5 Essential Items to Buy from the Indian Grocery Store

5 Essential Items to Buy from the Indian Grocery Store

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One of my weekly rituals is a visit to my local Indian grocery store. I am lucky enough to live in a city that has a strip mall pretty much dedicated to ethnic-style stores, so I can do a lot of my shopping all in one place. I have a couple of stores that I visit regularly to pick up items that I cannot find, or are too expensive, at my regular supermarket. The Indian grocery store is on the top of my list, and these are the items I buy there fairly often.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

1. Rosewater, Orange Flower Water, and Kewra (Screw Pine Flower Water)

These three essences are a staple in my pantry and are not usually available everywhere. Rosewater, the distilled essence of rose petals, is a staple in Indian cooking — particularly in desserts. It can also be used as a natural face toner, and I love the heady floral fragrance in my lassis.

Orange flower water is a must in European, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisines, and another staple essence in my pantry. Also known as orange blossom water, it is a byproduct of bitter orange blossoms that are distilled for their essential oils. I use it in madeleines, baklavas, cakes, and to make delicious summer drinks like this lemon verbena and orange blossom fizz.

Kewra (or Keora) — screw pine or pandanus blossom water — is a quintessentially Indian ingredient. It is hard to describe the flavor of this essence, with its heady, floral-fruity-honey notes that are unique to it. I use this essence in a lot of Indian desserts, and North Indian cooking — particularly in biriyanis and pulaos, and to flavor meat stews.

You can usually find all three of these essences beside each other in the pantry section of your Indian grocery store.

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2. Dried Pulses and Lentils

2016 is the International Year of Pulses. But in Indian cooking, pulses and lentils are a staple food (particularly as dal-roti), so one of my pantry staples are big bags of dried pulses like chickpeas, beans, lentils, and split peas. Several of these pulses can be found in regular stores, but I like to stock up on the really big bags, as they don't go off and I can also get them at a more reasonable price.

I can also find some special varieties of lentils and beans, like whole black lentils (sabut urad), which I use in my dal bukhara; cleaned black lentils (split black lentils that are white, once cleaned), which I use to make dosas and steamed rice cakes, called idlis; dried green mung beans; pinto beans; and dried red kidney beans. I can also find black or small dark-brown chickpeas that are not usually available in regular stores.

Store your bags of pulses, chickpeas, and lentils in a cool, dark place in your pantry, and refill boxes as necessary.

3. Indian Snacks

Indian snacks and desserts are my little indulgence when I go to the Indian grocery stores. Most stores stock a vast selection of snacks like chevda, aloo bhujia (spiced crisp lentil noodles), Bombay mix, spiced chickpeas, bhelpuri, and charmuri (a puffed rice snack). Most Indian grocery stores have an aisle specifically dedicated to snacks from India, and you can find pretty much everything your heart desires. Occasionally you will find snacks that are tough to find in India itself, like masala peanuts, a type of spicy battered and deep-fried peanut snack that is only available in coastal India. Be adventurous and try something new — I can tell you that you won't regret it.

My lazy side also loves premade Indian desserts, particularly from Haldiram's or Nanak's. I buy boxes of rasmalai (a creamy dessert with paneer), gulab jamuns (deep-fried milk balls), and if I am particularly slothful, I like buying carrot halwa (try The Kitchn's made-from-scratch-version). These desserts are usually found in the freezer or refrigerated section of the grocery, so make sure you check them out.

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4. Vegetarian Jelly (aka Vegetarian "Jell-O")

I know this seems like an unusual thing to buy, but I almost never find Jell-O that does not have gelatin in regular grocery stores and supermarkets. When we were children, we used to wait eagerly for our relatives to come home from Western countries, and one of the treats they brought with them was Jell-O packs that had gelatin in them (in my family, we ate meat). In India, however, there is a huge population of vegetarians, so all the jelly available in India tends to be vegetarian — made without gelatin — so that it satisfies the sensibilities of the Hindu and Muslim religion.

I have a daughter who is vegetarian, and she loves Jell-O, so every trip to the Indian grocery results in packages of either Delve or National brands of vegetarian jelly. Our favorite flavors are mango, pineapple, and orange; I stock up, as they are not always available. Vegetarian jelly doesn't set as hard as regular gelatin-based jelly, so a trick is to reduce the amount of water that you use to make it. This makes it almost indistinguishable from regular Jell-O. You can find these packs in the dessert and packaged food sections of the grocery. If you can't find them, ask the store manager, and chances are they will be able to order them in for you.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

5. Indian Dairy: Paneer and Ghee

Paneer, or Indian-style pressed cottage cheese is one of the everyday ingredients I always have in my fridge. Yes, it is pretty easy to make your own paneer (see The Kitchn's tutorial here), but there is something about the convenience of having a block of paneer that makes dinnertime super easy. You could whip up this restaurant-style paneer mughlai curry in less than 30 minutes, for example. We have a local dairy that supplies blocks of paneer to our Indian stores, but you should be able to find similar blocks of paneer in your own stores. Paneer can be found both in the refrigerated section of the store, or in the frozen section as well. I prefer to buy blocks of paneer, but you can also buy cubed paneer to make life easier.

Ghee is another dairy product that is difficult to find in regular stores. I like to buy traditional ghee made with milk, but you can also find vegan ghee that is made with vegetable oil, if you like. While I don't use ghee too often, I do like to add a teaspoonful to my Indian dishes, for that authentic flavor and taste. Ghee is usually available in the regular pantry aisles, but once opened, I like to store it in the fridge.

So, what pantry staples do you make trips to Indian grocery stores for?

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