Indy’s grocery boom promises cultural vitality

I kid you not: Saraga sells a Japanese canned coffee drink called God. They look like burrs on steroids. Or a cross between pineapple and porcupine. The big box is marked durians, a fruit I’ve never heard of. In the spirit of culinary adventure, cultural understanding and general recklessness, I am buying one of these mystery fruits, here in the produce section of Saraga, Indy’s big, new, international grocery store.

I get encouragement from a fellow shopper. “It’s from Thailand,” she says fondly. “It’s a tropical fruit.”

The spiky durian lurks on our countertop for three days. Cutting it open, we get a whiff of an overripe garbage disposal. We learn later that the durian is famous for tasting like heaven and smelling like hell. Inside are dark seeds and silky globules of oblong flesh that taste like fruity scrambled eggs. We read that a guy died from a caloric overdose after eating four durians in a row. And that if you pass beneath a durian tree, you better wear a helmet. Not all of Saraga’s produce is this dangerous. But it’s distinctive.

Saraga opened in Lafayette Place three months ago, in 62,000 feet of a former Super K store. The creative re-use of a defunct big box retail space is one reason to celebrate. Another is the emergence of a new, locally-owned grocery store on the Indy scene — Korean-born brothers Jong and Bong Jae Sung ran a store in Bloomington for 10 years before expanding here. The name of their store means “life” in Korean.

Saraga is part museum, part geography lesson. Like a zoo, Saraga offers so many rich realities in one place that it seems unreal. A visit here is a wide-aisled stroll through every kind of cookie, noodle, bean and frozen fish from all parts of the globe. It may well be the next hippest date destination, field trip site for students or inspiration for poets. I kid you not: Saraga sells a Japanese canned coffee drink called God.

“Exotic” is a tempting word to use when ogling the green bean jelly ice milk bars and the pollack tripe at Saraga. But one guy’s exotic is another guy’s staple; a curiosity for a Hoosier native is an immigrant’s lifeline back home. Somebody in our city is breathing a sigh of relief to find jackfruit chips, squid nuggets, mini balls of fresh gingko, dried seaweed by the yard, rectal meats, canned quail eggs or live blue crab.

About half of the product mix is of Latin American origin, with another 25 percent from Asia, and the rest from Africa, Europe and North America. Bilingualism is a prerequisite for employment at the store. Saraga is also a café, with sushi, Korean noodles, fajitas and egg rolls. “This is what America is now,” said Jong Sung, surveying the aisles of families and couples speaking Spanish and Punjabi.

Saraga feels like a sign of cultural vitality in Indianapolis. Food, music, art, film: Great cities offer a variety of it all. We’ve lost the Patio and Ballet Internationale. We may be in danger of losing our hometown full-service grocery chain and most generous corporate sponsor, Marsh. But in Saraga, we now have a source for canned silkworm pupa. And a gathering place for people of many origins. International foods, Sung says, “give people a bigger mind.”

A tricky question is: How does Saraga’s mind-widening mission, local ownership and wacky worldliness square with the fact that lots of energy was used to transport those durians here? Must we stick with Indiana apples for environmental reasons? What makes a food source sustainable? All fair questions for the mindful eater.

Corporate organic

Mindful eaters are the target market for another new Indianapolis food source: Sunflower Market. Corporate execs at the Minnesota-based SUPERVALU company chose a former A&P store on Broad Ripple Avenue as the pilot location for the first Sunflower Market in the U.S. Sunflower Markets are branded as “natural and organic food for less” and “the sunny new face of natural food.” The store opened in January amid TV cameras, a cute kid in a sunflower suit and a bevy of supportive Village residents. “Best thing to happen to Broad Ripple in a long time,” said Ellen Morley Matthews, director of the Broad Ripple Village Association.

On opening day, merchandise buyer Ed Ambrose led me around the store, pointing out the all-natural Coleman Meats and a wide selection of cheeses and wines. A lot of space is devoted to the weigh-it-yourself, grab-and-go, soup/salad/sushi/ sandwich/baked goods counter, featuring rustic breads and sweets made with organic flour and sugar from Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery. Ambrose proudly displayed the local products he stocks, including eggs from Seven Springs Farm in Carthage, Ind., coffee from Hubbard and Cravens, dairy from Traders Point Creamery (sold for less than at the Creamery itself) and candy bars from the Indy-based Endangered Species Chocolate Company.

Impressive, for a corporate behemoth. Sunflower’s parent company SUPERVALU is an industrial food giant. They own Cub Foods, Save-A-Lot and the Jewel grocery chain in Chicago. They are a Fortune 500 company and the 10th largest food retailer with revenues of $20 billion and over 1,500 retail grocery locations across the U.S. Yes, Sunflower is pushing organics. Their workers are unionized. And instead of a new big box store on North Keystone, as Whole Foods is proposing, Sunflower re-purposed an existing building. As cute as they appear, they are the big guy.

The little guy is Good Earth, the cozy, locally-owned natural food store that’s been operating in Broad Ripple since the early ’70s. Is Good Earth afraid of big bad Sunflower? “I don’t think that they’ll be much competition for me,” says manager Bob Landman. “We offer so many things they don’t offer, like shoes. They have fresh meat, which we’re never going to offer. Our supplement selection is greater. They have some loss leader prices going on right now but that can’t continue.” One test of a grocery store’s commitment to its community is their willingness to post flyers about local events. Good Earth has a corkboard … will Sunflower?

On a return visit to Sunflower, with reggae music playing over the speaker, the store sparkles with high-watt lights and perked-up customers in a Disney World kind of way. I’m exploring the special refrigerated produce room, where the California-sourced produce is chilling. I select a bunch of organic spinach, stick it on the scale, punch in the PLU number, and see the $3.11 price on the screen. Out comes a sticker, which makes my time in the check-out line very quick. It’s only when I get home that I realize I’ve been overcharged … the sticker said I bought $5.85 worth of grapes. So much for value.

For customers with more faith in technology, Sunflower offers a check-out line novelty: Pay By Touch. This surreal mechanism measures, encrypts and stores the microscopic dimensions of your finger. After an initial sign-up, you can buy your tofu noodle salad with a touch of a digit: no plastic or cash needed. Talk about letting your money slip through your hands. On my way out, I notice a man with bifocals standing near the door with a notebook. Perhaps he was timing the length of the check-out experience, or mapping the traffic patterns in the store.

Sunflower begs the question: Why Indy for a new organic retail venture? “The demographic was right,” Ambrose said. “While we want to go after the masses,” he said, “this area has a well-educated population and great foot traffic, according to our research.” A SUPERVALU press release says, “The market for organic foods and beverages is growing eight times as fast as the conventional food market and is expected to generate sales of $32.3 billion by 2009.”

From dirt to kitchen

Contrast the picture-perfect Sunflower experience with a ragtag Saturday morning at the Traders Point Creamery winter market. The barn is bustling with chatty families. Somebody’s playing a guitar. The bar is serving hot breakfasts of French toast, spinach-egg omelets and hot cocoa made with largely local ingredients. Inevitably, I see someone I know. On this visit, we’re drawn to a woman behind a pyramid of turnips, perhaps the homeliest of winter root vegetables. Their plentitude makes me want to buy some, and we do, turning them into peppery oven turnip chips as part of dinner that night.

From an environmental standpoint, the most sustainable way to procure food is to get it straight from the grower, organic or not. Due to the cost of packaging, refrigerating and transporting even organic foods over long distances (say, from California), buying local saves resources and supports the proverbial local economy. Agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry says that one farmer’s market is more valuable than all the writing he’s ever done.

Inconvenient as it can be, eating local is an ideal worth striving for. In a book called Coming Home to Eat, writer Gary Paul Nabhan ate only what he could find or grow within 250 miles of his Arizona home. He got to know his home in a whole new way. He ate a lot of plants and even a bit of roadkill. Plus, he lost weight.

The next best thing to foraging is community-supported agriculture (CSAs). As a member of a CSA, you have a farmer to call your own. Every week, year round, Roger Sharritt of Sharritt Market Gardens in Fortville e-mails us his list of available produce: asparagus in the spring, tomatoes in summer, squash in the fall and beets in the winter, which we retrieve at a designated farmer’s market each week. I’ll never forget the first time I had a Sharritt sweet potato. His was smaller than the ones from Meijer, the flesh a richer orange. Mostly I like the short distance between the dirt and my kitchen.

Lucking out

Here in a decent city in the richest country in the world, we have lucked out with a range of choices about our food sources. Getting food can be a no-brainer or a meditative act, a salute to the convenience of global economy, or a moral embrace of the local. Most likely it’s something in between. The thrill of the Thai durian is a different pleasure than wild Indiana blackberries, an annual rite of summer. The best we can do is vote our conscience with our dollars, and let our palates lead the way.

See for Zachary Shields' video of Sunflower Market and Jim Walker’s slideshow of Saraga.

Searching for pandan leaves …and other adventures in Indy’s international markets

Terry Kirts

I needed them for a dessert I was making. One of my globetrotting friends, Brendan, was hosting an Indonesian dinner inspired by his recent travels. No Americanized or “Asian-themed” affair would this be. Brendan had already scooped me on Saraga International Grocery, raving about the culinary treasures to be found in Indy’s newest and largest international market.

While I don’t typically whip up Jakarta street foods for weeknight dinners, I never turn down a challenge. “What can I bring?” I asked, RSVPing over the phone.

He hesitated. “We’re actually a little short on desserts,” Brendan said.

“Desserts?” I thought. “Asian?” Visions of flavorless cakes and gelatinous, neon-colored puddings from Chinese buffets slithered into my head. “I’ll see what I can do,” I told him, inwardly worrying that this potluck challenge would be my Waterloo.

A quick check of Google and Epicurious wrought only minimal recipes, most of them just outside of my culinary reach. One of the few that didn’t involve milking my own coconuts or boiling lye water was Bubur Cha-Cha, a festive sounding concoction of sweet potatoes, yams and black-eyed peas simmered in coconut milk with various flavorings. Simple enough, I thought.

The one wildcard ingredient I had no clue about was pandan leaves, sometimes referred to as screw pine leaves, though this latter name portended embarrassing mistranslations in the aisles of an Asian grocery. With Internet printout in hand, I headed off to Saraga, certain that such a vast, diverse larder would have what I wanted. Alas, the place was still being stocked, and my request was met with puzzled looks. Rather than deferring to their managers, head-scratching employees pulled out their cell phones and chattered away in various Asian languages. Were they snickering about this egghead foodie with his “Asian” recipe wanting to cook just like a native? Whatever they were saying, I was finally led to a freezer and handed a package of banana leaves. “No,” I said, “pandan leaves.” But all I got were shrugs.

Down Lafayette Road at Saigon Market, things were even more bleak. I had often turned to this little gem next to one of Indy’s best Asian eateries as a sure source in the past. But Vietnamese cooks, it seems, use little or no pandan leaves. Even farther south, at Lee Supermarket, I searched and searched, determined not to give up my quest. Finally, a manager spied the recipe I clutched in my fist and pointed in the direction of the freezers where I would, indeed, find my pandan leaves.

Still stumbling about, however, I heard a voice over the public address booming, “Customer needs help finding pandan leaves. Repeat, customer needs help finding pandan leaves.” The lunacy of my quest and my Midwestern culinary hubris were suddenly, embarrassingly aired to all of my fellow shoppers. Nonetheless, a kind employee finally came trotting over with exactly what I wanted: a frozen package of long, vibrant green leaves that brought images of the tropics to mind.

Given all of my stops and the hassle of trying to find a single ingredient, you might think I was frustrated by the whole endeavor and ready for the ease of one-stop supermarket shopping. In truth, I relished my odyssey. Stopping in at different stores with such differing stocks of products put me in touch with marketing styles of yore. Along the way, I picked up a lot of other great ingredients for future experimenting: green curry paste, ginger oil, sheets of lacy rice paper.

Despite the miles I’ve put on my car over my years in Indy, it’s the way I prefer to shop. I stop at Babushka’s Deli on West 86th for oversized bottles of dark Baltika beer and sachets of bergamot-scented Czar Nicholas tea. I drop in at Lee Supermarket not just for pandan leaves but Brazilian dulce de leche wafer cookies and salt-cured duck legs. Recently, I stumbled upon Slaviansky Bazar on North Meridian, and I was amazed at the selection of farmer’s cheeses, frozen pierogi, dark breads, chocolates and spiced pâtés and meats in one of Indy’s most pristine and friendly international markets. Thinking outside of the big box stores, we’ve got a wealth of gastronomic riches in this city, and just about any exotic recipe can be replicated here with what these wee independent markets offer.

What about those pandan leaves? Well, they offered only the subtlest of flavors to the Bubur Cha-Cha. The dessert was delicious and refreshing, but it would have been so without those green corkscrew-shaped leaves. But that’s missing the point. The mere fact that a package of pandan leaves lies in the back of my freezer proves that we are not landlocked, narrow-minded or limited in this city. We need only turn our cars into different parking lots, to let those who didn’t grow up speaking our language help us decide what to put on our tongues.