Unless you shop for Indian ingredients regularly, you might feel overwhelmed by Indian grocery shops. There are endless aisles, cramped together and piled high with fragrant, colourful spices, beans and lentils hued like gemstones, dozens of varieties of rice, snacks you don’t know the names of, and some very oddly shaped vegetables.
When you enter an Indian supermarket, think about all the dishes that make up a thali. This is a round metal platter laden with lots of different items that make up a balanced Indian meal in terms of taste, texture and nutritional value. There’s always a dal (soupy spiced lentils) and/or a bean dish, subzi (one or more vegetable), optional meat or fish, some sort of flatbread, rice, and dessert; with chutneys, raitas and papads acting as delicious little accessories.
There’s a mind-boggling array of beans and lentils to turn into dal — toor lentils, red lentils and split yellow moong beans being the most basic and easiest to cook. If you’re brave enough to try your hand at making flatbreads, stock up on atta — a cross between white and wholemeal flour, used for making rotis and chapattis. Experiment with different brands of basmati rice until you find one with the longest and most fragrant grain: there’s a huge difference between all the labels. Next on your list should be spices: cumin and black mustard seeds are the two essential ones, along with turmeric and chilli powder. Ask, with your best cheeky smile, if they have superior quality asafoetida and saffron hidden away behind the till for those in the know — some shops do.
Take a chance on those weird-looking vegetables, too: if you sauté them with garlic, ginger, onions and tomatoes, or just some whole spices with a pinch or turmeric and chilli powder, you can’t go wrong. Pale green, mild-tasting lauki (also known as dudhi, bottle gourd or calabash) is an ideal introduction, although bitter karela is not for the uninitiated. If you’re after proper, tried and tested recipe ideas, check out marvellous regional ones on London cookery writer Mallika Basu’s website; and traditional Gujarati gems on London food writer and cookery teacher Urvashi Roe’s Gujarati Girl blog.
Once you’ve stocked your cupboards with the basics, buy an unfamiliar ingredient, say black sesame oil, black-eye bean flour or puffed lotus seeds – completely at random. Research it, Google for recipes and use it as a focus of a weekend kitchen project. This sort of spontaneous shopping, in which a single unusual ingredient is the starting point of a culinary adventure, will transform the way you cook forever.
Although Indian food has been around in London for centuries, Indian (by which we also mean Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan) food shops are a relatively recent phenomenon. They started springing up in areas with large South Asian communities such as Wembley, Kingsbury, Southall, Brick Lane, Green Street and Tooting mostly in the 1980s and 90s. Coachloads of Indian housewives from all over the UK visit them to buy hard-to-find ingredients. Here’s a round-up of the best.
Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Grocers
This tiny Wembley shop (there’s barely any room to move) is great: the quality of their own-label products is simply top-notch. They buy whole grains and spices and then mill them in-house; and you can even take your own whole spices to have them freshly ground. Try their spiced tea blends such as cardamom, too; and stock up on big bags of nuts, which are of a higher standard than ones you'd find in posh food halls.
Fudco, 184 Ealing Road, Wembley, HA0 4QD
Ganapathy Cash & Carry
A fabulous place, also in Wembley, that specialises in a huge variety of Sri Lankan rice in every shade of red, idli and dosa batters (fresh, frozen and dried), speciality vegetables such as banana blossoms, freshly made rice noodles, and Sri Lankan and south Indian snacks.
Ganapathy Cash & Carry, 34-38 Ealing Road, Wembley, HA0 4TL
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Shop
You don’t have to be religious to attend the Neasden temple; its stunning marble carvings have left many a tourist open-mouthed, but it helps if you're hungry. Across the road, set amid a mundane-looking car park, is a Gujarati restaurant, mithai shop and a small, neat grocery shop. We've managed to find uncommon vegetables like big bunches of daikon leaves here; and it’s a great place to pick up spicy, crunchy Indian teatime snacks (which, incidentally, go brilliantly with chilled beer).
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Shop, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 105-119 Brentfield Road, Neasden, NW10 8LD
Somewhat more expensive than many other Indian grocery stores, this cosy, neatly organised store is worth a visit for its exquisite quality own-label beans, lentils and spices.
Q Stores, 19 Lodge Lane, N12 8JG
Quality Foods (Southall branch) and Siras Cash & Carry
Situated near each other, these spacious Southall destination shops — where you can lose yourself for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon — sell beans, rice, various types of flours, cooking oils, spices, halal meat, Indian cookware, Indian beers and wines and much more. Look out for Punjabi snacks, breads and pickles; plus fresh mustard leaves (to be curried and eaten with maize flour flatbreads) during winter months.
Quality Foods Southall, 47-61 South Road, Southall, UB1 1SQ
Siras Cash & Carry, Amrit House, Springfield Road, Hayes UB4 0JT
VB & Sons (Greenford branch)
Massively popular among the Gujarati community, this shop (with several other branches) is the place to head to if you’re after rice, beans, nuts and other everyday groceries. There’s a great selection of pickles, too; plus fresh paneer, including flavoured varieties.
VB & Sons, 2-4 Oldfield Lane South, Greenford, UB6 9LD
Bharat Food Store and Mina Stores
Located close to each other near Manor Park, these spacious shops are crammed with every Indian and Pakistani ingredient imaginable. Make a day of it by pottering around in the area, shopping for Indian cookware and sampling homely street food and mithai at nearby restaurants.
Bharat Food Store, 4-6 Carlton Terrace, E7 8LH
Mina Stores, 274 Green Street, E7 8LF
Deepak Cash & Carry
Beloved of Tootingites, this spacious supermarket stocks a large selection of treats and everyday items — from frozen parathas in different flavours, to fresh pink pods of borlotti beans.
Deepak Cash & Carry, 953-959 Garratt Lane, SW17 0LR
Claiming to be the oldest Indian grocer in London, this 40-plus-year-old store is packed with everything from fresh green peppercorns and speciality buffalo milk paneer, to Indian tiffin boxes and incense burners.
Patel Brothers, 187-189 Upper Tooting Road, Tooting, SW17 7TG
West Hendon Food Store
A small neighbourhood shop on a traffic-laden Hendon high street that sells surprisingly fresh and high quality fruit and veg. Whether it’s grassy stalks of Indian green tea you’re after or amazing ortanique oranges, you’ll find them here.
West Hendon Food Store, 147-149 West Hendon Broadway, NW9 7EA
Kingsbury Fruit & Veg
You’ll find unusual, as well as familiar, Indian fruit and veg at this incredibly popular Kingsbury greengrocer. If you’re not quite ready to experiment with red amaranth or colocasia leaves, start with egg-shaped white baby aubergines, small Indian cucumbers and raw green papaya.
Kingsbury Fruit & Veg, 477-481 Kingsbury Road, NW9 9EA
There isn’t much room to meander in this always-buzzy greengrocer, but it’s a must-visit if you’re in Wembley. They sell all kinds of fruit and veg for everyday cooking as well as pickling; and successfully lobbied the government to the get the recent ban on Indian mangoes lifted.
Fruity Fresh, 111-113 Ealing Road, Wembley, Middlesex HA0 4BP
Know your kaku from your kakarula? You’ll find these curious Bangladeshi vegetables rarely seen elsewhere at this popular grocer and greengrocer. We don’t recommend Brick Lane for its stuck-in-a-time-warp curry houses, but we do recommend it for traditional Bangladeshi grocers and Bengali mithai shops with wonderfully friendly staff.
Taj Stores, 112 Brick Lane, Spitalfields E1 6RL
Also look out for…
The Naan Dokan 3
We don’t know whether, like movie sequels, Naan Dokan 1 and 2 exist (we’ve never seen them), but this lovely little bakery is worth a visit for soft, warm naans and kulchas freshly baked on the premises. They come in flavours like garlic, chilli, sesame, cheese and minced lamb. No Punjabi home-cooked meal would be complete without them.
The Naan Dokan 3, 141 The Broadway, Southall, Middlesex UB1 1LP