Passport Not Required: Sampling Three Asian and Mediterranean Markets' In-Store Dining

Yea, though I walk through the aisle of the cooking fats of Indo-Pak, I will fear no hydrogenation: for ghee art with me; thy full pockets and thy full belly they comfort me.

A few years ago I watched a documentary on African immigrants. One man, recalling his first experience in an American grocery store, remarked on how shocking it was to discover that there was an entire aisle dedicated to pet food. Truly, the sheer number of choices housed behind the sliding glass doors of American grocery stores is a thing to behold. But for all the dog kibble and Kombucha and paper plates, there are many gaps left by the Tom Thumbs and Albertsons of this world. To fill these culinary cavities, one must venture to the outlier markets -- those geared toward ethnic cuisine, where pet food gives way to 50-pound sacks of rice and spices are bestowed the pedestal of shelf spacedom normally reserved for frozen pizza.

Ethnic markets help the home cook flesh out their pantries with ingredients that could never be found at American supermarkets, which perpetually struggle to differentiate cilantro from flat-leaf parsley. But you don't necessarily have to wait until you get home and unload the groceries to partake in food from afar. Often, these stores house small restaurants or food stalls that turn out dishes which typically rival or even surpass their stand-alone equivalents and for a fraction of the price. For your foodification, I have highlighted three grocery stores which cater to South Asian or Middle Eastern cookery and provide a sensual whirlwind from start to fattoush.

Indo-Pak Super Market is a local chain -- think Minyards, but with curry leaves and kaura (goat testicles.) The Carrollton location is small but has everything you need to cook your way through one of Madhur Jaffrey's books. They also have half an aisle dedicated to the Indian equivalent of Hamburger Helper, should you tire with measuring things and following directions and just generally being a high-functioning human. There are bottles of rose water, tiny, almost perfectly round eggplants and digestive biscuits galore. Going back to the spices, remember what I said about the pedestal? Forget those puny McCormicks bottles with their two tablespoons of seasoning. At Indian grocery stores, spices -- both whole and ground -- are sold by the pound.

The Indo-Pak Kitchen gives many of these spices a workout in their dishes.The restaurant shares a wall with the grocery store, so it retains the feeling of a stand-alone eatery, albeit a very bare bones one. Oftentimes, these places will decorate to varying degrees of success. Here, they utilize children's bedroom décor to adorn the walls along with a fake plant or two. The ambiance, or perhaps lack thereof, is to be expected. Hell, it should be welcomed. Experience has demonstrated plenty of times that the quality of the food being served is in inverse relation to the appearance of the room it is being served in.

It is of note that Indo-Pak Kitchen inverses the hell out of food. The goat biryani is made with big chunks of bone-in meat which is succulently tender and perfumed with warm aromatics. The rice is impossibly light and fluffy and tangled with whole peppercorns, cardamom pods and shards of cinnamon.

The haleem is not to be missed, as this is one item that is sadly neglected from many Middle Eastern and South Asian restaurant menus. Haleem is a meat porridge of sorts -- a mashed combination of beef or mutton with lentils, barley, wheat and spices. It is cooked low and slow all day until it is a thick slick of earthy, spicy goodness. Topped with fresh ginger shreds, cilantro and a squeeze of lime, it will lead your tongue to Mecca. There are also whole fish dishes, curries, kormas and kebabs. And to finish it off, an obligatory, palate-cleansing mango lassi.

Subzi Mandi is another grocery store chain with rose water and goat bits and all of the other wonderful trappings of South Asian cuisine but with the added fun of a shoe store and an eatery in the back that serves up thali and chaat. Thali is little dishes served in a stainless steel, compartmentalized tray -- one depression each for chutney, rice, yogurt, dal, curry, pickles and the like. Thali is reminiscent of a cafeteria lunch, except each dish is more flavorful and nutritious than the next, so it is nothing like a cafeteria lunch.

Then there is chaat, a favorite street food in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. At its most basic, chaat combines fried dough pieces with potato, chickpeas, spices, yogurt and cilantro to create a crispy, savory and salty snack. I recommend the samosa chaat, which is prepared with a whole samosa -- a hearty potato-veg mixture, encased in dough and fried to golden-brown -- that is then smashed and surrounded by all the aforementioned toppings plus a sweet red sauce and zippy green sauce. On Wednesdays, you can get any of Subzi's chaats for $1.49, which means you've got dinner that normally comes for the price of an airline ticket for less than a fast food burger.

Shahrzad Mediterranean Market and Grill just opened off Coit and Arapaho roads in Richardson. There is an underwhelming produce section that I recommend bypassing. If you want oddly shaped vegetables with names you can't pronounce, go to Subzi Mandi or an Asian market. Shahrzah's specialty is baked goods, including sangak bread (which is as long as an arm, baked in-house and carried out from the back on sheets of paper) and baklava. If you can pry yourself away from the bakery case long enough, there is a café located behind the frozen foods that is worth a gander.

It is run by a man named Garip, who has a knack for interior design and meats cooked on vertical spits. Indeed, it seems there is not a decorating quandary that Garip has not solved with sea shells, clocks or tiny toy helicopters. He has what appears to be a shrine to the gods of eating-out set up in the corner of his café. The shrine consists of a table and chairs and a picture of himself taken in front of the very wall that it currently hangs on. Another wall is covered in one hastily drawn caricature after another -- it is the same caricature which Garip will draw on your take-out box, should you commit high treason and not finish your meal. Garip lends his panache to the food he makes, piling shavings of roasted lamb and beef high onto a freshly baked bun before adding some lettuce and tomato for a bit of freshness and crunch. There are shawarmas, gyros and all the other staples (tabbouleh, hummus, etc.) one has come to expect from Middle Eastern food stores, but with the added bonus of Turkish tea service.

Even if you are not interested in the gastronomically exotic, these markets provide a cheap (free, even) way to travel. Rather than book a flight, why not just take a couple of hours to peruse the offerings at your local ethnic grocery store? These places act like culture condensers, packing the sights, sounds and smells of another continent into aisle six. Tom Thumb will always be there when you get back.

Indo-Pak Super Market 2548 Dickerson Parkway Carrollton

Subzi Mandi 4550 W. Buckingham Road Garland

Shahrzad Mediterranean Market and Grill 970 North Coit Road, Suite 3025 Richardson