Recently, Nisha Katona posted one of her trademark YouTube video guides. This one involves the jolly lass stalking the aisles of a local Indian supermarket, demonstrating that, where the store is miles away from one of the ‘big 5’s anodyne outlets, this place earns its super-superlative on other merits. The chaotic space hums with life and shelves groan under the weight of their haphazard bounty – as Nisha points out, bindis butt against bhindi, sindoor succeeds saboodana.
And there’s nowhere I’d rather shop. Whether it’s a Bangladeshi butcher hacking up bhekti fish with a bandsaw, or a Mauritian guy measuring out my Maldives fish powder, all life really is here. I’ve seen children filching Amrood candies and crying out for kulfi, young newlyweds seeking succour in pre-made masalas just like Mum makes, and, most touching, an ancient Indian war veteran in a wheelchair chattering away in Hindi to his Memsahib.
An Indian supermarket makes your pulse race, particularly when you’re shopping for said pulses. Tinned, dried, split, whole, powdered; these staple foodstuffs are cheap as chips and far, far more nutritious. Those ridiculous titchy jars of dusty spices that barely do a recipe’s-worth are replaced with packets in weight denominations from hundreds of grams to multi-kilo sacks. A detective’s eye and a rudimentary knowledge of names in Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi and Urdu is a Godsend.
The fruit and veggies are a loose bunch, their wanton nature working to your advantage as you snap up a smidgen of a strange squash or a singular specimen of some un-encountered oddity. I’m not usually a gambling gal, but more often than not my bets have paid delicious dividends. Neon-bright fresh turmeric – lemony, gingery and musky – lifts a dish and the spirits; earthy, broad papdi beans are now my favourite veg on Earth; and I’d not like to be without that Sylheti citrus, the shatkora.
Although the odd loser does end up languishing in the dark recesses of the kitchen. I’ve never come round to the alleged delight of the beautifully nubbly and awfully bitter karela, or found a use for a strange masala I bought purely for its esoteric ingredients. But I’m more than willing to be swayed and shown the way if you’re game. Offset against regular procurement of vast bunches of coriander, methi and dill, four to the pound, the occasional bitter pill of failure is easy to swallow.
If you don’t live within betel-spitting distance of one of these wondrous emporiums, I’ll wager you’re green with envy. Talking greens, I couldn’t neglect to mention the forest of seasonal saags – mustard greens, cassava leaves, spinaches perpetual and arrowhead; bright green cardamom sharbat syrups; pistachio kulfi; fat, glossy chillies; bars of the essential Chandrika soap; fresh paan; burfi in rainbow hues. I can sing a rainbow, you can sing a rainbow, too, if you step though these doors.
Even in ‘non-food’ there’s a meaty meal to be made out of eating up Bollywood gossip magazines, browsing for bright bangles, and digesting the latest DVDs. Forget L’Oreal, I get my red head from Royal’s henna, ‘cause I’m worth it. At the tills, check this out: this supermarket even functions as a gym. Balancing buckets of Basmati and carting ten-kilo tubs of yogurt onto the conveyor dispenses with any need for Superman-style workouts. Super. Now, what’s for supper?
Anything I could care to conjure with the loot from my sensational supermarket. An orchard of fresh produce; meat prepared to my behest; seafood preserved in an icy coat; an ocean of ingredients spilling off newly-replenished storecupboard shelves… The world is my oyster. In fact, an oyster’s about the only thing I don’t have. Whilst I ponder, perhaps a paratha or a shingara from my pack of frozen snacks. Or two. Stuff Sainsbury’s – that’s how you go from mere market to sheer superpower.