Go on in. Don't be shy. If you're not sure what's what inside Tajmahal Imports, the all-vegetarian Indian grocery at 501 W. Beltline in Richardson, ask for Mr. Shah. That's Pramod Shah, the owner of this expansive food, spice, knickknack, religious statuary and cookware store on the southwest corner of Beltline and Central.
"I always look for the new customers," says Shah, who's opening a new, larger Taj Grocery at Independence and Legacy in Plano next month. "Ah, a new guy, I'll say. And I'll go up and ask if they need help."
I've shopped at Tajmahal and been a little bashful about asking questions about the odd-looking fuzzy vegetables and the pillowcase-sized bags of unfamiliar dried beans. No worries now. Mr. Shah gave me a tour, pointing out five of the most popular exotic items in his store.
Also called "ivy gourds," these tiny cucumber-like vine fruits, rich in beta-carotene, are sliced for salads or chopped for vegetable curry. They can be fried or boiled, and are often used in a lentil-based Indian soup called sambaar. Juiced, they're regarded as a homeopathic (and medically unproven) treatment for a variety of conditions and illnesses including constipation, diabetes and, pardon the expression, gonorrhea.
Latin name Momordica charantia. Available in many Asian grocery stores, this ugly wonder, also known as karela, is a bitter-tasting member of the melon family. Sold in raw fruit, liquid and capsule forms, its hypoglycemic qualities are thought to help in weight loss and to benefit treatment of Type-2 diabetes. Shaped like a cucumber and covered in bumps, the tropical fruit (imported from Central America but also grown in Florida) is mentioned on numerous alternative medicine web sites as a treatment for a number of illnesses including psoriasis. The high-fiber bitter melon contains more beta carotene than broccoli, twice the calcium of spinach and more potassium than bananas.
3. Banana flowers
Peel back the thick, teardrop-shaped red petals to reveal clusters of tiny floral shoots that form the "bracts" or beginnings of bananas. Grown in Central and South America, the edible banana blossoms are added to vegetable curries and soups. Eaten raw, they're bitter-tasting. To prepare them, they're soaked in lemon juice and water, then rinsed. They taste a bit like leeks, bitter, crunchy and delicate. On an Asian menu, they're sometimes listed as vazhai poo. So now you know.
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4. Bhindi Masala
The frozen food cases at Tajmahal are full of zap-able Indian meals, including this curried okra dish. At $2.99 a box, these are about half the price of similar items at Whole Foods and Central Market and are popular with young people who don 't have the time or know-how to cook Indian dishes from scratch. Other choices on the frozen food aisle include Paneer Hariyadi, a vegetarian cheese, sauce and green veggie mixture, and Palak Paneer, a traditional spinach and veggie-cheese dish.
5. Kachha Aam
That's a dancing, winking mango on the label of this popular candy from Pune, a city in Western India. Tajmahal carries an aisle-long selection of imported Indian sweets and candies, including Cadbury Dairy Milk bars made in India the way the English make them, milkier and with fair trade chocolate. The mango candies are a little sweet, a little sour. The product description for them reads "have an aqua fresh moment and freak out." Side effects presumably include dancing and winking.