At Big Girls, Small Kitchen, we love to cook at home. To equip ourselves to cook any cuisine in the world in the confines of our small kitchens, we’re sending contributor Lauren Rothman off to visit the Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, Greek , and Italian supermarkets of New York City. Her shopping expeditions will yield the specialty ingredients we need in order to delve deep into the kinds of cuisines we’re craving at home these days.
Up next, Patel Grocery, an Indian emporium of New York City, located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Here’s Lauren:
As a native New Yorker, I’ve always ranked my favorite neighborhoods according to how good their eats are. For that reason—never mind its handsome brownstones and lush eponymous park that affords a stunning view of Manhattan—Sunset Park, in south Brooklyn, has always topped my list. I love good food, but I love it even more when it’s cheap, and Sunset Park’s grub meets both criteria: un-fancy taco-and-cerveza joints line Fifth Avenue, their cumin-and-grilled-meat aromas wafting out of unpretentious storefronts; walk a little further east, down to Eighth Avenue, and the sights (and smells) change: Chinese lettering advertises the strip’s many noodle and dim sum joints. It’s hard to beat the area’s restaurant options, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Sunset Park is a great destination for the home cook, too.
“Little Latin America” and “Brooklyn Chinatown” might be the area’s most well-known sub-neighborhoods, but Sunset Park is also home to a sizeable Gujarati Indian population, and when I feel like stirring up some delicate curries I head to Patel Grocery, which opened on Fourth Avenue just steps from the 53rd Street subway station in 1981. Inside a tiny, somewhat haphazard but well-stocked store, owner Ishwer Patel sells all the Indian ingredients a cook dreams of, from the dozens of “pulses” (legumes) that are the main ingredient in Indian dhals and porridges to well-curated ground and whole spices to fresh produce such as gingerroot, curry leaves and bitter melon.
On a recent visit, my shopping list included paneer, the squeaky fresh cheese indispensable for paneer bhurji or saag paneer, or stewed spinach and cheese; black mustard seeds, tamarind paste and curry leaves, which I use in a variety of Indian dishes; some kind of dried legume; and kulfi, or Indian-style ice cream, for dessert. I knew from previous shopping trips that I’d find everything with ease, so I lingered in my favorite aisle of the store, where Patel stocks its pulses and spices. Hoping to score something unusual, I zeroed in on two of the store’s more vibrant legume offerings, opting for a bag of bright-green dried chickpeas (“you cook them just the same,” Ishwer’s wife volunteered) and similarly grassy-colored mung beans, which resembled tiny beads. Browsing the spice selection, I remembered that I needed asafoetida, the funky-tasting dried, ground resin of a perennial herb that in small quantities lends a leek-like flavor to dishes such as the aforementioned saag paneer.
Patel’s prices are low, low, low—before I knew it, my basket was full of $3-per-bag legumes, a $4 chunk of paneer and a 59-cent nub of fresh ginger, and it was time to hop back on the R train and head home. A fellow Indian-food-loving friend came over and together we prepared a delicately-spiced pot of saag paneer that we served up with plenty of fluffy, fragrant basmati rice. Dinner was delicious, but it was dessert that stole the show: the two quarts of Indian-style ice cream I had bought, in classic cardamom-accented pistachio and a less-common cashew-and-golden-raisin flavor. Sweet and creamy, they were the perfect end to an international-inflected meal.
5303 4th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn