In Curry Hill, Variety- And Bargains- Abound

Lately whenever urban rubes of my acquaintance start waxing hysterical over how ridiculously life-changing the arrival of Trader Joe’s in Manhattan has been, I cut off the craziness with two words: Curry Hill.

And I’m only half kidding. The faux-South-Seas-folksy chain claims to stock “innovative, hard-to-find, great-tasting foods” at cut-rate prices. But that’s exactly what’s on offer in this neighborhood around Lexington Avenue and 28th Street. Admittedly, you won’t find Two-Buck Chuck or frozen quesadillas, but you can fill a shopping basket with far superior snack foods and entrees, nuts and confections, rice and beans, chutneys and salsas, oils and vinegars and mustards, fresh vegetables and dried fruits, cheeses and coffees, teas and breads, cookbooks and cookware and definitely more spices than TJ’s and Penzeys put together. Just count the peppercorns: from India, of course, and many regions of India at that, but also Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and even Cameroon.

The nickname for this little wonderland, a riff on the Murray Hill neighborhood in which it sits, is deceptive. You can certainly score every last Indian ingredient here for the most esoteric recipe from the most out-there website focused on cooking from the subcontinent, along with everyday basmati rice, cumin seeds and lentils in every color. But as I have learned on increasingly frequent excursions, especially over the last five years since traveling to India, you can stock your kitchen for just about any cuisine. The variety of dried Latin American chilies on offer, for instance, is dazzling, from Peruvian aji to Chilean pequin, with many more Mexican to boot.

Justifiably famous, Kalustyan’s is the main mecca. The two level store is jammed literally floor to ceiling with foods Trader Joe’s buyers barely dream of, along with almost everything you need to cook them, and the place could not be less intimidating to either seasoned cooks or gawking tourists. Next door, bare-bones Sinha Trading/Foods of India carries excellent spices, rices and legumes for less than Kalustyan’s. And its catercorner neighbor, Little India Stores, is like a small supermarket in Bangalore, with eye-popping selection at almost dollar-store prices; if you can shop without help, the same jar of Vrindravan-brand ghee Kalustyan’s sells for $7.98 is yours for $5.49 here.

Kalustyan’s opened in 1944, when the neighborhood was Armenian; eventually it merged with another shop called Tashjian, which sold similar Middle Eastern products almost around the corner on Third Avenue. The current owners, Sayedul Alam and Aziz Osmani, bought it in 1988 after operating a small spice shop nearby selling products from their homeland as the Armenians moved out and emigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh flowed in. “One came and the next one followed,” says Osmani, who himself decamped from Bangladesh to study at Hunter College.

Today there are more fabric shops and restaurants, but it’s still a serious destination for food shopping as well as dosa eating, if not quite on the scale of bustling Jackson Heights. Kalustyan’s itself owns two restaurants: Curry Leaf with its standard Indian menu and Kalustyan’s Rice, which originally opened to showcase the high-end ingredients the store stocks, like fennel pollen and $50-a-pound Sicilian pistachios, but downscaled to suit the neighborhood,where veg and non-veg buffets are everywhere at lunch and aloo gobi and saag paneer are standards at dinner.

The clientele in the neighborhood shops is mixed, with Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis coming into Singha and Little India for huge bags of rice and legumes and even turmeric by the pound. Osmani says Kalustyan’s draws a mix of professional chefs and serious home cooks along with food writers and other media types from around the city and across the United States. About 20 percent of its business is done online, although the website lags the inventory in the 3,000-square-foot store, with products from 72 countries. It also sells to restaurant distributors such as Dairyland and hand-delivers to a few favored restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, Gotham Bar & Grill, Barbounia, the Russian Tea Room and, appropriately, Tabla.

I always start at Kalustyan’s, but these days I make that first stop a reconnaissance: I price the predictable stuff and buy only what the other shops are unlikely to carry. Because I’ll be going no farther than across the street and a third of the way down the block, I can always double back. But I rarely do.

The wedged-tight shelves make Zabar’s if not Dean & DeLuca look like an upstate Wegman’s, with nuts, cookbooks, rices, breads and candies all fighting for territory. Pistachios alone come in a UN-worthy range: Californian, Turkish, Iranian, Sicilian, dispensed from self-serve apothecary jars. Refrigerated cases in the back hold a cornucopia of house-made taramasalata and other spreads and sauces as well as heat-and-eat items like samosas. Upstairs you’ll find racks of cookware, at least 200 types. If you’re in the market for a tiffin to silver-bag your lunch, or a kadai to deep-fry, as the Indians do, with very little oil, you’ll find them here, alongside wooden boards for rolling out Indian breads, special pots for making pickles and chutney, molds for spongy idli breads, plus graters, rice cookers, peppermills and more. And across from a case lined with drinks and Middle Eastern cheeses, there’s a tiny café with sandwiches, salads and cooked food, all made in small batches in-house.

Back downstairs the aromatic spice corner is always congested with shoppers ogling the sheer variety, allspice to zaatar packaged in bags, of which the smallest is generally four ounces. The legume aisle is usually equally tight, with people trying to make sense not just of legumes like rattlesnake beans and rices from Pakistan, Spain, China, France and Thailand but also shelves packed with hot sauces, chutneys, curry sauces, mustards and more. Coffees can be counted by the dozen, teas by the hundred.

While Kalustyan’s is in all the guidebooks and thus unfazed by gawkers and tourists, its neighbor Foods of India unfortunately can treat shoppers as if they might be shoplifters (whether out of shyness or from experience is unclear). A few steps down from street level,the store is small, bright and extremely tidy, with shelves at just the right height for cashier and floor manager to keep an eye on anyone perusing the myriad cans and jars and especially the spices. If you buy, the attitude changes immediately to warmth.

And you should buy. A four-ounce bag of very fresh black mustard seeds is $2.39; next door at Kalustyan’s the same quantity is $3.99. Foods of India also packages some of its spices and masala in jars instead of plastic bags. The selection is smaller than Kalustyan’s, but if you go looking for cardamom you’ll still find green, black and white, whole, ground or seeded. Turnover must be great because nothing is ever musty.

I must have walked past Little India Stores for as long as I’ve lived in Manhattan, because the clerk said it has been open for 30 years. From the street it looks so unpromising people stride past as I once did, but if you step in the seductive smells sweep over you. The first shelves spill over with bhel puri-type snacks, and the aisles as you walk down a few steps look like Campbell’s by way of Calcutta: package after package of heat-and-eat dinners and side dishes. The good news: All are at least $1 a box less than at Kalustyan’s. The better news: Some, particularly the MTR brand, are as good as you would find in an Indian restaurant in Manhattan.

But the great stuff is in the back, in the refrigerated and freezer cases. The former holds mint-condition fresh curry leaves and Indian vegetables such as bitter gourds and tindora squash, plus blocks of paneer and bags of paratha. The freezer case is a smorgasbord of Indian entrees and ice creams. Getting back out is like running another gantlet of temptation, through nuts and candies.

And here, you won’t have to pass all those hokey Hawaiian shirts on your way out.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell