For Your Indian Cooking Adventure: International Foods & Spices

by Ronit Treatman

Where can you find tamarind, sour mango powder, and jaggery in Philadelphia?  I found out serendipitously the other day when I got lost.  As I drove past the intersection of 42nd and Walnut Street I noticed a store called International Foods & Spices.  It intrigued me, so I decided to take a detour and see what it was.

More after the jump.
The shop’s unassuming front gave no indication of the treasures within.  As I opened the door and stepped inside, I was greeted by huge sacks of Basmati rice, imported from India.  Sitar music played subtly in the background.  As I strolled around the store, overhearing conversations, I realized that its name is very appropriate.  I introduced myself to the other customers and met people from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Ethiopia.  Residents from Center City and students and faculty residing in University City were also shopping there.  All of them raved about the quality of the spices.  Every imaginable type of dried bark, seed, root, fruit, nut, and herb is available here.  There are whole spices and ground spices, most of which are imported from India.  The essentials of Indian cuisine such as ginger, cardamom, star anise, turmeric, coriander, cumin, allspice, and peppercorns are on the shelf.  Cinnamon is available; ground, in stick form, or as pieces of bark, which really take us to its source, the Cinnamon tree.  Tamarind and sour mango powder are for sale, “to add tartness to curries.”  Jaggery, a molded cake of unrefined sugar dried from the sap of date palms or sugarcane, is on the shelf, to be used in both sweet and savory dishes.  I saw bags of exotic dried spices, with no name on them.  Mr. Singh, the proprietor of the store, explained that they are for chewing, like gum.  There are also curry and masala spice mixtures for sale, ranging in color from gold to crimson.  One of the Indian customers I chatted with told me that no self-respecting Indian would ever cook with that.  “We mix our own,” she sniffed.  The dried fruit, of superior quality, is imported from Israel.  Especially delicious were the natural dried dates still on the branch.  The most exotic were the small, brown Persian dried limes.  I asked the Iranian customer I met there, ” What do you cook with that?”  “We add them to stews,” she told me.  “To add just a touch of sour.”

The Indian lady I chatted with encouraged me to purchase a block of compressed tamarind to prepare a different, refreshing summer drink.  Tamarind is a tart, reddish-brown fruit.  Indigenous to Africa, it grows on a tree.  The tamarind fruit is a pod, with a hard, brown peel.  It is very healthy, full of vitamin B and calcium.  Tamarind is a common ingredient in chutneys and other condiments.  This woman makes a restorative summer drink with it.  She generously shared her Southern Indian recipe with me.

Refreshing Tamarind Cooler

  • 1 block of compressed tamarind
  • 1-½ cups boiling water
  • 1-quart cold water
  • Sugar or jaggery to taste
  • Pinch of salt

    Soak the block of compressed tamarind in the hot water for half an hour.

    Pour the water and tamarind into a blender and mix well.

    Add the cold water.

    Sweeten to taste.  If desired, add a pinch of salt.  It should have a sweet-tangy flavor.

    Serve chilled over ice.  Garnish with a fresh mint leaf.

    The products in this store inspired me to try cooking some authentic Jewish Indian recipes.  I decided to cook a fish dish from the Bene Israel community of Mumbai, India.  The Bene Israel are descendants of Galilean Jews who escaped from the Romans in the 2nd Century BCE.  They were sailing away from Israel when they were shipwrecked.  The survivors made it to Mumbai.  This community remained completely disconnected from other Jews until Baghdadi Jewish traders rediscovered them in the 18th Century CE.

    Fish Curry
    Adapted from Claudia Roden

  • 1 ½ pound flounder
  • Salt to taste
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1-teaspoon cumin
  • 1 cup toasted, shredded coconut
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoon Toasted Sesame oil
  • 1 green chili pepper
  • 2 cups cilantro
  • 1 lime
  • 7 garlic cloves, minced

    Blend the cilantro, cumin, turmeric, chili pepper, coconut milk, and shredded coconut in a food processor.  Sautee the garlic in the sesame oil.  Add the coconut paste and stir until hot.  Add two cups of water, some salt, and squeeze in some lime.  Stir, bringing the mixture to a boil.  Add the fish, and simmer for fifteen minutes.

    You can serve this dish with steamed basmati rice, or you can choose from the large selection of frozen specialty Indian breads, such as naan and paratha, for sale here.  Also in the freezer, you can find all natural tamarind, tomato, cilantro, and coconut, and mint chutneys.  They defrost quickly, and are the perfect accompaniment to the curried fish.

    If you don’t have the time or the patience to cook with these delicious spices, this store is a great source of Kosher, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free prepared foods. They are imported from India.  Some of them come vacuum-sealed, and will keep indefinitely without refrigeration. Many of them are kosher, with a seal from the Kosher Inspection Service of India, based in Mumbai. In the frozen foods section, one freezer is dedicated only to vegetarian foods.  One really exotic appetizer that I discovered is Patra leaf roulades.  Patra leaf is the leaf of the Taro root plant.  The leaves are sautéed and flavored with coconut and coriander.  There are a variety of Pakoras, seasoned Indian vegetable fritters, and Muthia, steamed cabbage dumplings, seasoned with peppers and sesame seeds.  From Southern India, there are Mendu Vada, “crispy, golden lentil fritters.” There is a whole aisle of jarred Indian pickles and preserves to choose from that would go well with any of these dishes.

    One of my favorite discoveries in International Foods is Nashta.  Known as “Indian snick snacks” in our family, Nashta is a blend of nuts, pulses, puffed Basmati rice, dried noodles, and sun dried potato chips.  This is flavored with different spice combinations, ranging from mild to really spicy.  I serve them at get togethers instead of chips.  These mixtures also add an unexpectedly crunchy, spicy kick to my grandmother’s chicken soup.  

    To conclude your meal, you can choose from the refrigerated case of Mithai, or Indian desserts.  They are made with coconut, cardamom, almonds, raisins, pistachio, and cashew.  There are also exotic mango, pistachio, saffron, and rose water ice creams for sale.  

    I wanted to prepare my own dessert, so I tried another Bene Israel recipe called Kheer.  It is a type of coconut rice pudding.  This is a dairy free, gluten free dessert.

    Rose Kheer
    Adapted from Chef Sanjeev Kapoor

  • 2 tablespoons Chopped Pistachios
  • 2 tablespoons Slivered Almonds
  • 1/2 teaspoon green cardamom powder
  • 2 tablespoons Rose syrup
  • 2 tablespoons jaggery
  • 1 cup Water
  • ¾ cup Rice flour
  • 3-¾ cup Coconut milk

    Slowly bring the coconut milk to a boil.  Mix the rice flour and water in a bowl, and then add the paste to the boiling coconut milk.  Stir until the paste is incorporated into the coconut milk.  When the mixture has thickened, add the jaggery and green cardamom powder.  Set aside to cool.  Mix in the rose syrup.  Pour the pudding into a serving dish.  Decorate with the pistachios and almonds.  Refrigerate for two hours.

    Mr. Singh is a chef from Punjab, and owned a restaurant before he opened International Foods & Spices.  When I felt ready to create my own Indian specialties, his help and advice were invaluable to a novice like me!  How did my dishes turn out?  The Bene Israel curried fish was rich and velvety in its voluptuous coconut sauce.  The tamarind cooler, which we served with lots of ice, was tart and refreshing on a hot summer evening.  The rose kheer was very exotic and different.  I loved its nutty crunchiness.  When I garnished it with fresh rose buds and petals, I felt like I was serving the dessert of the Rajas.    

    International Foods & Spices

    4203 Walnut Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19104

    Tel:  (215) 222-4480

    Fax: (215) 222-5912

    Email:  [email protected]

    Website: http://intlfoodsandspices.com/…

    Business Hours

    11 am to 8 pm
    Closed on Tuesdays

  • Berbere: The Ethiopian Curry

    — Ronit Treatman

    When the Ethiopian Jews began arriving in Israel in 1984, they brought with them a spice mixture called berbere.  Like curry, berbere is a combination of spices that gives Ethiopian cuisine its distinctive flavor.  These flavors are one of the newest additions to the fusion that is modern Israeli cuisine.

    More after the jump.

    Although modern Ethiopia is a landlocked country, it has a long history of spice trading. In the 5th Century BCE, the Kingdom of Axum included modern Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, northern Sudan, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia.  Square-rigged trading ships departed Axum via the Red Sea.  Unlike the Roman vessels, they did not follow the longer, slower coastal trade route.  The Axumites knew how to harness the Monsoon winds, opening up a sea route from Africa to India via the Arabian Sea.  This journey took only fourteen days!  The sea route to India enabled them to reach the Silk Road, giving them access to goods from China.  Cinnamon, black pepper, clove, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cassia, and turmeric were some of the spices brought back by the Axumite galleys.

    As these spices made their way to the Axumite open-air markets, local cooks were intrigued, and sprinkled them into the food.  By experimenting with what was at hand, each family came up with its own individual signature spice mix.  These recipes have been handed down from mother to daughter, and the recipe is a family secret.  The essential ingredients of berbere are fenugreek and hot red pepper.  Other spices that are commonly mixed in are allspice, salt, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and black pepper.  In modern Ethiopia, families traditionally make their own spice mixture.  Some families prepare a dry spice mix, toasting several spices together in a heavy pot over a fire.  These spices are then ground with a mortar and pestle, and are ready to flavor the food.  Other families prefer to prepare a wet spice mix, or a paste, combining the toasted spices with oil or water when grinding them with the mortar and pestle. The berbere mix is different in each region of Ethiopia.  I have adapted a recipe for berbere from The Congo Cookbook.  The Congo Cookbook is a collection of recipes from Africa compiled by epicurean Peace Corps volunteer Ed Gibbon.  The recipes posted “are not new, unless they are new to you.”

    Berbere Recipe

    • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
    • 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
    • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
    • 4 to 6 tablespoons of a combination of ground cayenne pepper (red pepper, dried chile peppers, or red pepper flakes) and paprika
    • 1 tablespoons salt
    • 1 teaspoon ginger
    • 1 teaspoon garlic powder

    It is traditional to begin with the whole spice, such as the allspice berries and cinnamon bark.  Dry roasting the spice releases its essential oils, maximizing its aroma and flavor.  To make a dry berbere mixture, take a cast iron skillet and warm it over medium heat.  Place the spices in the skillet and toast them, stirring continuously.  After about two minutes for whole spices, and a few seconds for powdered spices, place the spices in a bowl and leave them to cool down.  When they are no longer hot, grind them together in a food processor or a mortar and pestle.  To make a wet berbere mixture, substitute the powdered ginger for fresh, grated ginger.  Add 2 tablespoons of minced onions or shallots, and substitute the dry garlic powder for fresh, finely chopped garlic.  Add ¼ cup of vegetable oil or water to the food processor when grinding the spices.  The berbere will retain its flavor if it is stored in an airtight container, in a cool dark place.  The wet berbere should be stored in the refrigerator.

    Berbere is the foundation of the wots or thick stews served in Ethiopia.  A special technique is used to cook them.  First, red onions are chopped and stirred in a hot, dry skillet until most of their moisture has evaporated.  Then fat, (usually clarified spiced butter called niter kibbeh) is added.  The onions continue to be cooked in the fat with added spices before any other ingredients are added.  By sautéing the onions in this way, they are dehydrated.  When the other ingredients are added, the onions serve as a thickener for the wot.

    Doro Wot is the national dish of Ethiopia.  It is a stew prepared with chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and berbere.  Ethiopian Jews serve Doro Wot for Shabbat dinner.  Below is a recipe for Doro Wot adapted from Ethio-Israel — a kosher Ethiopian restaurant in Jerusalem.  

    Doro Wot: Chicken Stew With Berbere

    • 4 tbsp. olive oil
    • 2 large red onions
    • 4 garlic cloves
    • Salt to taste
    • 1 1/2 tbsp. berbere
    • 3 lbs. chicken drumsticks
    • 2 cups of water
    • 4 hard-boiled eggs

    Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over low heat.  Chop the onions and add them to the pot.  Stir the onions until they become golden brown.  Mince the garlic and add to the pot.  Add the salt and berbere, stirring well.  Stir in the chicken.  Add 2 cups of water and turn the heat up until the pot boils.  Then lower the heat, allowing the chicken to simmer for about 40 minutes.  Check the seasoning and if necessary add salt or berbere to taste.  Add the boiled eggs, and allow to heat through.

    Doro Wot is traditionally served with injera, a sourdough crepe made from teff.  Teff is a type of grass native to Ethiopia.  The grain it produces is gluten free and rich in iron, fiber, protein, and calcium.  To prepare injera, you have to mix teff flour with water and allow the mixture to ferment for about three days.  It becomes a type of sourdough starter.  This dough is then baked into a crepe over a wood-fired clay oven. See this video of injera being prepared in Ethiopia.  

    Injera: Ethiopian Crepe


    Mix 1 1/2 cups of teff flour with 2 cups of water.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let stand at room temperature for three days.  Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over low heat.  Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the skillet.  When little holes appear on the surface of the pancake, remove it from the skillet onto a platter.  Do not cook the injera on both sides!  The injera is supposed to have a slightly sour taste due the fermenting process.  

    The way to present the Doro Wot is to place one injera crepe on a large, round platter.  Then, spoon the Doro Wot onto the injera, artfully arranging the chicken, eggs, and sauce.  This platter is placed at the center of the table.  Additional injera is served on the side, usually beautifully folded like a napkin.  The injera is the plate, the utensils, and the bread!  Everyone helps themselves from the communal platter.  The way to enjoy Doro Wot is to rip off a piece of injera, scoop up some wot with it, and eat.  The injera lining the platter soaks up the gravy.  As you eat it, you will experience layers of flavors and textures.  The slight acidity of the injera will be the perfect counterpoint to the flavors of the berbere.

    I wanted to know where to buy berbere spice mixture in Philadelphia, so I headed over to Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant.   This is where many members of Philadelphia’s expatriate Ethiopian community gather to watch Amharic television, drink Ethiopian beer, and talk.  Among them, I have met members of Philadelphia’s minute Ethiopian Jewish community.  One young man shyly spoke Hebrew to me.  Another gentleman, whom everyone addressed as “Doctor” left Gondar as a child.  His family walked to Sudan, and was then airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984.  He has two brothers in Haifa, who “have become really religious and wear kippas!”  When I asked him where he gets his berbere, he said, “you should go to Mohamed’s Halal Center,” on 4525 Walnut Street.  Mohamed is from Tigray, in Northern Ethiopia.  Jewish and Muslim Ethiopians had a history of peaceful coexistence here.  My daughter and I wandered around his store discussing the products in Hebrew.  He welcomed us warmly, asked us what language we were speaking, and then showed us that all his products are Halal, Kosher, or both.  He sells berbere that is imported from Ethiopia.  You have to ask for it, because he keeps it behind the counter.  I prefer this imported berbere, because to me it has an authenticity that is very difficult to duplicate.  Mohamed’s imported seasoning includes ground korarima seeds, from the ginger family, and long pepper or pippali, a hot pepper from Indonesia.  This is the right place to avoid all the work involved in cooking your own injera.  Mohamed prepares fresh injera every day right at his store.  Most of Philadelphia’s Ethiopian expatriates purchase their injera ready-made from Mohamed rather than making their own.  They just warm it up in the microwave right before serving.

    Follow these links to purchase ingredients online:

    On one of these cold February nights, treat yourself to berbere-spiced Doro Wot with injera. If you would rather experience an Ethiopian dinner in a restaurant, you live in the right place.  Philadelphia has one of the bigger Ethiopian expatriate communities in the U.S.  There are many good restaurants to choose from.  Our “little Ethiopia” is in West Philadelphia. My favorite is Abyssinia Restaurant.  Other Ethiopian restaurants in the neighborhood are Dahlak Restaurant, Kaffa Crossing, and Ethio Café and Restaurant.  For something different, yet exotically Jewish, try berbere!