Cardamom, Cumin and Curries at India Grocers

A personal chef friend of mine was in need of some specific Indian spices on Saturday morning, so we headed over to the Mahatma Gandhi district (I'm so excited that this area now has a name that I use it at every available opportunity) and into India Grocers.

India Grocers (6606 Southwest Freeway, 713-266-7717) is, I think, the best Indian grocery store in town. And that's down to three important things: a huge selection of foodstuffs, daily (long) operating hours and one of the most helpful and inviting owners you'll run across.

Like the similarly hospitable Kaiser Lashkari just across the parking lot at Himalaya, the jovial Yatin Patel makes you feel welcome the moment you walk in the store, decorated with posters featuring famous cricketers in various heroic-looking poses.

Patel, a ruggedly handsome Indian who's originally from Zambia, helped us out at every turn on Saturday as we slowly browsed our way around the store. We must have looked hopelessly lost, hence the many offers for assistance. But we were really just enjoying the sights and the smells, especially the fragrantly, vibrantly clean scent of ground cumin and cardamom that coats you like a perfume.

Where we did end up with a few questions was with regard to coconut oil and turmeric. India Grocers sells both in great quantity, along with a long aisle of British items and even a few DVD/CDs (although not nearly as many as they used to). Patel launched into a surprisingly detailed explanation of the health benefits of coconut oil as well as a guide to which brand to buy, how to use it and whether liquid or congealed coconut oil would be of better use to my friend.

In the middle of the store is a fresh produce section, containing all the basics you'd expect: okra, tomatoes, turnips, boxes filled with various root vegetables. And behind it, a small bakery area with bags full of items like pani puri shells. The entire left side of the store contains a massive line of freezers, containing a far wider array of frozen Desi dishes than you'll find anywhere else (if, like me, you're usually far too pressed for time to attempt making your own Indian feast at home). And the aisles themselves are filled with all manner of chutneys, curries, beans, peas, bulk spices and ground spices of every flavor and size.

We packed her basket full of the stuff she'd come for -- fenugreek, whole curry leaves, asafoetida and other specifically Indian spices that can't be found at places like H-E-B or Phoenicia -- and threw some other goodies in along the way: red lentils that were on sale, some garam masala powder, a bag of ground turmeric.

At the register, Patel explained to my friend how to use the turmeric...but not for cooking. "Lots of non-Indians take capsules with turmeric inside for their health," he explained, specifically referring in this case to arthritis and digestive issues that are thought to be ameliorated by the bright-yellow spice. "But what you should really do is put one teaspoon of ground turmeric into a glass of water -- or milk, to mask the taste -- and drink that every morning."

"You don't have to worry about the gelatin," he said, "and you always know exactly what you're drinking. You don't have that guarantee with capsules; they're filled with chemicals."

India Grocers: Your one-stop shop for all manner of British, Indian and Pakistani foodstuffs, as well as a little helpful advice for the holistically minded.

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