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Inexpensive finds at India Grocers and Zen International



It started with amchur. I need some for a chickpea salad, so I went to India Grocers in Pineville. On their spice aisle, I found bags of amchur (sometimes spelled amchoor), a light brown powder made from dried unripe green mangoes which adds acidity and tartness to a dish -- the way lemon juice does. I only needed a couple of teaspoons. Now I have seven ounces, the size of a filled plastic sandwich baggie, if you need some.

Amchur is not expensive at India Grocers. It sells for about 42 cents per ounce, less if you buy more. The inexpensive prices at ethnic markets on items such as spices and herbs are hard to beat. I buy a half-gallon size frozen bag of kiffir lime leaves for a buck. The same products -- if you could find them -- at mainstream grocery stores could cost three to four -- sometimes more -- times what they cost in these cuisine-specific places.

At India Grocers, a seven-ounce bag of cumin powder (again, the size of a filled sandwich baggie) is $2.99. The same amount of coriander and turmeric costs $1.99, and ginger is $2.49. More stunning is the cost of whole cloves. In mainstream stores, an ounce of whole cloves can sell for $9.11 while that same ounce is a mere 57 cents at India Grocers. Similarly, chili powder can cost $1.12 per ounce in area groceries, but at this market, ground chilies are 18 cents per ounce or 43 cents for extra hot. Savings increase with larger sizes.

The down side, of course, is the large quantities. A box the size of an extra large cereal container is how fenugreek leaves, an herb, is sold.

What I like about India Grocers, though, is not just the savings on the shelves. It seems that all the patrons of this store are helpful. Perhaps this willingness to share may be a result of our common language. On one trip, a woman volunteered which frozen paratha she preferred. On another occasion, two customers discussed the best way to sautée the mini squash in the produce section -- lengthwise, it turns out.

In addition to herbs and spices, fresh produce, huge bags of rice, and an entire wall of frozen foods, India Grocer sells candies, cookies, dried beans, condiments and canned goods. Pickles are differentiated by brand rather than content, and flours are plentiful from corn to a combo of chickpea and rice. In the dairy section beside the Indian yogurt is a ready-made dosa mix ($3.99), enough for a tall stack of these pancakes.

In addition to the regular run of items, at the counter, the owner keeps a changing selection of samosas and other chaats. None have been expensive; all have been tasty.

Zen International Market & Tea is a much smaller version than its sibling grocery store at Asian Corner Mall, but Zen, in south Charlotte, has a deli counter. On the compact roster are a variety of excellent Vietnamese bánh mì (sub) sandwiches including French cold cut, barbeque pork, grilled pork, Vietnamese pork poll, marinated pork and skin, and sardines in tomato sauce. The meat sandwiches made on split crusty French baguettes are slathered with mayo or butter, then layered with the meats, pickled daikon radishes and carrots; cubed bits of jalapeño (which look like bell pepper, but trust me, they are not); and sprigs of cilantro. These hearty sandwiches are $3.50.

Items in the small deli case change daily, as do the soups. Beef, the most popular soup, is made on Tuesdays. The employee behind the deli counter would not tell me what several of the items were. However, the owner was more than happy to have me sample his dishes: thinly sliced pig's ear, beef intestines, and spice beef shank all mixed with vegetables, spices, and some heat. The last two elicited nothing but praise, and I took containers home.

Zen, also, has deals. Fresh shallots are $1.99 a pound and taro is $2.29. A 10-pound bag of high quality medium grain rice is $5.99 and a large package of rice noodles is $1.49. Five-spice powder is only two bucks for a large jar.

In addition, there are products available here that are more difficult to find: Thai canned bananas in heavy syrup, Thai frozen dinners for less than five bucks, teas, cookies, and an entire case of various tofu. In the meat sections are parts of the chicken and pig including a pork uterus (perhaps not for the squeamish, but sow's womb was a delicacy in ancient Rome) and leg cord tendon. Powdered dried lemon grass is available as well as frozen chopped lemon grass. A small fish counter is at the back with both fin and shell, with origins described.

The customers in Zen are not as forthcoming as those in India Grocers, but then there are greater language differences. But owner Craig Chin, a native of Taiwan, is quick to comment on his merchandise and willing to instruct the curious.

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