One of the best things about traveling is bringing back souvenirs.
Not surprisingly, my favorite way to recapture vagabond moments is with food. Spices, canned goods, jams and preserves are easy to pack, travel well and generally don't annoy customs officials.
I just got back from a trip to India. It started at 9:30 in the morning and ended at 10 p.m. the same day. I didn't need a passport or an airline ticket.
My adventure took place right here in the Valley. I went to Indian markets.
My traveling companion was one of my neighbors, Dale Henry. He's a great cook, and Indian food is one of his specialties.
En route, I conjured images of street vendors. I imagined merchandise hanging from spindly rafters and huge baskets mounded high with strange and aromatic foods.
As we went from market to market, I was struck by their similarity. Each was simple and utilitarian with a slightly worn look. Each was the homiest spot in its strip mall.
Our port of entry was Bombay Bazaar, 334 East Camelback. From our parking space I could see bright fabrics and bits of what looked like silver and gold.
The first thing I saw as I opened the door was a showcase of ornate Indian jewelry and a rack of exotic clothing.
Dale immediately redirected my attention to food, particularly the fresh baby eggplant in the refrigerator case beside the door. We ransacked the fridge to see what other treasures it might contain.
Just past the cold food we got our first glimpse of "the locals."
A woman in traditional-looking Indian dress was behind the counter. She was sitting in a recliner that looked a lot like the one Frasier's father insists on keeping. She had a heating pad behind her, a television in front of her, and a TV tray of snacks at her side. They looked like cookies from Costco.
Despite her apparent lack of interest in the food she sells, I was ready to explore.
The shiny jars of chutneys and pickles caught my eye. These condiments are an important part of the Indian table. Think salt and pepper.
Chutneys tend to be a blend of sweet and savory. If you're not well-acquainted with Indian food, chutneys are a good way to ease yourself into the cuisine.
Pickles, on the other hand, are an acquired taste. Indian pickles tend to combine bitter, sour and salty flavors.
Bombay Bazaar is the only local market that sells fresh pickles. I got three kinds from the refrigerator case. I'll try anything once.
The ginger lemon pickle was so intense I winced. Imagine dipping a lemon wedge in salt, and then chewing it, rind and all. The pickle was a little more sour, and a lot more salty.
The fresh baby mango pickle was a deep-roasted red, but looked a lot better than it tasted. The fresh kerda pickle wasn't bad. Kerda berries are like capers filled with tiny seeds. Unfortunately, it was a little oily and smelled a bit rancid.
Although Bombay Bazaar doesn't smell like a street market, it has a pleasantly unfamiliar aroma -- spices, and a little dust.
In India, curry refers to a dish with a sauce, a dish that uses a variety of fresh spices. Curries often include familiar flavors, such as cinnamon and cloves, lemon and lime, coriander, cumin, hot red peppers and fennel seed.
Lots of unfamiliar spices are also used, like wonderfully aromatic fenugreek, also called methi seed (with a burned sugar taste), turmeric (a spicy yellow powder) and asafetida (a garlicky spice with a slightly fetid aroma).
Our next stop was at India Snacks and Spices, 53 East Broadway in Tempe. Here, the sari-clad woman behind the counter was feeding an infant when we arrived. By the time we left, the baby was sleeping in its crib just below the cash register.
Dale found fresh, homemade, uniquely Indian paneer at India Snacks. This soft cheese has a gentle tang. He often makes his own paneer.
Before we started our trip, Dale planned to make a lamb curry as part of our dinner. Like any seasoned traveler, he changed his itinerary/menu to take advantage of the opportunity of the moment. He got the last bag of paneer, nixed the lamb and made a great red curry with peas and the paneer.
Jaggery is the most foreign-looking item at India Snacks. It's a raw sugar that comes from palm trees. Blocks as big as salt licks were on a bottom shelf. I imagine that it takes a hammer and chisel to break off a hunk. I recommend protective eyewear.
India Snacks and Spices sells most of the same spices and condiments as Bombay Bazaar, although its slightly dusty selection is a bit smaller.
We continued our tour at India Bazaar, 933 East University in Tempe -- more chutney, more pickles, and more spices. No dust.
In the seemingly obligatory doorway freezer, we found two Indian breads, nan and chapattis. They're flat to accommodate dipping and scooping. Nan is like pita. Chapattis are like tortillas.
Papadums -- thin wafers made with lentil flour -- are my favorite Indian bread. I especially like the ones flavored with cumin seeds. To cook, just hold them over a gas flame for about a minute. If you don't have gas, just heat a pan and cook for about 45 seconds per side.
We also found exotic ice creams such as saffron and pistachio (really exotic and a bit weird) and raisin and cashew (pretty good).
The staff at India Bazaar wasn't too knowledgeable. I asked if the mustard oil tasted good and was told yes, but the label says it's for external use only. I felt like a tourist being spurned by the locals.
In Mesa, India Spice Land (the sign outside says Omaid Afghan-Indo-Pak-Middle Eastern Spices), 540 West Broadway, has the longest name but the smallest inventory. If you live in the East Valley, it's a place to start, but it's not a destination spot. We never saw an employee, although there was a man eating lunch at one of the tables. Someone obviously served him, but we never found out who.
Local Indian markets have extremely reasonable prices. I don't think I spent more than $3 or $4 on any one item.
Even if you don't plan to cook an Indian feast every day -- or ever -- pick up a few pickles and chutneys. Put a teaspoon into the water you use to cook rice or pasta. Mix a tablespoon into a pound of yogurt for a spicy dip. Blend a little into your mashed potatoes instead of garlic. Use them in your marinades for chicken and steak.
The best part of our trip turned out to be just a few blocks from home. We used our edible souvenirs to make dinner at Dale's house. Actually, he did most of the cooking. I did most of the eating.
Contact Andy Broder at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.