Mahanth is Editor
God I hate when my own writing distracts and interrupts my scrivener’s process with copious salivation!
Globalization as we know it today has its cheerleaders and detractors, ebbs and flows, and stories of glory and pitfall. Despite it all there is something Indian-Americans and just about everyone else should celebrate: the ready availability at the touch of a button of a wide variety of Indian groceries online, if not at your local grocery store as of recent times. Americans in rural areas especially will find some of these harder to find in person but the web is open for business. But buyer beware, there is a wide variance in quality and prices in this marketplace. Fortunately for you I’m here as a willing guide.
Many of you reading this will never have heard of, let alone tasted the delicious products I am going to endorse here with absolute confidence. All of us have to buy groceries to survive after all, so why not spice your days up a significant notch with some treats expertly perfected over thousands of years of practice on the Indian Subcontinent? I’ve curated a few must-have items that must be stocked in your pantry without delay, despite earning nary a penny from the companies being reviewed. Although a part of me wonders if I should change this posture from hobbyist to shameless capitalist…
Every item listed below is as exceedingly easy to prepare as it is tasty for those of you who don’t like to spend time in the kitchen, a foreign concept to me. Indian foods and beverages can be hard to make right from scratch, but none of these require scratch making when there’re large modern corporations out there willingly standing by to do the work for you at high quality. And so… drum roll… the editor’s top picks on this subject of Indian staples are in order of importance:
(1) Wagh Bakri Teas
Tea or “chai” in Indian households the world over is not just a mere drink to imbibe. Don’t you dare!!! It’s more like a hot religion to bathe your throat in daily more than once. The British may take the cake for pomp and ceremony around tea times, with their fine china and dainty finger sandwich, but Indian tea-drinking easily achieves globally dominant position for flavor above and beyond ritual in tea making, presentation, and slurping alike thanks to expertly infused native spices like cinnamon, clove, and cardamom and creamy full-fat dairy making love together in just the right ratios to take an ordinary cup of steeped black tea familiar to most Westerner palates (weak brew, friend!) to a much higher level, using practices perfected over centuries by housewives and professionals in tandem. Many South Asians will take their tea from morning till night with abandon- my dad is one of them. We are talking tea as art form here, until recently unavailable to the masses outside India.
Aptly deserving to carry the mantle of this rich and also perilous tradition around the world that bitter family feuds and deadly international wars have been fought over is world-class company Wagh Bakri Tea Group in business since 1892 in South Africa, before the founding Gujurati purveyors led by Narandas Desai were kicked out by racist white Afrikaner men and settled back in North India to continue the line so we can still enjoy it today.
For those looking for phenomenal instant, all in one Indian tea products at reasonable rates I have not found better in my caffeinated journey to date than the following two products I am pleased to bring your thirsty attention to, which come close but not quite to the cheap roadside tea stall experience you could find in any Indian village:
a) Wagh Bakri Instant Masala Chai– available on Amazon and many other platforms is in my opinion the Maharaja of this arena. You can get the perfectly authentic spiced and creamy concoctions delivered to your door in packs of ten, either sweetened or unsweetened as I prefer.
b) Wagh Bakri Instant Cardamom Chai. Also available on Amazon and various other e-commerce concerns, this version can be purchased sweetened or unsweetened. This one tastes entirely different, with a stronger presence of the fragrant cardamom pod infused in the mix. While these are only two in a wide range of products, they are easily my two favorites.
2) Patak’s Curry Pastes
Everyone has heard of Indian curry, and a subset of you all have tried it. Some like me know how to make dozens of very different varieties of this Indian catch-all dish of liquid stews of vegetable, meats, or seafood heavily dosed with fats, spices, herbs and aromatics. But great scratch-made curry is time-consuming and difficult to make, with typical prep time alone capable of eating up hours of precious time. Enter the best curry cheat known to man: the bottled curry paste. Furthermore, enter the best line of curry pastes available globally (and I’ve tried just about all of them): UK- based Patak’s. In my opinion Patak’s doesn’t actually do everything well. For example their Indian pickles and meal kits are pedestrian. But the company’s curry pastes are consistently championship level, as I discovered while a student of both college and Indian cooking in my late teens.
The better news for all is that Patak’s doesn’t have to be used only for curries, as you can easily concoct almost indiscernible from most Indian restaurants in the United States selling them for about $16 a pop in your own kitchen by following the very basic instructions on the bottle. Put on a chef’s more creative hat like I do and use the stuff as I do to kick up crowd-pleasing American things like mac n’ cheese, pizza, tacos, or barbecue to God-mode. My favorite is of course the spiciest one, vindaloo, but at all heat levels you shall not be disappointed.
3) Kawan’s Paratha
With hot drink and a rich curry now sorted the only thing now missing for the beginnings of a royal Indian feast that can be ready in minutes is one more kitchen cheat: an authentic Indian bread to mop up that curry you just made. Categorically, Indian breads are superior in flavor and texture to their boring Western counterparts. And for that fix there are all kinds of frozen varieties you can find, none better or easier to prepare than the layered, chewy paratha. Naan the more famous cousin out West is great too of course but doesn’t stand up nearly as well to the freezing and re-heating process. Many of these paratha brands are quite good but you can’t go wrong with Kawan, but any others you’ll find on Amazon, Trader Joe’s etc. will hit the spot. In every case, toast it on the stovetop for just a few minutes, and you’re ready to go.
Dear reader, by following these editor’s picks for chai, curry, and bread you certainly can’t replicate a fully home-cooked Indian meal made by a skilled Aunty or someone like me. However, you’re guaranteed to save hours of time and effort in the kitchen, or the gobs of cash you’d drop on mediocre meal kits or at any Indian restaurant. All of it is worth it considering how boring many people’s quick meals are.