What to look for while you shop
Indian markets can seem intimidating at first, but Alur-Kundargi and Hiremath led me to foods that are both easy to like and easy to use. I found great bargains for everyday cooking as well. Since spices play a prominent part in this cuisine, they're bountiful, fresh, and cheap at Indian grocery stores. Saffron, especially, is a deal. Many Indians are vegetarians, so the markets carry a huge assortment of dried legumes and well-priced nuts ― notably cashews. Here are some of the foods we particularly like.
SNACKS AND CRISPS
Spicy plantain chips.
Samosas: Savory filled pastries, frozen or fresh in the deli. Serve with hot ketchup or chutney.
Murukku, chakri, or chakli: Crisp fried cumin-spiked spirals made from a batter of rice, garbanzo, or other flours.
Sev: Thick or thin fried strands of spicy garbanzo batter.
Rice chica or khichiyia: Bright- or natural-colored thin disks or extruded wafers of rice, potato, or tapioca flour; when fried, they puff into crisps reminiscent of potato chips.
Pappadums or papads: Paper-thin dried lentil wafers that cook into crisp disks.
Chapati: Tortilla-like flatbread, fresh or frozen.
Naan: Flat rounds or ovals of yeast bread, plain or seasoned.
Paratha: Flaky flatbread rounds.
Paneer: Fresh, mild, pressed cow's-milk cheese; grill it or use it like firm tofu in curries.
Eggplant relish: Eggplant preserved in spices and oil; good with Indian breads. Alur-Kundargi recommends the Patak brand for newcomers (if you want to tone it down slightly, mix 1/2 cup eggplant relish with 2 tablespoons cream cheese).
Hot ketchup: Indian-style ketchup with a spicy kick; Tom Tom is Alur-Kundargi's favorite brand.
Tamarind-date chutney: A dark brown, sweet-sour chutney.
Basmati: Highly aromatic long-grain rice that grows in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Poha: Flakes of dried and flattened cooked rice that resemble old-fashioned Ivory soap flakes; they come thick or thin. Use thin poha in snack mixes. Rinse thick poha in a colander until thoroughly moistened and drain; mix with seasoned oils or yogurt for light grain salads (similar to couscous dishes).
Individual: Saffron; green or black cardamom (the green is the form that is bleached for white cardamom); black and regular cumin seeds; and coriander.
Blends: Garam masala (all-purpose aromatic seasoning; buy a whole-seed version and grind it in a blender or spice grinder for freshest flavor); chaat masala (sprinkle over fruit, buttermilk, or potatoes); pav-bhaji masala (for vegetable dishes); tandoori masala (rub over meats, seafood, and vegetables for grilling); mukhwa (roasted seed mixture; use as an after-dinner digestive or breath freshener).
Black teas, coffee.
Rose syrup: Sweet, fragrant red syrup; mix with soda water and ice or with cold milk for pink coolers.
Tropical fruit juices: Mango, litchi, guava, and passion fruit.
Canned sweetened Alphonso mango pulp: The Alphonso variety contains few fibers; Hiremath likes the Ratna brand. Use it for desserts and drinks.
Chikki: Candied nut and seed brittles.
Cookies: Cashew, coconut, almond, and pistachio.
Ice creams: Saffron, saffron-rose, pistachio, mango, litchi, and cashew-raisin; Kwality and Real Ice Cream are good brands.