Continuing with my series on markets that serve Minnesota’s more recent immigrant communities, here is a quick look at a store with a name both innocuous and misleading: TBS Mart International Foods, which is in fact an Indian grocery, and my go-to Indian grocery in the south metro at that. It is located right off the 494: going west from the 35 you get off at Portland, turn right, and it anchors the smaller strip mall on the right hand side of the road. Indeed, it is one of three Indian food-related businesses there: there are also two Indian restaurants—Kabob’s Indian Grill and India Cafe (as yet unexamined by me). But first, a bit of context.
Minnesota has a large Indian population—it has doubled in both of the last two censuses—behind only the Hmong among Asian populations. Much of that population resides in the suburbs of the Twin cities, and tracking Indian grocery stores will give you a pretty good sense of the likely distribution. The largest store, Pooja Groceries, is up north in Columbia Heights. (They’re in the same large strip mall as Dong Yang, one of the larger Korean stores—both will be part of this series eventually.) A little further south of Pooja Groceries on Central is Little India in Nordeast. The relative proximity of these two large establishments suggests that there is a large concentration of Indians and other South Asians in the northern suburbs; however, Indian groceries can be found ringing the Twin Cities metro as a whole. The south metro, in particular, has a growing number of stores—many of which seem to cater to South Indian populations.
Such is TBS Mart. How do I know that it caters particularly to South Indian populations? Well, if you couldn’t tell from listening to the languages and accents of many of the customers, you might be able to deduce it from much of the vegetables, dry ingredients and frozen fish that they sell. And yes, the presence of the last item in the preceding list will tell you that, unlike Pooja Groceries, and like Little India, TBS Mart is not a vegetarian establishment—this might also help you deduce the South Indian bent as South India is far more non-vegetarian than North India. Unlike Little India—whose proprietors are also South Indian—they do not have a full-on meat section where you can buy goat legs whole or cut to your specifications; they do, however, sell pre-cut got meat in their frozen section.
I don’t mean to suggest, however, that the store is only good for South Indian kitchens—you can get pretty much everything you need for Indian cooking there: pretty much everything I reference in my Indian recipes on the blog is available there (you can also purchase the Stone Age pressure cookers I always bang on about). And if you’re not much of a cook, they also have a large frozen foods section. The main thing they lack—in comparison to the much larger Pooja Groceries—is a wide selection of freshly prepared snacks and so forth. But given the greater proximity to us, it’s a rare weekend when we find ourselves compelled to drive up to Columbia Heights (this is also because there’s also a Korean store in Eagan that mostly obviates the need to go to Dong Yang—more on this in a few weeks).
Here is a large sampling of what’s available at TBS Mart. Take a look and scroll down for some more thoughts about changes in the Indian food shopping scene and so forth.
If you looked closely at the pictures of the vegetable section in particular, you will probably be wondering what some of those vegetables are. I should tell you that I am not 100% sure either. As mentioned, the store’s selection tilts towards the bottom half of the country, and there are things available here that I’ve never cooked or come across in Bengali cuisine, or for that matter in Delhi. It’s very interesting to see how changing patterns of South Asian immigration to the US in the last couple of decades have not only transformed the Indian grocery experience in the US, but also influenced my sense of Indian food.
When I first came to the US in the early 1990s, Indian grocery stores in Los Angeles seemed essentially aimed at North Indian kitchens—you’d have to go to Bangladeshi stores for Bengali ingredients and I don’t really recall much by way of South Indian things. In the early 2000s in Colorado, I saw the expansion of South Indian ingredients, and over the last decade in Minnesota this phenomenon has solidified. It’s possible, of course, that this has been a regional split all along—I’ve not been to an Indian grocery in Los Angeles in a long time; perhaps there’s just a larger South India population outside Southern California. What is true, however, is that there seems to be more of a de facto national integration in Indian groceries in the US now than back in India. There are things available in the stores here that you will not find easily in Delhi. And for someone like me, it’s a reminder of how little I actually know about Indian food writ large. It’s not just the occasional vegetable that I cannot identify; there are many spices and types of flour and rice that I wouldn’t know what to do with.
Then there are some other, messier issues. While feeding the diaspora’s nostalgia for biscuits and soft drinks from back home seems innocent enough, I’m not sure what to make of the large quantities of frozen fish that now fill the freezer cases of most South Asian groceries. I have no idea under what conditions these fish are harvested or what the state of these fisheries is back in India—or what effect feeding the diaspora’s desires has on the Indian market and on the environment. On the pure wonder front, I have no idea where the vegetables at markets like these are grown in the US or by whom. I have to assume that it’s only South Asians who are eating tindora or karela or cooking with curry leaves: who is growing them in large enough quantities to stock every desi grocery in the country at non-extortionate prices?
Whether you’re interested in these questions or not, a visit to a good South Asian grocery store should be of interest to anyone interested in the food of the region. And if you’re in the southern end of the Twin Cities metro area, TBS Mart is that good grocery store. You should know that Fridays are the days when their fresh vegetable deliveries usually arrive. Saturday morning is therefore a good time to go. (And if you can i.d the vegetables I’m iffy about in the slideshow, please write in below.)