TBS Mart International Foods sits in the middle of an strip mall on Portland Avenue in Bloomington, alongside Kabob’s restaurant, the India Café, the Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant, and the Pizza Gallery (also serving broaster chicken). While the strip mall is international, TBS Mart is not. The scent of spices—curry, cumin, cardamom, mustard, but especially the fenugreek with its unique and pleasant scent—hits you the minute you walk into the door and confirms it. This is a strictly Indian grocery store.
Indian food has a reputation of being healthy, and part of that reputation is about vegetarianism. About a third of Indians avoid meat—the higher castes for cultural and religious reasons and others for economic reasons. But, dairy products including cheese, yogurt, and clarified butter is an important part of the cuisine. All sorts of dairy products as well as meat and fish are for sale at the store.
Nathan Thainase, a Catholic priest from Chennai (a.k.a. Madras) in India, on the Bay of Bengal, now lives in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, and travels 50 minutes several times a month to shop at TBS. Madras fish was in his shopping basket when I met him. He does his own cooking, he says. “Yes, Indian foods are healthier than American foods. Americans eat lots of fat. They fry things in oil. That’s all right once in a while, but Indian food is better for you.”
Thainses says he chooses TBS because he likes the employees. “The staff is kind and gentle,” he says. “And if you don’t find what you need, you just inform them and they’ll find it for you and you can get it the next time you are here.”
The staff seems to be continually filling up shelves with new products. If you don’t find what you need, ask.
One item easy to find at TBS is rice, a staple in two-thirds of India where it has been cultivated for at least 9,000 years. The store doesn’t carry all 6,000 varieties of rice, but has two 35-foot rows with rice stacked four levels high from which to chose. It’s their biggest seller.
The best known, and some say the best tasting, is basmati, a fragrant long-grain rice, sold at TBS in 10- to 40-pound bags in your choice of brown or white. Either type has a lower glycemic level than other rices, a concern for those at risk of diabetes. There’s also a special “lower G.I.” (that’s glycemic level, not gastrointestinal) rice for sale. (If you have health concerns, though, don’t count on rice alone to save you—check with your health care professional.)
And, then there’s the huge variety of beans and dals (lentils)—dozens of types in a rainbow of colors, ready to make into stews and soups. Want to feel really, really healthy? Cook up some earthy tasting, highly nutritious sprouted moth bean (pronounced moat, thankfully) Maharashtrian style curry.
Of course, if you don’t have enough time to cook Indian every day, TBS has a solution, one that many Indians in the USA seem to like as well—frozen foods.
You can choose frozen curried lentil fritters that look like doughnuts or idil, a breakfast cake patty made of fermented rice and dal, spiced with fenugreek. There are frozen curries of various types, soups and spicy stews. There’s even an Indian pizza made with naan (a yeast flatbread) and topped with eggplant or with spinach and cheese. Each is only $2.49 but enough for a lunch or light dinner. This is not your grandfather’s TV dinner—unless your grandfather was from India.
You can slave all day over a hot roti maker to make your own Indian flat bread, or just buy it frozen and ready to go. Choices include (but are not limited to) roti (thin wheat bread), chapatti (whole wheat flatbread cooked on a flat skillet) and paratha (unleavened Punjabi breakfast bread stuffed with radish, onion or cauliflower) or kulcha (pan cooked Northern Indian baking powder bread that is sold plain or filled.) Most of these can go from freezer to frying pan or oven, hot and ready in a couple of minutes.
Of course, healthy isn’t necessarily low-calorie. A five-inch kulcha stuffed with Indian cheese, ginger, green chilies, fenugreek leaves, mango powder, cumin (and more) is 200 calories, not counting the butter you’ll want to put on top when if comes out of the pan. It sure is good, though. I’ll take two.
TBS Mart is located at 7836 Portland Avenue South In Bloomington. The store opens at 10:00 a.m. and closes at 8:30 p.m., except Sunday when it closes at 8:00 p.m.