On a Little India Spice Trail with Shubhra Ramineni
Is it Hillcroft? Little India? Or do we call the area—roughly between the southwest freeway, Westpark Tollway and Hillcroft Avenue—by the name it was given officially in 2010: Mahatma Gandhi District? Shubhra Ramineni, a first-generation Indian American and the author of Entice with Spice and Healthy Indian Vegetarian Cooking, has been coming here since she was a little girl. Shopping with her mother, waiting for her to choose from endless rolls of fabric, she watched colorful sari after sari being unfolded. “It was so boring,” says Shubhra, but her smile reveals treasured memories.
She knows the area, which she calls Hillcroft, sometimes Little India but never really Mahatma Gandhi District, like the back of her hand. She takes me to Shri Balaji Bhavan, a vegetarian restaurant that has been around for a long time. At my request we start with pani puri, which are crispy-fried hollow dough spheres (puri) that are filled with spicy “water” (pani). I’ve had them for the first time in a street-side café in Old Dubai and it is a treasured memory of my own. Shubhra expertly punctures the puri with her finger, spoons in chickpeas and spiced potato that came on the plate with the puri, and fills it up with the pani, the spicy water. Green from fresh cilantro and mint, this “water” has hints of toasted cumin and heat from green chili.
“We will try a different one, dahi puri, in another place,” Shubhra promises. First, she insists we eat a childhood favorite of hers: Bhatura, fried leavened bread comes with a bowl of pleasantly spicy chickpea curry. She has a recipe for both the curry and the bread in her first book. Growing up largely vegetarian, and with a nutritionist for a mom, Shubhra learned early on that “vegetarian” in Indian cuisine means a delicious plate of food. Even though meat entered their household when she married, vegetables are the main players in her kitchen. “I don’t want my child to grow up thinking a meal is not complete without meat,” she says.
As a working professional, Shubhra’s mother didn’t have the time to cook elaborate recipes. Her cookbooks are inspired by that concept: easy Indian recipes for busy people. She tried out every recipe again and again, together with her mother. The bhatura and chickpea curry cleaned off the plate, we are tearing at the fresh baked dosa masala. Dosa is a thin pancake made of rice flour and black lentil (urad dal) flour. In a dosa masala, potatoes spiced with coriander, cumin, black mustard seeds, black pepper and turmeric are placed in the middle, before the dosa is folded over.
The Little India neighborhood goes back decades in Houston. The first Indian shop to open in Hillcroft in 1984 was Raja Sweets, and Shubhra says it hasn’t changed much since. It was Raja Sweets where her mom took her for a treat whenever they went shopping, and to take home desserts. “Raja Sweets’ jalebi [syrup-soaked spirals of fried batter] are still a standard fixture at my mom’s dinner table,” Shubhra says. The Indian grocer around the corner from Raja Sweets stocks whatever you need to cook your Indian meal. If you haven’t found the ingredients Shubhra lists in her book anywhere else, here is where you can find them for sure. From fresh fenugreek to spices like Ajwain seeds, and even varak (edible silver sheets used to decorate sweets), Parivar Grocers also sells ready-made dosa batter for those who don’t want to make their own batter, but do like to smear it on a hot griddle for homemade dosa pancakes. Not to worry if you have no flat griddle: the store also offers cookware typically used in the Indian kitchen. Shubhra demonstrates a masala dabba, an Indian spice box. She lifts the lid and shows the round bowls arranged in a tray. There are seven or so in there, each one perfect to hold your most used spices (masala means spice). Shubhra usually fills her masala dabba with salt, ground black pepper, ground cayenne, ground turmeric, whole cumin seeds, whole black mustard seeds and ground coriander.
From the grocer we move on to Laxmi Sarees, one of several sari shops in Hillcroft. In fact, the one where Shubhra bought her engagement outfit is right around the corner: Sari Sapne. Rows of colorful tunics, stacks of bangles, sheets of bindi, the shop sells everything you need for a traditional Indian costume, even handcrafted mojari, traditional footwear for men.
We end our morning in Bombay Sweets & Vegetarian Restaurant for the promised dahi puri, a rather messy plate of crispy fried puri filled with dal and potatoes, squirted liberally with yogurt and chutney. Messy as they look, the flavors of sweet and sour and refreshing touch of yogurt are addictive, and we finish the plate in no time. Shubhra is in her element talking about Indian food. She’s made it her mission to share the bounty of flavor that comes with Indian cooking and to use it with local, seasonal produce. She gives cooking classes and demonstrations, as well as tours around Hillcroft. Her favorite time she spends with her daughter working in their vegetable garden or in her kitchen, often with her mother too. Like mother, like daughter, when it comes to a treat, Shubhra now loves to take her own little girl to Raja Sweets to pick a dessert.
Shri Balaji Bhavan Vegetarian Restaurant, 5655 Hillcroft St.
Bombay Sweets Vegetarian Restaurant, 5827 Hillcroft St.
Raja Sweets, 5667 Hillcroft St..
Parivar Grocery Store, 6655 Harwin Dr.
Laxmi Sarees, 5701 Hillcroft St.