Awesome Abundance

Asia Imports
1840 Central Ave. NE, Mpls.; 788-4571

"Holy buckets," hooted Steve Vranian, so I carefully wrote it down. Vranian had just rounded a corner at Asia Imports and was confronted by an aisle brimming with half a hundred chutneys, dozens of canned fruits, and too many different kinds of lentils to even begin to count. Holy Buckets. Exactly. That would do just fine to describe this enormous Central and South Asian, North and East African, West Indian market. And also Mighty Superabundancy! Jumpin' Containerloads! Flippin' Freightsful!

I dragged Vranian, the California Cafe chef who spent several years cooking and traveling throughout Asia, to the Central Avenue market to get some perspective on--and understand the uses of--the zillions of products tucked away in its 7,000 square feet. By the time we got to the chutney aisle, Vranian had already proved himself incredibly useful, explaining that the two varieties of fresh turmeric root in the front of the store were to be peeled and grated for use like horseradish--whereas all my reference books merely said that dried turmeric was a cheap saffron substitute used in cheap curry powders, and, since I'd never see fresh turmeric, not to worry my pretty little American head about it.

Diana Watters

Location Info


Asia Import Food & Video

1840 Central Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Category: Retail

Region: Northeast Minneapolis

Vranian had also opened my eyes to reading the labels of chili sauce with a view toward finding out where the chilies originated, since "just like wine or tomatoes or olives, the tastes change because of where they're grown." Which would explain why immigrants from dozens of countries make their way to Bhikhalal Patel's store in search of the tastes of home--whether that home is Guyana, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or India.

Patel explains that since starting his Indian grocery out of his basement 16 years ago, he has attracted successive groups of customers who initially come because of his extensive selection of the foundation elements of so many global cuisines--namely rice, pulses (such as lentils, chickpeas, and dry peas), various pulse flours, and whole spices. Once shoppers became familiar with the store, they would request specific items, like hot sauce from Trinidad, sweet coconuts from Thailand, jackfruit candies, treacle, marmite, cassava, different sizes of tapioca, Ethiopian berbere spice, etc.--and that's why he has this outlandishly wide-ranging selection. I find it dizzying to navigate the place: Are those four brands of rose water? Would I rather have kesar kulfi ice cream--which contains almonds, saffron, and cardamom--or fig ice cream? Which is a better use of my snack-time dollars: curried deep-fried chickpea noodles or fancy mukhwas--those breath-freshening, slightly addictive blends of plain and candied seeds offered like after-dinner mints at Indian restaurants? (Those seeking full-fledged addiction may search out the bags of bitter betel-nut slices.)

For the time being, I think I'll just learn more about rice. Patel says that his biggest disappointment in moving to Minnesota 26 years ago was the lack of good rice: "For two years I didn't eat any rice at all," he shrugs. "American rice has no perfume. It's just totally different." I asked for his favorite among the dozen-and-a-half varieties he stocks, and he pointed me toward Elephant brand basmati, an intensely aromatic rice which retails for $12.99 per 10-pound sack. When cooked, the long ivory grains point hither and yon almost like ice crystals, and a flowery fragrance wafts from the pot, not unlike the first damp smell of spring you might catch on a late-winter noon.

Vranian had already explained to me that there are more than 7,000 varieties of rice and that even the shoddiest grocery stores in Asia feature a dozen kinds, while we Americans content ourselves with only one or two. Vranian says some of the short-grain Asian rices are as good as or better than the creamiest arborio, and he predicts we'll see a boom in rice availability in this country soon. Patel also sells the Cities' only brown basmati rice ($7.99 for about 4-1/2 pounds)--which he says is of interest only to white gourmands. I'd never had it before, but once I bought a bag, I started seeing recipes for the bran-covered grain everywhere; it's nutty and makes a great cold rice salad.

I had spent the few weeks before I introduced myself to Patel experimenting with the various prepackaged spice mixes that combine with lentils, vegetables or what-have-you to make lightning-quick curries. "People don't have time to monkey around with grinding their own spices," says Patel. "Right now we have a lot of ready-made, since everyone works such long hours." Mixes are sold in 100-gram packets (about 3-1/2 ounces) that tend to cost less than $2. While they may not taste as good as the ones you would grind yourself--"In my house we never use premade, always fresh, because my wife has the time to do it," notes Patel--they do quite nicely in a pinch, especially since I'm not all that likely to assemble a curry powder requiring 20 ingredients under the best of circumstances.

My favorites thus far are probably MDH brand Dal Masala ($1.49) for lentils, or Badshah brand Punjabi Chhole Ka Masala for chickpeas ($1.69). I've found that if I follow a fancy main-dish recipe from a cookbook and fill up the rest of the table with pulses and vegetables using these spice packets, I look like quite a star, with minimum effort. Breads and desserts to round out the meal can come from the jam-packed refrigerator and freezer cases. Frozen Indian breads available every day include naan, a white-flour yeast bread roasted over high heat, and roti, made from chickpea flour and baked on a griddle; on Saturdays a woman cooks fresh roti on the premises.

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