Since moving from Philadelphia to Maine one of the things I miss most – apart from cheesesteaks – is easy access to an array of international stores. Our former neighborhood of West Philly is home not only to college students, but to many immigrants who offer their culture and cuisine via shops and restaurants. My favorite Indian grocery, International Foods and Spices on Walnut Street, stocks canned, jarred, bagged and bottled wet & dry goods, movies, soaps and other sundries, fresh produce, incense and (the very best part) HOT FOOD TO GO. On special occasions I would treat myself to a couple steaming samosas and an ice cold mango juice. (The rest of the time I merely lusted from afar.) But the combination of wares, from the the spices to the curries to the Nag Champa, yielded an aroma so seductive and intense, just stepping inside the store invariably put me in a better mood.
When we got to Portland one of the first things I did was locate the nearest Indian grocery. Not just to stock up on my favorite soap (the intoxicatingly fragrant Mysore Sandal) and Basmati rice (Tilda) but to replace the many, many spices I’ve come to rely on instead of salt. It’s true, variety IS the spice of life. But on a salt free diet, both variety AND spice play crucial roles. Salt free seasoning blends are terrific; I myself use and recommend several (Benson’s and Spice House in particular). But I don’t limit myself, ever. I cook prodigiously, I bake prodigiously, and buying tiny, overpriced jars of spices from the supermarket doesn’t cut it. Not only do they tend to be stale (just pick up a bottle and wipe the dust from the cap), but they’re unbelievably expensive. Even lower cost alternatives, such as my beloved BJs and other bulk discount stores, cannot beat the prices offered by many international groceries. And by international I don’t just mean Indi-Pak, but many Asian markets too. All across the country, from big cities to small, these (often) mom & pop & family shops stock bulk seasonings, herbs and spices at a fraction of supermarket price. And the (often) higher turnover means fresher, better tasting products – and not simply spices, but other staples like rice, beans, and similar dry goods.
As you likely guessed, it’s time for me to restock. Which means I’ll be visiting my new favorite Indian grocery, Masala Mahal of South Portland, later today. While its smaller size means I can’t get everything I used to buy in West Philly, it still has all my must haves (Mysore, Tilda and Nag Champa) as well as unbeatable prices on all of the aforementioned salt free seasonings. Which, by the way, I will be using in abundance in the next few recipes. So come back tomorrow and see what’s in store (pun intended)!