Touring an Indian Grocery Store in Chicago

By | February 16, 2015

A Gastronomic Trip to the Other Side of the Planet

I have never shopped for groceries on Devon Avenue, the epicenter of Chicago’s Indian population (I should probably say, the epicenter of Chicago’s Indian Subcontinent population – I’ve seen signs advertising both Indian and Pakistani goods in the same store, leading me to wonder, “Are they divided down the middle? Are people shooting at each other across the aisles?”). The biggest reason I can give for passing on Devon is that, while I enjoy eating Indian food, I rarely prepare it at home. Invariably, the recipes have a ridiculously long list of spices to add. I have a solid inventory in the pantry, but there is always at least one item I am missing. I stop to consider, is this the ingredient that puts the dish over the top? So it doesn’t get made.

How I Arrived There

Cut to a slushy Sunday morning in the middle of January. My wife and I were standing outside the Patel Brother’s supermarket on Devon Avenue looking for someone named Susan. A pair of improbable assumptions brought us there: someone, Susan, thought that people might pay for the opportunity to stand in an Indian supermarket for a couple hours, constantly dodging oncoming shopping carts, while she explained what was on the shelves; and, my wife thought that I, who goes to our local vegetable market almost every day and knows how to clean a leek, would consider a primer on how to shop in a grocery store an appropriate Christmas gift. Surprisingly, both women turned out to be right.

Spice Depot

The tour began with a bag containing some of Susan’s recipes and an envelope of cardamom pods. I wanted to let Susan know she didn’t need to spend any time on the basics, so I name-dropped my subscription to Cook’s Illustrated, an intense, no-frills cooking magazine that uses the phrase “molecular structure” at least once per issue. She got it, and volleyed back, mentioning the name of the magazine’s editor. Having finished taking measure of one another, we began.

We started in the spice section, which was an order of magnitude larger than the spice section in a traditional American supermarket. The tall shelves were filled with large sacks of spices packaged in plain cellophane; if Home Depot were to have a spice aisle, it would look like this.

Susan pointed out some of the uncommon items and did a good job describing the tastes and the ingredients they worked best with. As she explained amchoor, a powder ground from dried green mangoes, in my mind I was already putting it into a shrimp and coconut stew. I was less taken with the possibilities of asafoetida – a spice, yes – but mostly used as an antiflatulent.

Taking a turn for the festive, we moved through the chutneys. Unlike the spices, the chutney companies obviously had an advertising budget: the labels were colorful and written in stylized Sanskrit. The selection was large, and the distinction between one jar and the next was often hard to detect, similar to shopping for shampoo at Target (though, I could imagine how the shampoo aisle at Target might feel similarly exotic and exciting for someone who had never seen it before and didn’t understand the phrase “stops embarrassing flakes”).

We wandered down the rice aisle with its industrial-size sacks of grain. Susan explained that the best Basmati rice is aged for over a year. She also told us that it is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, which at first struck me as marketing gobbledygook – an effort to conjure up romantic images of Shangri-La and Abominable Snowmen. But a couple web searches later proved my cynicism unfounded – it really is grown there.

We didn’t stop in the yogurt section, but we did note in passing the size of the containers, which I normally would have associated with bathing a small child, and not storing yogurt.

Susan gave us a few minutes to shop before we left. I was mostly successful in resisting my inclination to buy the biggest bag of something (“But we’re saving money!” I cry when my wife questions my decision to purchase Tabasco sauce by the gallon). I did not purchase the fart powder.

How She Arrived There

The three of us took a break in an Indian cafe, with an amazing selection of sweets, almost all of which had pistachios on top. We ordered the sampler. I had no idea what any individual confection contained, but they were delicious.

Over chai tea, Susan’s talked some more about her family’s background. They had moved from India to downstate Illinois. As an immigrant, she told us, there are lots of things you can’t recreate in your new environment. But one thing you can hang onto for a long time is the cuisine, so that tends to live on and be passed down longer than other traditions.

All the Colors of the Rainbow, in Bean Form

Our last stop was another grocery store, this one with a larger produce section. But other than the enormous jackfruits, there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen before.

And then we arrived at the lentil section. In a traditional American supermarket, a large selection of lentils means that there is more than one variety. Here I saw more types of lentils than I could count. There was variety in shapes and sizes, but it was the assortment of colors that struck me. The shelves were a gorgeous refraction of the lentil spectrum.

I didn’t buy any. First off, my backpack was already full of star anise and coriander, but the real reason was that I simply couldn’t choose. If I were to get one, how would I know which to pick? If I selected only the second-best type of lentil, would one billion Indians be laughing at me? Overwhelmed, I turned and walked away.

Kitchen Epilogue

Two days later, per Susan’s verbal instructions, I ground up some cardamom and cumin seeds, added some turmeric, and tossed it into a pot of basmati rice and lentils (the usual, boring, greenish-brown kind). While it cooked, it made the kitchen smell amazing. With yogurt on the side, the dish was a winner. Having gotten warmed up, I then made my imagined shrimp-coconut-amchoor concoction. Another bulls-eye. Obviously, I did not need to have spent two hours standing in a grocery store to make these things, but I will happily admit that I would not have figured them out on my own. Grocery store tourism is not for everyone, but Susan and her cardamom seeds were worth a Sunday morning.

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