All week, we'll be featuring recent college graduates and longtime friends Liyna Anwar and Anum Arshad as they plan, prepare, and host a backyard South Asian-inspired feast for their mothers.
Today: Liyna and Anum track down the spices and groceries needed for their Big Feast.
A lot of people still have a weird and semi-twisted idea about what Orange County, California is like. Based on TV shows you would think it’s always super glamorous and exciting (it’s not) and everyone hangs out at the beach a lot (which they do). But one side of Orange County that rarely gets seen is the abundance of ethnic food markets and grocery stores. Very often you can find a Persian bakery, a Mexican sweet shop, a Vietnamese produce market, and an Arab halal butcher all within just a few miles of each other.
For all of our lives, our mothers have been making authentic Indian and Pakistani food for us; for this Mothers' Day, though, we're doing something different. We're hosting a backyard South Asian-inspired Big Feast that we hope our moms will always remember. For the shopping, we headed out to Nina’s Groceries, an Indian/Pakistani grocery store not too far from where we live. Here’s what it looks like when you walk inside:
Totally kidding. How amazing would that be, right? Here’s what it really looks like:
Aisles and aisles of spices, condiments, lentils, and rice bags. And because there’s a quick service restaurant in the back of the store, when you walk in it almost seems as if the groceries themselves are emitting the fragrant aromas.
Before we headed to where the pure spices were stocked, we decided to check the aisle with all the pre-made spice mixes. Of course we wanted to make everything from scratch; but since we only have a fraction of the cooking knowledge that our moms have, we thought that we could scan the mixes for some inspiration. Indian groceries usually stock tons of brands – one entire side of an aisle was filled with these mixes from top to bottom shelf. We could barely keep track of just the biryani ones (more to come on biryani this week!):
As we were getting lost among the mixes, another customer nearby asked what we were doing with the camera. After explaining about our Mother’s Day feast, she offered us some advice. She told us that in her own cooking she often mixes and matches these pre-made spice packets to give a dish a more homemade taste. She told us that when you just stick to one mix, the flavor can often become one-dimensional. But when you find the kinds you like and mix them together, you can get a much more homemade flavor. She preferred the Shan brand, and since she owns a catering business and we've seen our moms use the same brand, we felt like Shan was the way to go. We still plan on grinding our own spices for our Big Feast, but we picked up a box anyway just in case.
As we moved on and approached the pure spice aisle something dawned on us. Even though we are pretty amateur cooks, for us, seeing all these spices is a common sight. It’s not intimidating. But for people new to Indian cooking, just being in this aisle could seem daunting – even if they had a detailed ingredient list in hand. For example, let’s say someone new to Indian cooking went out to buy chili powder. Seems simple enough (go buy the bag that says “chili powder”). But here’s what you find when you grab all the bags that say “chili powder”:
So many different colors, all the same name! How would anyone know which one to get? (Tip: generally, the redder the color, the hotter the spice). And sometimes bags will be mislabeled – we picked up a spice bag that was obviously a bright red spice mix but the ingredient label listed only “ground whole black peppercorns.” It’s these kinds of things that make Indian groceries sometimes seem confusing, but the more you explore and more you test out, the better you will get at navigating your way through the cuisine.
After we picked up a few more spices (i.e. cumin, coriander, turmeric) we headed to the Iranian grocery store nearby where we picked up some produce. Their produce is much fresher than Nina’s and also cheaper than chain grocery stores.
After picking up our produce, we headed back into the car to get home ... we had a lot more planning and cooking to go!
Before we leave you, though, we thought it would be fun to share a list:
TOP TEN THINGS YOU CANT LEAVE AN INDIAN/PAKISTANI GROCERY WITHOUT:
1. Rasmalai – This is one of those desserts that just feels better to leave to the professionals. In our experience (and a lot of other people’s experiences too), it is pretty hard to make correctly at home. It’s a cheese-based dessert that's cold and refreshing like ice cream, but it gives off a homey, comfort food feeling, like the kind you get from eating bread pudding. It’s a really interesting combination of flavors and textures.
2. Sweet and spicy crunchy mixes – These types of snack foods are really common in India and desi people here in America eat them all the time. They’re perfect for when you want a sweet and salty snack but you’re tired of Chex Mix. Get the Haldiram’s brand – we like it the best.
3. Achar – Indian pickles. A lot of regions specialize in their own recipes, and Hyderabad is famous for theirs. Try a bunch of kinds, they are all really good. But only use a little! Usually, they’re eaten along with rice – but since they’re spicy, use them like you would a hot sauce or sriracha.
4. Fresh naan – Is an explanation really necessary?
5. Tamarind paste – It is super versatile; you can use it in marinades or sauces. Experiment with it in both sweet and savory dishes. Mix with a little water and some other spices and you’ve got a sweet and tangy dipping chutney.
6. Bollywood movie – You might as well, right? Ask the cashier for a recommendation.
7. Maaza brand mango juice
8. Paan – Also known as, “leaf wrapped with stuff.” Seriously, that is how it was explained to us as kids and that’s how we're going to explain it to you. Part of the fun is having no idea what it’s going to taste like.
9. Chili Mili candy – Our friend is addicted to these. They are gummy candies in the shape of chilies. A little sweet, a little sour, and a kind of tamarind-y flavor to them.
10. Mehndi paste (aka henna paste) – It’s conditioning for your hair and leaves it nice and soft. But make sure you get the kind that doesn’t leave it colored.
Le Creuset has generously offered to reward our Big Feasters for all their hard work, and as our third Big Feast, Liyna and Anum will win, in the color of their choice (flame, cherry, fennel, Caribbean, dune, Dijon, or Marseille): a 5-quart braiser, a 4-quart stainless saucepan, and a large serving platter. Pitch us your Big Feast at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to win up to $500 in Le Creuset booty.