Because I am now writing a second blog with a friend called America’s Test Chicken, I’ve gotten deeply involved in the cuisine of India. One of the challenges we faced in exploring the exotic ingredients was finding them! We paid far too much for the spices at gourmet supermarkets, if we could even find them.
However, I discovered an Indian supermarket in Tampa! It’s part of a huge chain called Patel Brothers that has 50 locations in the USA.
Most locations are in the eastern part of the country, but one is in California. Apparently it’s been around for many years and must be a boon to Indian people who want to cook food from their home country. I know I would have loved an American supermarket in Germany at times. In addition, the prices are really cheap at Patel!
It’s a real treat going to Patel Brothers. The first time I went was last fall right after the Indian festival of Diwali, the festival of lights. I found these little terracotta dishes at the front door; they are smaller than the palm of my hand and really cute! I found later that they are oil lamps (diya) used during Diwali and other festivals. You put oil or ghee in them with a cotton wick and light them. Some are set afloat on the Ganges river as part of the celebration.
Patel hangs some traditional decorations here and there…
The most fun part is the produce section. It’s full of strange-looking fruit and vegetables with names that are just as strange:
One of my favorites is karela, which is known as bitter gourd. I haven’t used them for cooking yet, but that’s only a matter of time.
These looked like snow peas with serrated edges. I call them saber-tooth snow peas:
There are dozens of types of beans and lentils, not to mention flours made from those beans and lentils. There are some cooking tools, which I’m learning about and have purchased some of. For example, the small, wooden platform in the picture below is called a chakla. The two thin rolling pins on top are called belans. This combination of tools is used to roll out flatbread and the cracker-like popadums.
In researching the things I’ve encountered at Patel, I learned that traditional Indian kitchens don’t have any furniture. The women kneel or squat to do the cooking. So in order to avoid rolling out the flatbread on the floor, they use a wooden or marble chakla.
Other tools designed for this kitchen setup are fascinating as well, like the bonti, a curved knife blade mounted on a wooden base that is knelt or stood on. The prep cook then slides the food against the blade to cut it. There are more counters and chairs and so forth in modern Indian kitchens, of course, but evidently some poorer households still do it the historical way.
Back to Patel. You can imagine the rice aisle – so many types and processes and packages!
This rice bag waxes poetic about its contents: