from home, if I use home made ones or buy from the stores here.

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    1. I know, exactly, what IS curry powder?!?! This old white lady was asking my hubby and he was like "Er...." and it is hopeless to explain to them, just use turmeric + chilli powder!
      That's great there are 2 near your place! It is such a pain to travel far.

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    2. @Alexandra

      I found curry powder

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbToRwYbjMw

      The bengalis use a combination of five spices called "Panch Foron"

      http://theepicentre.com/spice/panch-phoron-bengali-five-spice/

      When I first encountered this "curry" fascination in the west, I was left flabbergasted as their is no such thing as curry in India. There are two curries I know of. One is the curry which Punjabis make with curd and besan (chickpea flour) and the other is the curry leaves used by south indians. I think since all our food looks the same to the foreigners, this term was invented. In Indian households only one spice mix is used i.e. garam masala. Other than that all spices are put in a masala box and used as per taste. I heard that western people say that Indian smell because of the use of spices and this smell is offensive to them.

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    3. @anonymous - I think it is the onions....if hubby is making onion chutney in the house, I am walking around like a blind woman, feeling the walls! It is like being punched in both eye balls...hahaha!
      We use curry leaves a lot in South Indian cooking, especially for Sambhar.

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    4. @Alexander

      Yes, onions and garlic have a pungent smell. There are several communities India like Jains which are pure vegetarians and find the smell of garlic and onion offensive. They tend to associate them with non veg food and do not use it because non veg food is incomplete without the use of garlic and onion. Vegetarians in India proudly proclaim " You know we are pure vegetarian and do not use even garlic and onion". So it not just the foreigners but even some Indians have problems with onion and garlic.

      The moral superiority of Indian vegetarians border on arrogance. They feel they are god's gift to the world just because they do not eat meat. In north india people eat chicken and mutton but turn up their noses on seeing fish because fish smell and those who eat them are below their diginity. One set of vegetarian food is better than the other. There is such hyprocracy regarding veg/non veg. People do not eat non veg at home but jump on non veg food at parties and marriages.

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  9. It is amazing how different each Indian grocer can be. We used to only have one here and it was about an hour away. They had a decent selection but were just kind of far to drive too often. We got a new one that is close but the people who work there are not really friendly and the selection is not that good. I have found though that many of our local organic stores and grocers carry a healthy selection of the foods hubby likes so we do pretty good at finding things.

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    1. OMG 1 hour away is too far!!!!!!!! I have noticed too that one big grocery store near our house is carrying "desi ghee"! LOL. Probably because the owner is Indian.
      My hubby went and spoke to the owner of that store the other day and asked him to order him a box of Maggi. Indian connections...what would we do without them?!?! LOL

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