I dabble in cooking Indian food. Sometimes this causes me to need things one can't find at Safeway: green mango powder, paneer cheese, a pinch of "black salt."
A tour of Portland's Indian-grocery emporia reveals the cheery truth: For home cooks trying to do Indian, a full range of inspiring, high-quality ingredients can be found right here--provided you know where to look.
India 4 U
Tidy, 3-month-old India 4 U is a great place for Indian-grocery debutantes. Managers Pramod and Alka Kumar cater mostly to Anglo Southeast folk, and the heat-'n'-serve meals they specialize in pack authentic flavor.
Star items in India 4 U's freezers include boxed vegetarian entrees (it's worth noting that every product the store carries is veggie), aaloo parathas (savory potato-filled flatbreads) that heat up in your toaster oven, and miniature "cocktail samosas" in packs of 50.
Hungry Hawthorne passersby looking for a grab-and-go bite should take a peek: the shop carries convenience-store snack items with an Indian twist. Cold Limca--the bracing, slightly opaque lime soda sold at nearly every roadside dhaba in India--is here in wonderfully heavy fluted glass bottles. Snack mixes made of roasted, spiced chickpeas are popular, and single-serving ice-cream cups come in flavors (like cashew-raisin, mango and pistachio-rose) that you won't find at Ben & Jerry's. On Mondays and Fridays there are fresh samosas, and the Kumars plan to offer hot Indian chai soon.
India 4 U also carries the cooking staples available at every Indian grocery: basmati rice, myriad dried lentils, pre-mixed seasoning packs for quick meals, and phenomenally low-priced bulk spices.
Two years ago, Pakistan-born Jami Sohail expanded his sub shop to include the ethnic features he'd always wanted: Indian and Middle Eastern groceries, a tandoori clay oven, and a meat counter that, on its own, provides more than ample reason for a trip out Barbur way.
World Foods deals exclusively in halal meat (halal, sometimes likened to kosher, is an ancient Islamic tradition of meat preparation that stresses cleanliness and maximally humane killing), offering chicken, goat, beef, lamb and frozen venison. Sohail buys his lamb from family-run Anderson Ranches in Brownsville, Ore., which produces organic, free-range meat--and he sells it, custom-cut, for an incredible $3.60 to $3.85 a pound.
The shop's second standout is its clay oven. Sure, it's possible to buy something packaged as naan in a bag at Fred Meyer, but that stuff bears no comparison to the pillowy, cloudlike loaves that bake on the lava rocks of a real tandoor. Sohail's zatar naan is warm, buttery and flecked with burn-marks in just the right places. Customers can have naan ($2 with toppings, $1.25 plain) made while they wait or phone in an order to pick up.
Bazaar is a true subcontinental mega-market, and your best bet for hard-to-find ingredients. Sima and Omar Farooq started the business two years ago, intending it as a place where Beaverton's Indian population could find everything on their grocery lists under one roof.
Bazaar is an adventurous destination with a daunting array of choices (there's a whole aisle of pickle varieties). It's also a blissful place to browse, thrilling to the ultra-exotic (canned sorghum stalks?!) while savoring arresting whiffs of incense and spice and snatches of Hindi conversation.
Not all selections are esoteric, of course; Bazaar carries Patak's excellent sauce concentrates--manna for beginners and cooks in a hurry, these want only onions, tomatoes and meat to become delicious curries, biryanis, and vindaloos. This is also a great place for the serendipitous finds that make adventure-shopping so much fun--I found tiny boxes of red Spanish saffron for a swoon-inducing $1.99 a gram.
The store really comes alive on the weekends, when fresh shipments of perishables come in. Visit then for vegetables like okra, taro root, mango and bitter melon; meat, including custom-cut, locally raised halal goat; and fresh sweets like burfee, gulab jamun and digestif meetha paans that are flown in from Shaheen in New York City.
For South Sea items like kava roots, frozen breadfruit and moist, powdered coconut, a number of Portland's Tongans and Fijians rely on the small but densely packed shop that Vinas Pratap has run for nine years on North Interstate Avenue.
This is the place to get authentically South Pacific fish varieties: A deep-freezer bulges with whole imported kawa-kawa, walu and sambutu, plus bricks of Fijian mussels. It's also the outlet for the best-priced Australian and New Zealand lamb I have found--20-pound packages sell for $37.80, or an unbelievable $1.89 a pound.
There are a few vegetables in a refrigerator case, but besides the frozen goods, Fiji Emporium is most notable for its enormous spice selection and its Indo-Australian ready-to-eat items (including tea biscuits and shiny bags of crisps, some of them "burger flavoured"). Pratap also carries embroidered kurta tunics, henna for mehndi, a whole aisle of Hindu devotional materials, and a full complement of Indian movie magazines and DVDs to rent.
3341 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 239 - 8000. 9 am - 8 pm Monday - Friday, 11 am-7 pm Saturday - Sunday.
10075 SW Barbur Blvd., 892 - 4658. 10 am - 9 pm Monday - Saturday, 11 am - 7 pm Sunday.
10255 SW Canyon Road, Beaverton, 641 - 1352. 11 am - 9 pm daily.
7814 N Interstate Ave., 240 - 2768. 11 am - 7 pm Tuesday - Saturday, noon - 6 pm Sunday.