Shopping for Indian ingredients in Canada can be challenging even in today’s world of global markets and overnight air freight. In India, an array of vegetables and fruits are picked fresh and brought to market daily. The distance between Canada and India means we don’t have that level of freshness but nonetheless, I still have some favourite grocers where I can find the authentic ingredients I crave.
I’ll share the grocers that make up my “little India” in Calgary as well as some of my favourite Indian restaurants. Once you start shopping for, making and eating great Indian food, you might even be curious enough to travel to this magical place yourself. Food was the key that opened the door to this ancient culture for me. Maybe it will be for you too.
It’s a myth that the food of India makes travellers sick. The fact is travellers in exotic places almost always get sick from the microbes in WATER. If you are very careful about what water you drink and avoid salads and fruits washed in water (and smoothies and such on the streets), you’ll be able to concentrate on all the wonderful freshly cooked things you can eat.
I love the variety of produce available in India and miss it all terribly when I’m back in Canada. Whenever I go to an Indian market here, I think about how different India is from Canada.
India is about a third of the size of continental United States and has a population of 1.4 billion people. That’s a fifth of the world’s population. Canada is the world’s second largest country but we only have a population of about 36 million people.
India has snow-capped mountains in the North, desert in the West, rich estuaries in the East and the South is a tropical paradise. When you think about what grows in India and the religious customs, it explains the cuisine that has evolved.
A third of people are vegetarian because of how strictly they adhere to their Hindu, Jain or Buddhist beliefs. The 84 per cent of Indians who are Hindus do not eat beef. The 12 per cent of the population who are Muslims do eat beef. People living in the coastal regions enjoy fish. Mutton is eaten but is usually goat and not lamb. I’ve seen the odd pig wondering around (I’m really not sure who eats them). Chicken is very popular.
Many grains are grown and eaten but rice is the key staple. It originated in India and has been cultivated there for about 5000 years. A third of all arable land is devoted to rice growing and of all the rices grown, basmati is the most sought after. The word basmati comes from the Sanskrit word for fragrance and aging helps make the rice even more flavourful and fragrant. Dehra Dun in Northern India and nearby Pakistan are where basmati grows best. In the backwaters of Kerala in South India, a short grain red rice is eaten and the land can produce three rice crops per year because of it’s dikes and irrigation systems. South India is nicknamed the rice bowl of India.
A great variety of vegetables and pulses (peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas) grow throughout India and make possible the varied vegetarian diet that over 300 million people adhere to. The eggplant is indigenous to India and is a favourite along with cauliflower, onions, tomatoes, fenugreek, amaranth, chillies, melons, squashes, drumsticks, greens and beans. Mangoes, papaya, melons and bananas are favourite fruits.
The cow is sacred and not killed for its meat but used instead for dairy. Yogurt, clarified butter or ghee and buttermilk are used extensively in cooking, especially in the North. Coconut milk is used instead in the south. Water buffalo are prevalent and their milk is delicious in chai tea and kulfi ice cream.
Tea is the world’s most consumed beverage and India’s South Nilgiri hills and the Northern regions of Assam and Darjeeling produce vast quantities of the stuff. Darjeeling is widely believed to grow the best tea in the world.
Spices grow in jungles in the south and form the foundation for cuisine throughout the country. Spices are made from petals, roots, berries, seeds and buds of plants like cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, turmeric and mustard. Herbs are also plentiful and are used for their leaves.
A typical Indian meal would contain a balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. That is why you’ll see meat, dal (cooked pulses), rice, a soup or salad, yogurt raita, chutneys, pickles and bread all being consumed together. Though truthfully, a bit of dal, a chapati and a chutney or chilli are as elaborate a meal as most can hope for. The word curry means a spicy gravy and is the misspelling of the Dutch word karee meaning the same. An Indian cook is skilled in blending spices to make dishes known as masalas.
The most important tool in an Indian cook’s kitchen is their Masala Daba which literally translates as spice mixture box. Mine contains black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, ground cumin, ground coriander, cloves, green cardamom pods, star anise, whole black pepper, cinnamon bark, Indian chilli powder, and turmeric. Fresh chillies, garlic and ginger pastes are also used in most recipes. Cilantro, the world’s most commonly used herb is a frequent garnish.
When I’m looking for Indian staples in Calgary here are some of the places I go to as follows:
Markets and Grocers
- Apna Punjab Groceries & Movies (aka Fruiticana) – 300 – 5075 Falconridge Blvd NE 403-590-1611 – this place has the best selection of South Asian produce
- Bombay Sweet House – Bay 82, 55 Castleridge Blvd NE, 403-590-1393 – Small but nice sweets and a small but tasty buffet at lunch
- OK Food & Produce – 1023, 5075 Falconridge Blvd, NE 403-293-1188 – good prices on spices and some handy cooking implements
- Apna Desi Meat Masala – 734, 5075 Falconridge Blvd, NE 403-568-4455 and their newer store at 7171 – 80 Ave NE – great meats marinating in spice mixes to take home and throw on the BBQ – they also cater and the 80 Ave store does a brisk takeout business – often lined up out the door on weekends.
- Lahore Foods and Halal Meats – 13, 4525 – 52 St NE 403-4525 – 52 St NE 403-590-7736 -busy and good
- Dalbrent Spice Rack – 132, 3604 – 52 St NW 403-289-1409 – great access for people in the North West – say hello to Mr. Hasnian Jack,the owner, from me and pop into the little take-out “Saffron” beside for some butter chicken to go.
- Silk Road Spice Merchants – in Inglewood and the Calgary Farmers’ Market – they sell a masala daba fully loaded with the spices from the Indian cookbook I co-authored with my mentor Noorbanu Nimji– you can order one here
- Sheehen Grocery and Afghani Bakery – 4655 – 54 Ave NE – Lots of Persian ingredients and great basmati rice
- Taradale Calgary Coop – Indian food is a focus here – Check out their curry bar take-out section
- Nirvana Restaurant and Sweet House – 1009 – 5075 Falconridge Blvd, NE – 403- 590-9797 – owned by friend Gopal Taneja and his son Vick and known for the quality of their house made sweets and Punjabi-spiced food
- Faisal’s Kabab Hut – #155 – 5120 – 47St NE – amazing Pakistani cuisine – try the Seakh kebab or fish tandoori. Note – Faisal’s also runs a place called Fatima at 76 – 55 Castleridge Blvd NE – same food just nicer decor.
- Clay Oven – #349, 3132 – 26 St NE – 403-250-2161 – the best Naan in town – Gurmeet Gill is a wonderful cook and his son, Balpreet has taken over the business and cooks well too
- Mirchi – 101, 825 – 12 Ave SW – 403-245-3663 – the Mirchi Kebab is spicy hot and good
- Glory of India – 515-4Ave SW 403-263-8804 – good lunch buffet and catering – cooking lessons on Saturday
- Maurya – 1204 Kensington Rd. 403-270-3133 – white linen tablecloths and good food
- Rajdoot – 2424 – 4 St 403-245-0181 – good vegetarian selection
- Taj Mahal – 4816 MacLeod Tr SE 403-243-6362 – poor location- good food
- Nawab Restaurant – 3126 – 288 St Moritz Dr SW – 403-282-1002 – yummy tandoori and Awadhi cuisine – get the dal makhani
- Mango Shiva – 218 – 8 Ave SW – 403-532-8980 – fanciest buffet in town – lovely fresh food
- Himalayan – 3218 17th Ave SW – 403-984-3384 – Nepali cuisine – lots of gluten-free options – newly renovated – make a reservation – it’s packed
- Dostana (formerly A Touch of India) 3 locations – tasty Indian with East African influence
Beautiful ingredients make beautiful food – A few dishes at Grande Bay Resort in Tamilnadu – photo credit – Karen Anderson
Great ingredients inspire me. Indian food inspires me. Put them together and you’ve got something to truly help you savour it all. I hope this post is helpful for my friends in Calgary looking to source Indian ingredients and if you don’t live here, I hope you’ll go out and explore what’s available in your own area. In my experience, food always leads to fun and adventure.