Getting the Most out of the Indian Grocery Store: A Culinary Adventure

Step inside Patel Brothers, a large, stand-alone building sandwiched between U.S. Bank and McDonald’s along the crowded, chaotic strip of South Nashville known as Nolensville Road, and you could easily forget you’re in Tennessee.

The atmosphere of this Indian market is bare-bones ambiance: plain floors, fluorescent lights, handwritten signs marking prices on produce–a far cry from the colorful signage and warm lighting of your average American grocery store–but, nonetheless, crowded, here on a weekday afternoon.

The product section inside of Patel Brother's Indian Grocery Store.

Rocco and I are wandering the aisles, first the fresh produce, then the organic section (because, yes, this international store has its own organic section, made up largely of foods from 24 Mantra, a brand based in Hyderabad that’s committed to offering foods that are pesticide-free), then each section one by one, while Tim’s in a meeting next door.

Rocco had gotten antsy in the car, walking around seemed like a good way to keep him entertained and, mostly, after spending a quarter of an hour watching person after person drive up to and go inside Patel Brothers, I was curious.

My dad was born in India and my mom has always been interested in new cuisines (“We’re having soda bread and corned beef!” she told me this year on Saint Patrick’s Day), so I am no stranger to the concept of an Indian grocery store in America.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I tagged along on many shopping trips to pick up boxes of mangoes or brown bags of samosas, those little vegetable-packed fried pastries that felt, to me, like curried pot pies.

Back then, the Indian grocery store of the Chicago suburbs was small, less than the size of a Starbucks; everyone spoke with strange accents and paid a lot of attention to me, the olive-skinned girl with the blonde-haired, hazel-eyed mom; mostly, though, what I remember is the same thing confronting me today.

The dry goods section at a Patel Brothers Indian Grocery Store.

Because if there’s one factor that defines and distinguishes an Indian grocery, it’s this: the smell.

The smell in Patel Brothers is exactly the smell of every other Indian grocery, restaurant, buffet or kitchen I’ve visited where the bold scents of cumin, coriander, ginger and cardamom are on display.

You step up from the parking lot, the sliding doors part to usher you out of the elements and into a no-frills produce section, and instantly your nose says, hello, we are someplace new.

Curry, and all the spices that make up and surround it, is a scent that sticks with you–on your clothes, in your hair, enough so that when you make chicken curry for dinner, your scent announces it later to everyone you see that night.

These are not muted smells. If they were colors (and, look at turmeric or chilies, they are!) they’d be intense hues: bright orange, deep blue, dark emerald, vibrant red.

Our 2016 home in Nashville, if you aren’t already aware, is the opposite of intense, the definition of muted. Step into any room and the main thing you will notice is bright, clean, blinding white.

In “The Life-Giving Home,” a book organized into chapters by months of the year, Sarah Clarkson talks about March as a time for finding art in the ordinary.

“Some days just call for escape,” she writes. “When restlessness or loneliness or just the stickiness of life in a fallen world makes the walls of your home feel a bit close, the remedy may just be an adventure. Some days it’s entirely all right to be Bilbo Baggins and follow the road to whatever adventure you can find.”

She goes on to describe festivals, museums, local attractions, farmers’ markets and other destinations she and her family escaped to throughout her childhood. “The only requirement was that we would end up somewhere that diverted and delighted us.”

There’s a part of me that’s always wondered if such suggestions, to essentially escape where you are, are band-aid solutions, numbing the pain of life without healing what causes it.

The checkout area at a Patel Brothers Indian Grocery Store.

I’m resistant to any worldview that ignores the real sorrow, aches and brokenness in this world–just read anything anywhere about the current presidential race to see what I mean. Does walking through an ethnic grocery store truly offer an answer to the monotony of the everyday? Does taking a road trip actually speak to the larger questions of the soul?

Sarah makes an argument that it does. “To cultivate (or celebrate) beauty is to act in keeping with my faith in God’s goodness rather than my doubt … It means to fight tooth and nail, day by day, to keep alive my faith in a love that transforms the ordinary and, in that transformation, offers a glimpse of a one-day, ultimate redemption.”

So in my impromptu visit to Patel Brothers, as I encounter a different culture, one where shoppers buy basmati rice and turmeric powder in bulk, I’m buoyed in spirit by all the powerful smells and colors that engulf me, transport me, remind me of my small place in a big world.

I add a mango half the size of Rocco’s head to the cart and, alongside it, a bag of organic chickpea/garbanzo bean flour and some organic white lentils that I’d read about on another blog and am planning to make for dinner on our meal plan this week.

Then, when Tim’s meeting ends, we take these items home, I bake some chickpea chocolate chip cookies and we celebrate the goodness of God made tangible in this, a batch of cookies, something new and out of the ordinary we can now eat.

Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. Originally published by Shanna Mallon on March 18th, 2016. Last updated: January 26, 2019 at 11:46 am.

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About Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon is a freelance writer who holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including The Kitchn, Better Homes & Gardens, Taste of Home, Houzz.com, Foodista, Entrepreneur, and Ragan PR. In 2014, she co-authored The Einkorn Cookbook with her husband, Tim. Today, you can find her digging into food topics and celebrating the everyday grace of eating on her blog, Go Eat Your Bread with Joy. Shanna lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with Tim and their two small kids.

19 thoughts on “Getting the Most out of the Indian Grocery Store: A Culinary Adventure”

  1. i usually store my flours in the refrigerator too..and it stays so fresh 🙂 i am very familiar with that smell you are talking about because i frequent 2-3 international grocery stores on a regular basis..i think the asian ones are the worst though,,,

    • ha! I started reading about other stores here in Nashville after visiting Patel Brothers and now I want to see them all! it’s the next best thing to traveling to other countries, at least right now.

  2. I escape to ethnic stores when I need a change, and to spice things up in the kitchen. Of course, as I’m originally from Southeast Asia, it could just be for the sake of nostalgia. I know I need diversity in my life, and to just make simple discoveries as often as I can. I’m still looking for that Indian rose petal jam someone told me about! 🙂

  3. I agree. And I think Marshall Segal’s article, “The Insanity of Self-Care”, resonated with me because of these things. I liked this – “Go ahead and listen to music, or watch a sunset, or play with your pet, but go Godward — be mindful of God and his great love for you. It really can be helpful to practice gratitude, or to enjoy a particular moment or activity, or to focus on something bigger than yourself, but not if it ends there, and certainly not if it only ends with you. Any habit or activity can be a means of joy, peace, and healing, but only if it brings you to God — our only Lord, Savior, and greatest Treasure.”

    p.s. I just finished The Life-Giving Home per your recommendation! So good – thank you : )

  4. p.s.s. I didn’t quite finish out my thought on that paragraph up there! What I wanted to also say is that I’m so thankful for your friendship and the fact that you DO focus on Jesus, seeing Him and His goodness through a trip to an ethnic grocery store. Thank you for sharing all of this, Shanna!

    • That quote is exactly it! You get it. Yes! And you finished the book already, you’re amazing, I’m still in October.. but so enjoying it! And thanks, friend. I will always be grateful to you for pointing me to the Beautiful One, too.

  5. I simply get lost in the Patel Brothers. I want to try everything in sight and love the smells of unfamiliar things. It was there I discovered fresh curry leaves which I adore and purchased my reasonably priced mortar & pestle. The staff was helpful with any questions I had and overall it was a great experience and if I ever get stuck in traffic on Nolenseville, I won’t hesitate to pop in, because what’s another twenty minutes, or hour out of my day? Especially when new experiences are involved.

    The cookies sound and look delicious. I recently visited a friend in Austin who has a son who must live an allergy-free, gluten-free lifestyle due to severe breakouts from the intolerance to many foods. I made an apple pie while there – out of chickpea flour and I believe black bean flour? The black bean overwhelmed the palate but I wonder if chickpea alone would be more suitable? Either way, he, Atticus, loved it and my heart was full because his diet is so limited.

    I also recommended your site to her because I felt like you may have some suitable recipes for them to try. And in hopes that they would be introduced to God’s for love through your writing since her husband isn’t a strong believer. But that’s only assuming they don’t scroll straight to the recipe, like I feel the masses tend to do (sigh). Thanks Shanna, beautiful post.

    • Ah, Charles, sometime Tim and I would love to get together with you and Jenna. You guys have such great spirits and now that I’m not on Instagram, I’m missing hearing them! I do think that this chickpea alone works well; no weird flavor undertones; while not *exactly* a typical chocolate chop cookie, they’re still good enough you want to keep eating. I hope something like this might work for your friend. And thank you especially for your last paragraph; man, that encouraged me so much.

  6. I still can’t get over the fact that you can bake cookies with CHICKPEAS. That put aside, this looks great!

  7. just made these Shanna and they are so delicious!! fed them to my new roommates and they made this work night so lovely. mine were crispy on the edges too which I find so hard to make happen with gluten free cookies. so yay! hope the Mallon’s are well. I still love your blog dearly 🙂

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