On her first trip to a U.S. grocery store, Kavita Mehta, “was pretty sad” to discover that while food was in abundance, it was also filled with additives and packaged in places far away from her new home in Minnesota.
During Mehta’s childhood in India, her mother, an Ayurveda cook by training, prepared and served meals based on each family member’s dietary and digestive needs. “Food was cooked according to our constitution,” Mehta says, and this philosophy of cooking using “life and sciences” stayed with her when, as a young adult, she moved, in 1985.
After that first disappointing trip to the grocery store, Mehta saw a need for public education about the power of good food, as well as for more availability of local, fresh food. Within a year she had opened her first business, Indian Food Co., with an uncle who lived in New York. Indian Food Co. sold frozen vegetarian Indian food in Minneapolis-St. Paul grocery stores. Three years later, Mehta was the first person in the United States to prepare and sell local, vegetarian, organic pizza—long before it was popular to do so. “I’m a die-hard. I’ve stayed true [to her beliefs about food],” she says.
Ten years later, Indian Food Co. fell away to create Ethnic Food Co. At first her business was primarily a spice business. Mehta created her own brand: Ajika. She bought high-quality spices from around the world then packaged and sold them, sometimes to local customers but often to national and international ones. She considers her spices to be “modular starters,” meaning that the spices, combined with local vegetables, meats and dairy products, create healthy, delicious meals.
Most of Mehta’s business came from internet orders, but she also wanted to find a local storefront, which she eventually found in Osseo in 2008. Until recently, her store was tucked away in a space behind Nectar Wine Bar & Bistro and relied on national customers to buoy its overall sales.
When the bistro closed its doors, Mehta, jumped at the opportunity to reveal and expand her “hidden gem of a store”—and expand she did. Not only did Ethnic Food Co. move into the new space to become a more visible presence on Central Avenue, but the company also debuted a wine bar, gourmet café, yoga studio and massage center. At the same time, Ethnic Food Co. also organized a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and worked with local artists and musicians to promote their work inside the store.
While some business owners may hesitate to take on such a massive overhaul in a few short months, Mehta has taken it all in stride. Her insistence on quality food, dedication to local farmers and other businesses, and passion for the people in her community have become the driving force behind Ethnic Food Co.’s transformation. Her adult life has been dedicated to promoting health and wellbeing and this has manifested itself in many ways at Ethnic Food Co.
The property has allowed her to spend more time in one-on-one conversation with customers. “Many people come to me when they have an ailment,” Mehta says. By listening to the customer and offering specific, tailored dietary suggestions, she can help people feel better and live more healthily. Likewise, cooking classes, which were first offered in 2011, provide people with a fun and easy way to add fresh food into their diets. The classes have been a huge success; Mehta estimates that 1,500 customers took a class during the inaugural year.
Today, Ethnic Food Co.’s store, café, cooking classes and CSA use local produce and international spices and foods. “I know food,” Mehta says.//
Here Mehta inspires by sharing foods suited for our contemporary palettes—exotic flavors and healthful ideas with a respect for products from local farms. Take a sensory voyage with these recipes:
Chickpeas or garbanzos have a nutlike flavor and make sensational dishes like hummus and channa masala. This dish is a favorite in Indian restaurants and is served with fried or flat breads named naan, poori, roti or chappati.
1 package Ajika channa/garbanzo beans
2 medium to large onions, peeled and diced
1/4 inch piece of ginger minced
2-3 cloves of garlic minced (optional)
2 medium tomatoes, chopped or 1 tsp. tomato paste
1 Tbsp. ghee or oil
1½ Tbsp. Ajika channa masala
Dollop of plain yogurt (optional)
Salt to taste
A small bunch of cilantro leaves, minced
Boil chick peas in 7 cups of water and salt, set aside or soak overnight.
Drain peas when ready to cook (do not use this water as it will have indigestible enzymes; throw the water in which any beans are soaked)
Heat oil in a pan
Add onions, ginger and garlic and fry until golden to dark brown (not burnt)
Add channa masala spices. Stir for 10 seconds to release flavors
Add tomatoes and stir fry until oil separates
Add chick peas, stir and add water
Adjust salt and chili to taste
Cook for 25 minutes, mash a few garbanzos to thicken the curry
Remove from heat and add a dollop of plain yogurt and cilantro leavesServe hot with Indian flat bread and Raita (yogurt dip)
Indian Puffed Rice
Bhelpuri, one of the street foods of India, is a snack popular in Kolkata (Calcutta) and Mumbai (Bombay). This is the Mumbai version and is quite easy to assemble once you have the ingredients. The amounts given here are only a rough guide, assemble according to your own preferences just as the street hawker would one for you according to the directions you give him—that is, more green chutney or less sweet tamarind etc.
Rice/lentil mix package (w/tamarind chutney and cilantro chutney)
4 cup of bhel mix
3 cup mashed boiled potatoes (mashed coarsely)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or coriander leaves
Green chilies minced to taste
Tamarind chutney to taste, about 1/2 cup or more
2 Tbsp. cilantro or coriander chutney to taste
1 cup minced red onions
1 cup each of diced tomato and cucumber mixed together (optional, this is not traditional)
Serves 8 for a snack or 4 for a main meal
Place all ingredients in a large bowl and turn gently but wellServe immediately on individual plates. For fun, serve bhelpuri in unsweetened ice-cream cones.At a bhel party one would typically leave all the ingredients in small bowls on the table along with chutneys, and let people mix their own, according to taste in their own bowls.
Persian Inspired Kabobs
In Iran a rectangular manghal (portable charcoal grill) is used with some zoghal (wood charcoal). The fire is lit, the kabobs placed on it and the fire is kept going with a bad-bezan (straw hand fan). The skewers are turned carefully so as not to allow the meat to fall off. Then the cooked kabobs and grilled tomatoes are placed in between layers of fresh taftoon (flat bread) and served with aromatic polo, sumac spice, fresh herbs like basil leaves, mint, parsley, quartered raw onions, yogurt and a pitcher of ice-cold doogh (yogurt drink).
2 lbs. lean ground turkey
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh garlic minced
1 Tbsp. fresh green chile minced
2 tsp. koubideh spices
A pinch of cardamom powder
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil or ghee
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients. Cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours.Mold handfuls of the turkey mixture, about 1 cup, to form a mini burger or round balls. Make sure the meat is spread to an even thickness. Refrigerate until you are ready to pan grill.Brush grate liberally with oil or ghee, and arrange kabobs on pan. Cook for 10 minutes, or until well done, turning as needed to brown evenly. Traditionally this is formed on a skewer and grilled.
Serve with Persian mast-o-khiar (yogurt and cucumber dip).
Roasted Carrots In Mustard Oil
American chefs have discovered mustard oil. Use it for sautéing and roasting as it has a heady aroma and a rich clang to it. Warning: once you start using this oil you crave its flavor.
4 cup diced carrots
3 Tbsp. mustard oil1 tsp. hing/asafetida (derived from fennel)
2 tsp. cumin seeds or panchphoran blend
½ tsp. chili powder
½ tsp. turmeric
Salt to taste
2 square inch of jaggery (sweet) lime juice or mango powder (tangy) ½ cup herbs (bitter) (all optional, but grand)
Heat oil in a pan. Add cumin seeds and hing and sauté till it changes color. Stir or rotate the pan. Add red chili powder, carrots, turmeric and use a spoon to stir the spices onto the carrots. Add salt. Steam through. You may need to add a bit of water. Towards the end of steaming or cooking add jaggery and fold in.
Add dry mango powder when cooked (optional). Add minced cilantro or dill leaves and serve hot with a dollop of plain yogurt, flat bread or roti and a side of fresh tomato dal.
Here’s a dish from Thailand with added fall favorites of pumpkin or winter squash and Thai eggplant. Herbs like galangal and kaffir lime leaves add citrus aroma to this dish.
1-2 Tbsp. green curry paste
1 can Coconut milk, 16 oz can
1 lb. boneless chicken, pork, beef cut into chunks or thinly slices
4-5 Thai eggplants½ red and yellow sweet bell pepper
½ cup winter squash
3-4 kaffir lime leaves
Handful sweet Thai basil
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. palm sugar
In a warm pan or wok fry curry paste in 1-3 Tbsp. of cooking oil. (For vegetarian, add coconut cream, ½ cup of water, kaffir lime leaves, and lemon grass, and cook it for 3-4 minute until it boils to release the fragrance and skip the next step.) Add chicken, pork or beef, fish sauce, salt and sugar stir 2-3 minutes, add the rest of coconut milk, bring to boil. Taste test for spiciness, saltiness and sweetness, if more flavor is needed, add fish sauce, sugar or green curry paste to taste, if salty add a bit of water. Stir in vegetables, cover pan and continue cooking for about 5-6 minutes or until vegetables are tender, add sweet Thai basil, ready to serve. Serve in bowl garnished with basil leaves and lime wedge on the side, serve along with Thai jasmine rice or vermicelli noodles and drizzles lime juice over the top.
A sweet dessert served on many festive occasions in India.
1/2 cup sooji (semolina)
1/4 cup ghee (clear butter)
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ cup water
Pinch of cardamom powder and saffron
2 Tbsp. of raisins
2 Tbsp. sliced almonds for garnish
Boil the water with sugar, cardamom powder and saffron in a pan over low medium heat. Bring to a boil and set aside. Melt ghee in a frying pan on medium heat. Add sooji and raisins and roast on medium heat; stirring constantly, 8 minutes. Sooji will be golden brown and pinkish color. This gives the halwa its rich nutty taste. It’s better to have the heat low and go longer for the browning than to do this step quickly. Add to the water slowly as it will spatter. Turn heat to medium low and let cook for 2-3 minutes. Sooji absorbs the water and gets drier as the dish cools so keep Halwa pliable. Garnish with almonds.