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Indian Summer 

Ethnic market with a savvy proprietor

The key to a positive experience in any ethnic market is having a savvy proprietor who is keenly aware of the dual functions of such a market: providing home foods for ex-pats and being an outlet for those hard-to-find ingredients for indigenous cuisine. One such proprietor is Nepal native Tulsi Bhandari who opened Mukti Indian Grocery Store, a shop specializing in Indian spices and products, last May. Bhandari, who grew up in Northern India, recently returned to Charlotte after an extended visit to India during which time he married his wife Mukti, the namesake of their shop. Some of you may remember Bhandari from his restaurant Diamond India on Monroe Road, which closed last December.Bhandari says there were eight or nine Indian markets already in the Charlotte area, but with at least 5,000 Indian families, he felt there was more than enough business to go around. He also notes there has been an increase in the popularity of Indian cuisine in Charlotte. He plans to open another Indian restaurant sometime in the future, and his wife will manage their store.

What brings people to Mukti? "Spices," Tulsi quickly replies. "Spices are very important to Indian dishes." He takes me to a long center aisle towards the back of the brightly lit, clean shop. Rows of neatly stacked packaged spices tantalize the eye.

"Spices are more than just a flavor," he says as he picks up a package of fruit seeds. "Some have other properties. This one may be helpful for pregnant women. This other one for cleansing. People know how to use the right spice for a specific purpose."

Spices are essential to Indian cuisine, and the knowledge of spices is the basis of each dish. To cook Indian food you need to know how to cook spices, how to grind them, or when to use them whole to flavor a dish.

Indian cooks, for example, do not use a standard recipe to make a "curry powder." Instead, a traditional Indian cook will use many spices and herbs in order to achieve a unique taste. One Indian cook told me that the prepackaged uniform yellow colored curry powders with a stock aroma, found in mainstream grocery store spice sections, are an anathema to purists. Madhur Jaffrey, a renowned author of several Indian cookbooks, wrote in An Invitation to Indian Cooking: "If "curry' is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, than "curry powder' attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself. Curry powders are standard blends of several spices, including cumin, coriander, fenugreek, red peppers, and turmeric -- standard blends that Indians themselves never use."

You won't find prepackaged blends here. Browsing the spice aisle is half the fun at Mukti. Some of the spices are common. Turmeric (haldi), a member of the ginger family, is synonymous with Indian cuisine and is, in fact, considered sacred by Hindus. Its unique color and flavors finds its way into dishes from all of India's regions. India is the largest producer of turmeric and consumes roughly 92 percent of it. Other seasonings found here are not so common, such as asafetida, nigella, and green peppercorns. Look for the small bags of dried curry leaves. Southern Indian cuisine uses these powerful-smelling leaves from a small tropical tree to flavor vegetables, lentils, meats, and fish. Ayurvedic medicine uses curry leaves as a tonic.

Cinnamon can be bought very reasonably and a 14 ounce package of cumin (jeera) is $3.79. Pomegranate seeds (anardana), a symbol of prosperity, are used to add punch to chutneys and chickpeas. Both cream colored and black sesame seeds are available. The latter is more common in Chinese cuisine. Cooks can find an abundant supply of fenugreek seeds, used in laddoos and curries. Expensive saffron is kept by the front counter and costs $3 for one gram and $8 for five grams.

Across from the spice aisle are the cooking oils. Indians use coconut oil, sesame oil, mustard oil, groundnut oil, and ghee. Ghee is derived from cow's milk and is the purest form of butter fat. Before refrigeration, milk was converted to ghee to lengthen its shelf life. Ghee, which is used in desserts and sauteeing, is made from yogurt that has been churned to separate the butter from the liquid (buttermilk) and then heated. Both the froth and the sediments are discarded.

Gur, or jaggery, is also available. This is unpurified dehydrated sugar cane juice which has a unique flavor, though somewhat similar to brown sugar. Against one wall are bags of gram flour, the flour made from chickpeas, and durum wheat flour. A rainbow selection of lentils are on display as is a vast selection of rice, mainly basmati, which is grown near the Himalayas. Bhandari also stocks Dehradun basmati, the premium Indian rice. A four pound bag costs $6.49.

You can find canned and pickled items, mint and other chutneys. One freezer is filled with naan and pita. The other sections have frozen dinners with some desserts, including containers of Pista Kulfi, pistachio ice cream.

Bhandari is perhaps the most proud of his vegetable selection. "This one," he explains, holding a tindora (a small cucumber-like vegetable), "is a common food in the home." He also sells chilies, guar beans, and Indian long squash.

Chewing aromatic seeds is how many Indians choose to end their meal. Bhandari has a selection of betel nuts, the fruits of the betel palm, which are mixed together with spices and sugar to act as a mouth freshener; pods of cardamoms, as well as the separated seeds; and roasted fennel seeds.

Bhandari enjoys answering questions although most of the products are identified in English. In the event you find an item that intrigues you, Bhandari will explain how to cook it and offer information on the medicinal values as well. He will also special order items not stocked. In addition to food, the store rents Indian DVDs, offers some clothing, and sells incense for $1 for 18 sticks. If after one visit, curiosity or spices don't bring you back, the recollection of Bhandari's astute culinary observations certainly will.

Mukti Indian Grocery Store, 11014-B Monroe Road, Matthews. 704-847-4843. Hours: Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 11am until 8pm; Friday and Saturday, 11am until 9pm. Closed Monday. Visa, MC, Discover, checks.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Tasty Tidbits: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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