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.
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.
Patel, or one of his children, is always to be found in the aisles offering tips, like how a spoon of green-chili-packed cilantro paste from a jar can be added to a base of sour tamarind chutney mix to make a perfect dipping sauce for pappadums--basically lentil-flour tortilla chips. "People always need recipes," notes Reshma Patel, Bhikhalal's daughter and a University of Minnesota business major who helps out on weekends: "We always try to have a couple of simple ones to recommend. For a lot of dishes, it's as simple as 'Fry an onion, add whatever, finish with lemon and fresh cilantro.'" (By the way, if you're wondering about the Patel grocery store that has opened next door to Asia Imports--it's a different family.) Chef Vranian's tricks include adding buttermilk, yogurt, cream, or avocado puree thinned with stock or water to pulses to give them a buttery texture.
When I introduced Vranian to Patel, and he got to exclaiming on all the things he couldn't believe Patel stocked in this quiet storefront halfway between downtown Minneapolis and Fridley, Patel rocked back on his heels with the air of someone who hears the same thing--even if it's a nice thing--every single day.
CHECK YOUR PULSE: Call it coincidence, call it serendipity, but as I was working on this story, I received a package from the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, and so now I'm just bursting with nerdy lentil facts. Did you know that the ancient Egyptians thought lentils were an aphrodisiac? That Esau gave up his birthright for a soup of crimson lentils? That Esau ate those lentils with some bread, thus getting a complete protein while he was rooked?
There's more. Lentils save lives: One factor in heart disease is an abnormally high level of an amino acid called homocysteine. Lentils and other foods rich in B vitamins help clear homocysteine out of the blood. When lentils aren't busy protecting your heart, they're saving the unborn--they provide more folic acid than any other unfortified food, and folic acid prevents birth defects like spina bifida.
Or how about this: There's a port in Lewiston, Idaho. Really. Most dry peas and lentils produced in this country come from the Palouse, a farming region centered where Idaho, Washington, and Oregon meet, and each year nearly 200,000 metric tons of them head down the Snake River to the Columbia River and on to Portland, Ore., from where 75 percent of them are exported to 90 countries. From now on I'm going to feel like some cross between Jonas Salk and Carmen Sandiego whenever I whip up a pot of lentil soup--that superhealthy brew of ancient aphrodisiacs straight from the Snake River.
GIFTS YOU DON'T HAVE TO STORE: Classes at Cook's of Crocus Hill make good presents--not least because your generosity nets you a pal who knows how to cook snazzy treats. This season some of the best offerings include a class led by Marcus Samuelsson, the star chef of New York's Aquavit (February 15, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., $65) in which they'll be cooking everything from gravlax to chocolate ganache. Andrew Zimmern--famous locally from his stints at café un deux trois and Backstage at Bravo--is offering a couple of playful evenings like "Dinner and a Movie," in which he will prepare six courses including pan-seared quail with foie gras and caramelized pears while you sip vino and enjoy Babette's Feast (February 5, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., $100). Call Cook's at 228-1333 to register, or to request a course catalog of your own. Also note that if your gift list includes a popular course like the "Professional Approach to Basics" series, the most valuable present might be the promise to line up at dawn: For the most recent series of courses, registration began at 10 a.m. November 9, and by 10:17 all the evening courses were full. Cook's next registration day will be announced in January in their course catalog.
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