Powerfully flavorful, sometimes spicy, often vegetarian and enticingly exotic, the cuisine of India has a lot to recommend it.
The popularity of Indian food in the United States is growing, but only slowly, and the cuisine still lags far behind other international options. According to the research company Mintel, in 2013, just 14 percent of Americans purchased Indian food while 52 percent purchased Mexican food.
Still, the Baltimore region is home to dozens of restaurants specializing in Indian food, from local carry-outs to extravagant spots, like Maple Lawn's Ananda, and funky, street food-oriented eateries, like The Verandah in Hampden. And at home, adventurous cooks are experimenting with Indian flavors in their own kitchens.
Local home cooks in search of hard-to-find Indian ingredients are in luck: the Baltimore area has plenty of Indian food shopping options.
The large international grocery chains with outposts in Catonsville and Howard County – Great Wall, H-Mart and Lotte Plaza – each carry impressive selections of Indian ingredients though the stores are mostly associated with Asian cuisines.
But the region's smaller groceries that specialize in Indian products come with an added bonus: expert advice. The people behind the counters and walking the aisles at local Indian shops are friendly, welcoming and more than willing to answer questions, make suggestions and show new customers around their stores.
"Ask us questions," says Sunil Purohit, owner of Desi Bazaar in Columbia. Purohit says his store draws many Indian customers, but also a lot of people who aren't overly familiar with Indian cuisine. Often, shoppers who start with one visit for a specific ingredient end up becoming regulars, he says.
Part of this, Purohit notes, has to do with the affordability of Indian markets – especially for spices that are frequently used in Indian cuisine, but are also necessary for other types of food. "Spices like fenugreek, cumin, black pepper and cloves – we sell them in huge bags for low prices," he explains.
The spice aisles of Indian markets give shoppers the opportunity to explore, eyeing items like fragrant cardamom pods, pungent whole cloves, musty cumin seed and deep yellow, peppery turmeric, which often flavors curries.
At The Verandah in Hampden, the kitchen team often creates custom blends of fresh herbs and spices, pulling together ingredients like ginger, garlic, mint and cilantro to season their Indian street food. But for more complicated spice blends, including garam masala, a blend often used in northern Indian dishes, owner Radhika Sule buys dried spices from local grocers, like Punjab Groceries on 33rd Street.
"Garam masala is a blend of several spices – over 15 whole spices that are roasted dry and ground," she says, explaining that traditionally, such spice blends were made at home, but in recent years, that has tapered off and even the most serious cooks buy some pre-blended spices.
"It's good now," she says. "It's not a compromise and it gets your job done easier."
In addition to well-known herbs like mint and cilantro, Indian markets often carry more uncommon items. Methi (fresh fenugreek leaves) is earthy and slightly bitter; it is eaten alone or in salads, and is used in chutneys and the raitas (yogurt sauces). Other greens should be familiar, even if they have unusual names. Palak is spinach, for example, rayo saag are mustard greens and fresh coriander is cilantro.
Indian cooking varies by region; the difference is driven by the mix of herbs and spices used, as well as the most widely used grains. Northern Indian dishes, which dominate most U.S. menus, are often seasoned with garam masala and served with naan bread and samosas. Southern-influenced dishes are more likely to be lentil and rice-based or stews, and flavored with sambar powder or tamarind.
Local Indian shops typically care wide selections of pre-packaged mixes for traditional Indian dishes, like korma or vindaloo, which can be prepared with vegetables, cheese or meat.
"For an average person who wants to cook Indian food, I recommend buying these ready-made mixes and adding a little more, like ginger, which will kick it up another notch," advises Sule.
Refrigerated samosas and breads, including naan and kulcha, are other pre-made products that are good bets for budding Indian cooks. The dairy aisle will also yield some useful finds, from large containers of tangy yogurt to slabs of paneer, the soft, fresh cheese that serves as the primary protein in some vegetarian dishes.
In the dry goods aisles, serious cooks will discover very specific ingredients, including numerous types of lentils, large bags of rice and flour made from a variety of ingredients, from wheat, rice and semolina to chickpea, amaranth and water chestnut.
With so many options, Baltimore's home cooks have the tools to experiment with traditional Indian flavors. Before cooking, shop these local stores for ingredients – and advice.
8300-A Pulaski Highway, Rosedale, 410-687-1222
One of the region's newer shops, Apna-Desh is sparkling clean. Its shelves boast neat stacks of a variety of goods, including an enormous selection of flour in bags both big and small, a well-organized spice aisle and numerous choices for basics like yogurt, fresh and frozen vegetables and juices.
9179-H Red Branch Road, Columbia, 410-997-8400, desibazaarindianfoodstore.com
Located in a Columbia industrial park, Desi is small but well-stocked. Sunil Purohit, the outgoing owner, is always willing to show customers around the shop, which carries everything from fresh produce to large bags of a wide variety of spices.
6504 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, 410-719-2822, patelbrothers.com
This 2,000-square-foot store is part of a national chain that includes more than 50 stores nationwide and several in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Bright, clean and well-stocked, it is a go-to spot for everything from massive bags of flour to oversized pots and pans for cooking in large quantities.
8904 Harford Road, Baltimore, 410-663-3201
Pavan is a mid-size store with a small selection of basics like spices, lentils and packaged sauce mixes. The business is more than just a grocery, though. At the back of the shop, a casual restaurant serves Indian classics and Bollywood fans can choose from a variety of movies for sale.
Punjab Groceries & Halal Meat
345 East 33rd Street, Baltimore, 410-662-7844
The local market of choice for Radhika Sule and other city-dwelling Indian food lovers, Punjab's aisles are jammed with a large selection of fresh produce, spices, breads, sauces and staples like rice and chickpeas. Punjab also carries halal meats — those permissible under Islamic law — and some items frequently used in Middle Eastern cooking, like the yogurt-cheese labneh.
8767 Philadelphia Road, Rosedale, 410-574-4995
Punjab in Rosedale – which does not share an owner with the Baltimore market of the same name – is petite, busy and packed with fresh, frozen and dry items. In the front of the store, fresh produce and herbs sit in refrigerated cases and well-organized plastic bins; at the back, shoppers can find every type of rice they could possibly want.
What to cook
The food at The Verandah is full of flavor thanks, in large part, to fresh ingredients cooked and blended in ways that draw out their essence. "A lot can be achieved by blending onions or making garlic ginger pastes," says owner Radhika Sule. "They're easy to make."
Sule learned these tricks from her mother who, she says, cooked less with dried spices and more with fresh ingredients. Here, she shares three simple onion recipes that add flavor and texture to other dishes.
"Onions are a key ingredient in Indian cuisine, especially in the north," she says. "Depending on how they are cooked, they add different flavors to the dish."
"We use these in our kebab salads with grilled meats and chutneys. They add a crisp crunch to the dish," explains Sule.
Pickled red onions
"We use these in our kebab salads with grilled meats and chutneys. They add a crisp crunch to the dish," explains Radhika Sule.
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
Combine all ingredients and let sit.
The color will change to pink as the onions soak up the juices.
Tomato-onion curry base
At The Verandah, this basic sauce is used as a base for chicken curry, chicken tikka masala and red lentil soup. It can be doctored with additional spices, cream or butter and served chunky or pureed in a blender before serving.
2 tablespoons fresh garlic
2 tablespoons fresh ginger
1/4 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4-5 yellow onions, roughly diced
1 cup tomato paste
Water (variable amount)
Place garlic and ginger in a food processor. Mince until the two are combined, forming a paste.
In a deep pan set over medium heat, heat the oil.
Once it is hot, add the cumin seeds and turmeric powder and stir.
Add the diced onions and saute until translucent, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the ginger and garlic mixture and cook for about another minute.
Add the tomato paste and mix around thoroughly, adding water, in small amounts to loosen.
Caramelized yellow onions
These appear in The Verandah's portobello mushroom wrap and in the restaurant's chicken and veggie korma dishes, adding sweetness to both. They are the starting point for the korma, says Sule. "To this, we add ginger-garlic mix, turmeric and house spice mixes and blend thoroughly, adding water as required." This mixture, plus unsweetened coconut milk, forms the sauce base. The blended onions are sweet and creamy, so the dish feels rich without the addition of heavy cream.
2 tablespoons canola oil
4-5 yellow onions, thinly sliced
Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-low heat.
Once the oil is heated, add the sliced onions and let them cook, slowly, stirring frequently, until caramelized, about 15 to 20 minutes.