Smile Politely

Indulgences of India in Champaign-Urbana

Asmita and Pappu Patel run the biggest Indian store in Champaign-Urbana, the Bombay Market Indian grocery store. The store is well known in the C-U Indian community for its large selection and seasonal offerings, but now is garnering the interest of the African and Middle Eastern communities as well because of the Patels’ plan to diversify the range of products to include African and Middle Eastern produce and cooking supplies.

Photo courtesy of Pappu and Asmita Patel

Originally from the State of Gujarat in India, Pappu managed an IGA store in Hayworth and owned an American grocery store in Bloomington, and Asmita worked at the TJ Maxx in Bloomington when their son and daughter got their admit letters from the University of Illinois. On one of Pappu’s visits to Champaign, he took his son, a premed and psychology student, to the Indian store and was told that the owners were looking to sell the store. The Patels came back that weekend and made an offer on the store. The store is now a family run business with the couple managing it seven days a week, trusty store assistants helping, and the kids volunteering their time when they can.

Since the buying the store in March 2017, the Patels have made significant changes. They’ve added fresh produce: Pappu collects it from Chicago and brings it back every Tuesday and Friday, since fresh vegetables, greens and fruit grown in tropical India like ivy gourd, drumsticks, indian green chillis, banana fruit, jack fruit, Indian mangoes, litchi, and bitter gourd that are hard to find in the regular grocery stores. They stock meats, ready to eat to options (like biryani, curries, rotis, parathas, and jilebis), Indian drinks like Thumbs up, Maaza, Fruity, and Sugar Cane Juice, freshly made Indian bread like pav buns and cakes, and bagged snacks from all over India including Gujarati, and South Indian snacks.

But the best-kept secret is every Friday, Pappu brings in curried egg, mixed vegetable, paneer (Indian cheese), chicken and mutton puff pastries, samosas, kachoris (deep-fried dough with stuffing), and mirchi bajjis (deep fried mild chillis stuffed with sweet and sour condiments). These baked goods and seasonal Indian mangoes (sweeter than their Mexican cousins) sell out within a day or two, even though he brings in over a 100 pounds of mangoes.

Along with the Indian aisles, they also have some aisles stocked with products from Africa and the Middle East. Pappu casually chatted with moms, kids and grandparents in varied African and Indian vernaculars. He explained that he also has over 50 varieties of rice including brown, organic, long grain basmati, Sona Masoori, and Aahu Barah, as well as whole wheat, chickpea, and lentil flours; a range of black, green and herbal teas and spices in small, medium, and large sized bags.

We talked about how traditional Indian products like rice, tea, chickpea flour, lentil, beans, almonds, cashew nuts, and spices are much cheaper in the store and come in much bigger quantities than the American grocery stores. Pappu mentioned that this is the biggest reason why non-Indian people love the store: they can buy spices like bay leaf, cinnamon, pepper, mace, and chili powder by the pound for $2-$10.

The plethora of Indian kitchenware items like rolling pins, pressure cookers, idli stands and masala boxes are stacked in a corner of the store and share an aisle with vegan toothpaste, beauty products, Ayurvedic face masks (ancient Indian science of using household food products to create medicinal health and beauty products), toners, face creams, shampoos, and soaps. I was surprised to see the low prices of sulphur- and paraben-free shampoos and sandalwood soaps that I pay an arm and leg for at Lush.

Not sure where to start? Consider these options:

Indian Food Level – Basic:

  • Rasoi or Mother’s Cooking Sauce Kits – Make an authentic meal in 15 mins or less
  • Mango Kulfi – A creamy vegetarian ice cream
  • Indian biscuits like Hide n Seek, Bourbons, and Marie Gold
  • Frozen Butter Naan – Thick Indian bread coated in butter

Indian Food Level – Intermediate:

  • Haldiram’s Aloo Bhujia – Fried potato snack that is seriously addictive
  • Jilebi – Deep fried sugar syrup dessert in the refrigerated aisle
  • Red Label Chai – Black tea with or without added spices
  • Indo-Chinese Ramen Noodles – Chings, Top Ramen, or Maggi

Indian Food Level – Advanced:

  • Baked goods available every Friday afternoon
  • Refrigerated coconut, tomato, mint chutneys (vegan dipping alternatives to hummus and salsa)
  • Frozen Wraps – Vegetarian, vegan, and meat options available in varying spice levels
  • Haldiram’s Pani Puri Kit – make at home snack kit for a fun summertime snack

The Patels are happy that the store is more than a place to buy groceries. The bulletin board is full of posters and advertisements for meal delivery services, daycare, after-school programs, dance and music lessons, and events. They are active participants in many of the Indian events in town, and help host Indian Holiday-based events for Ugadi, Holi, Ganesh Chaturthi, Dusshera, and Diwali. They bring in holiday-specific décor and food, host sales around the Indian holidays, and give out freebies like fresh banana leaves and neem flowers to customers to help them celebrate the holidays just like they would at home.

They also support the local student community by offering free rides from campus to the store on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Students reserve this service by calling Pappu (309-706-9682) a day ahead of time. Even though both of their kids are now going to graduate and leave the U of I, Pappu and Asmita are happy to stay in the area and support the local community, and help more people discover the joy and tastes of Indian food by walking them through the store and explaining the variety of ingredients, dishes, and cuisines that make India unique.

Bombay Market
1726 W Bradley Ave
M-Sa 10 9 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Photos by Rashmi Tenneti, except where noted

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