FOOD: Indian Spices Worth a Visit — But Can You Find It?
When I went to check out at Indian Spices last week, giddy over my purchase of a giant bag of chana dal (split black chickpeas) to experiment with at home, I noticed a tinfoil take-out container labeled “Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani.”
I picked it up, hoping to feel the weight of one of the most celebrated dishes in the Indian repertoire. Empty. What kind of tease was this?
I asked the cashier where the container came from and he pointed to a small refrigerator case behind me. The dorm-sized ice box was filled with similar looking containers, all with different labels. My food nerd radar was beeping off the charts. Surely, I had stumbled upon something special.
The cashier went on to explain that local South Indian women made a slew of dishes for the small ethnic food store, which mostly sells Indian groceries and entertainment products, on an almost daily basis. He said the containers were often gone by the end of the day, swept up by local Indian transplants craving a taste of home-cooked food.
This intrigued me, as South Indian food — which itself can be divided into various sub-regions but in general involves a lot of chilies, tamarind, coconut, rice, curry leaves, and mustard seeds — is much less prevalent in the States than some of the richer, bread-based regional cuisines of India.
I contained my enthusiasm a bit and settled on two dishes: the aforementioned Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani and something called Tamarind Rice, each of which cost a mere $5.99 for a generous portion.
The biryani, unfortunately, was quite oily and salty, although the yogurt-marinated chicken was tender and tasty. Perhaps I set myself up for disappointment by thinking about how great it could be the entire time it sat in my car as I sped home.
The tamarind rice, on the other hand, was a revelation. A South Indian preparation through and through, it included turmeric-stained rice with a good dose of dried chilies, brown mustard seeds, and curry leaves, all of which mingled with the lingering sourness of tamarind. Though it too was a bit oily, the flavors were so addictive that I couldn’t help shoveling it down. It alone forced me to return to try some more dishes.
On my next visit I had a chance to talk to an older man who described himself as owner Danthuri Shilaja’s father. He was ridiculously friendly and did everything he could to answer my questions despite a severe language barrier (I don’t think he understood half of what I was asking him).
It took some convincing, but I told him I wanted to try the stuff the South Indian customers were buying. He cautioned me that the food was too spicy but I assured him I could take the heat. I walked out with one container of okra and tomato curry and another filled to the brim with a chili-laced dal.
Both dishes, while assertively spicy in the best way possible, were also on the oily and salty side and I wouldn’t get either one again. Even so, they were an interesting departure from standard Indian fare in the area.
There’s no doubt in my mind the South Indian specialties at Indian Spices are worth exploring for the adventurous eater, it’s just a matter of finding the dishes that are the best — or perhaps just finding the ones best-suited for Western palates.
And even if you have little interest in the locally made offerings, there is plenty to like about this hidden spot in the back of the West End Plaza off Broad Street. All the Indian foodstuffs — from prepackaged and frozen foods to mixes and whole spices — are well represented.
I especially like the array of legumes available. Indians have mastered the cooking of lentils, chickpeas, and all sorts of dried peas better than any other people in the world. A well-made lentil dal or chana masala, accompanied by some fresh bread, rice, and a few chutneys, is as satisfying a meal as you can get.
A good first buy for a novice Indian cook is a bag of red lentils, or masoor dal. The earthy and delicious brick-red beads collapse into a puree as you cook them in water and take on big flavors exceptionally well.
Equally enticing are the bulk bags of spices. Hard-to-find amchur powder is fun to have around in the kitchen. Made from pulverized dried unripe mangoes, the seasoning is a key souring agent for many Indian preparations. There are also gargantuan bags of cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, cumin, and red chili powder — all indispensable in the Indian kitchen.
Next time I drop by I’ll focus more of my shopping on the packaged items in search of a new ingredient to add to my growing list of pantry staples, but I’m sure when I check out I’ll end up carting at least one of the locally made treats home with me. The opportunity to uncover something exotic and delicious in my own backyard — as risky and unrewarding as it can be at times — is simply too good to pass up.
Indian Spices, 1067 B, West Broad St., Falls Church, VA 22046. Phone: (703) 532-1777. Website: http://www.shopindianspices.com.
By Jimmy Scarano
September 11, 2009