While I was very excited about last week's piece on 99¢ curries—and cheap food is always at least a bit exciting—I fear that it failed to mention enough about the place where I bought those curries in the first place; Patel Brothers stores. Without a doubt, Patel is the largest seller of Indian groceries in the New York area. Certainly, you know the place if you've been to Oak Tree Road in Iselin; it's one of the string of mega-stores (and one of the oldest too; it's been here since 1993) that lay east of Wood Avenue and just short of the shopping strip. There's also a store in North Brunswick on Route 27 and New York City readers will have probably spotted a similar store on 74th Street in Jackson Heights. In fact, there are ten Patel stores in the New York area, and if you marked them on a map you'd see a graphic illustration of modern South Asian immigration. This all adds up to an unusual proposition: a chain store that's worth a visit for food enthusiasts.
So what besides those 99¢ curries makes Patel worth visiting? A depth of inventory that empowers you to cook authentic dishes from the Indian subcontinent without going on a sort of wild goose chase for ingredients. It's one-stop shopping for everything you'd need to make Indian food except the meat. And in addition to those ninety-nine cent curries, there's a whole range of prepackaged spice mixes, meals and snacks.
Although not all are as big as Iselin or Jackson Heights locations, let's take a stroll through the Iselin store and review what's there. First of all, when you walk in, you can't miss the floor to ceiling display of those "Micro-Curries." But soon, you're overtaken by many other sights: breads, juices, dairy, vegetables, herbs, beans, and grains.
The first aisle is all coolers. There's the juices, lassis, and a large dairy section with milk, paneer (the tofu-like cheese), yogurt and butter—those building blocks of south Asian food. If you're one of those semi-ambitious cooks, there are pre-made idly and dosa batters too, the first of many mixes and pastes you'll find. Frozen food starts here too; meals, vegetables including green garlic, surti papdi, choliya, and tindora. And then there's the ice cream that it initially looks normal enough until you check out flavors like kesar pista and chikoo.
Produce is the next stop. First, there are things that are mentioned in cookbooks and otherwise impossible to find, like fresh methi leaves, fresh curry leaves, and tindora. Then the familiar items in unfamiliar variations: four kinds of eggplant, four kinds of fresh, hot chili peppers and huge sacks of onions and potatoes. Finally, there are things you know, but don't know how to fit them into Indian cooking, like daikon, dill, beets, turnips and sweet potatoes.
Pulses and spices line the back wall. Even though I've visited this store a hundred times, taking a close look at the lentil selection made my head spin. Spices will do the same to you. Watch as housewives with small children push carts around the store and toss one-pound sacks of bay leaves into their carts. I just want to stop everybody there and ask them what they're cooking.
Several aisles of dry goods separate the produce from the bulk sacks of rice and flour at the other end of the store. That's where you'll find those ready-to-eat meals, ramen in Indian flavors, really British-looking cookies, jars of curry pastes, and pickles, as well as all sorts of sweet/spicy snacks.
Do Indian grocery shops sell hot sauce? You might think that pickles and chutneys would do the job, but there are several hot sauces too—some from India and sriracha from Thailand.
Our last stop is rice and flour. Nobody here buys rice in those one and two-pound boxes they sell at the Wegman's on the other side of town. Instead, they're in ten or twenty-pound sacks; flour is the same. Since rice and fresh flatbreads accompany almost every meal, you'll see those same moms heaving those sacks into their carts along with everything else.
The big Patel Brothers stores are as far away from the tiny urban "ethnic" shop as you can imagine. But for millions of suburban-dwelling Americans, they're the norm, and the tightly packed neighborhoods of the big city represent the strange and exotic. Sometimes I'll walk through the aisles and exclaim, "This is the REAL New Jersey!"
1357 Oak Tree Road, Iselin NJ 08830 (map) 732-283-7283
There are 41 locations across the country, plus one in Canada. Click here [PDF] for a full listing.