Thursday, March 26, 2009

Special Ingredients




I remember how hard it was for me, being an Indian, to wrap my mind around "Western" cooking for lack of a better term... the idea that you can eat things just as they are, with no added flavouring. For example, something I love these days: asparagus, steamed, with a squeeze of lemon juice and a small pour of olive oil, salt and pepper.

Contrast that to Indian cookery, where everything is basted with at least the aggressive trio of garlic, fresh ginger and a green chile. I still remember when we were vacationing in Switzerland one year (oooh la la!), and Dad took us to this small tavern at the top of a hill for my birthday. Their menu was simple, and Dad seized on the pork chop. But the menu didn't say how it was cooked, and when Dad asked the waitress/co-owner, she looked a bit puzzled and said that it was cooked with nothing at all. He looked like someone had told him Santa died. If I know my Dad, and I do, he had expected some kind of mustardy-mushroomy preparation. As a concession, she offered to have her husband, the chef, cook it with some peppercorns which brought a slow smile to Dad's lips. Ultimately, I can't remember whether Dad liked it or not. Honestly, I think I was too drunk to remember (it was my 21st birthday!). All I remember was the puzzled and slightly devastated look on Dad's face when she said that they were going to essentially, just throw it in a frying pan. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that -- sometimes I think you can taste the quality of your meat better that way. But that's not the Indian way. Maybe because good meat is a given (since you usually know where it comes from, who killed it etc.)... maybe just because we're stubborn and addicted to our spice box.

I seem to have married a man just like Dad in that respect. If he had his way, Bren would eat all his meats covered in chocolate and ginger (crystallized).

That's affected my cooking of course. I'm trying to cook more simply, so I don't put you off. I want to be encouraging, not off-putting! And I don't want to hide behind lots of flavouring, so my food tastes muddy. Do you know what I mean? Ah, there's a lot of thought in this noggin of mine. Stay a while, won't you?!

Anyway, upon Brendan's suggestion, I came up with a cheat sheet of LA spots I frequent to get some of the more out-of-the-ordinary items I use. Check 'em out. It's cheap entertainment if nothing else. Ha!

Bhaarat Bazaar/Samosa House
I prefer this spot to the India Sweets and Spices on Venice. It used to be a small place on Washington Blvd (just west of Sawtelle), run by a short, round, white-haired old lady. Now the rest of the family has taken it over (I believe), and they've remodeled the place, expanded it, and decided to push the output of their small kitchen, a heat-lamp buffet line of both delicious standards like sag paneer and unusual items like a tasty jackfruit dish that I still haven't figured out. So yummy. Their dosas are really good -- Kuv and I got them one Thanksgiving, and they tasted like home. You can find ready-made chapatis/rotis in the fridge and the whole array of spices, pickles, chutneys, lentils and marinades on the racks. They also stock a lot of fresh produce, which isn't always in the greatest shape, but I get some typical Indian produce there like green chiles and something called thendlies or tindora there. I'm not sure what the equivalent is in English. I love this place.

Elat Market
Located on Pico, east of Robertson in West LA. A Persian-Jewish market with the cheapest yet delicious, probably non-organic, produce around. This place is great for plump, decadent dates, zatar, fresh fenugreek, fresh lavash bread, what my friend told me was the best tahini in Israel/Palestine...
Go in with armour though. You WILL get jostled around by the perfectly-primped Persian and Eastern European ladies, young and old, who will push past you in an effort to grab a bunch of parsley, but pretend that you injured THEM in the process. Count to 10, count to 10...
This place is also wonderful for fresh, whole fish. The eyes are still glassy and none of the fish I have ever bought from them smells fishy. It's a bit pricey -- I bought a small branzino this week, enough for the two of us, for $11. But they will scale it for you, and clean out the insides, and even fillet it if you want. They do sell Chilean Sea Bass there though, which breaks my heart (being overfished and all) so if you're looking for ethically-captured fish, you're in the wrong place. They also sell good-looking kosher beef, chicken and turkey.

99 Ranch Market
On Sepulveda in Van Nuys (near the CostCo), this Chinese market has tons of delicious finds like turnip cake, and hoisin sauce in a squeeze bottle. I know, it sounds silly, but I love sauces in a squeeze bottle. Their produce and fish win the prize -- lots of live fish, lobster, crabs and shellfish. Oh, and if you're looking for tongue, real ox tail and sundry body parts, you can find them here. They also stock bao the size of your face. They're a little dry from what I remember, but if you're trying to impress someone, they do the trick. Ha!

Vons
This place scares me a little bit. Why are two chicken breasts only $5? What happened to that chicken? Hmmm? No, this place is great for the canned and jarred items. Remember that massive jar of roasted red peppers I used in the Ezekiel's Wheel Salad episode? That was $7 from Vons. Yup. The pickled beets? Vons. Their fresh produce is pretty good too, based on freshness and value, now I think about it.

Surfas
I nearly forgot this place! Located at Washington & National, just east of Culver City, this restaurant supply spot/gourmet store has my mecca when I first moved here, without both a car and the ability to drive. I used to walk here every week, and stock up on affordable aluminium pans, strainers, a small tin of smoked paprika, a couple tins of Italian tuna, some real vanilla essence. It's not cheap, but if you're looking for good chocolate (they stock Valrhona and Callebaut), good olive oil or good anything else really, this is the place. They also stock Bren's 2nd favorite beer, Trois Pistoles.

Online resources
I have yet to try these out since I'm waiting to work through some of my spices at home, but I have heard great things about:
Kalustyans
The Spice Store
World Spice

I hope that's helpful!

-x-

aarti

1 comment:

Patty Jean Robinson said...

I always wondered where to go when I finally felt adventurous. Thank you!

:)

 
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