Desi to die for: South Asian markets spice up Metro Detroit’s cuisine

From samosa to daal to biryani, the eclectic (and at times delightfully spicy) cuisine of Southern Asia has gained a visible presence in Metro Detroit in recent years. It's a phenomenon that can be witnessed (and tasted) quite readily at more than two dozen local ethnic markets in our region.

The emergence of a network of South Asian, or Desi, food retailers here is tied to an influx of immigrants from various parts of the Indian subcontinent (which includes countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) to Southeast Michigan over the last few decades.

There are now around 60,000 South Asian-American families living in Michigan, mostly in Metro Detroit, according to South Asian American Voices for Impact, a Canton-based group that provides education, outreach, and advocacy services to the Desi community.

Although it's come in different waves, much of the immigration from South Asia to Metro Detroit has happened since the 1990s.

"[For] the last 20 years, pretty much it's the IT engineers that have been coming to Michigan," SAAVI President Chandru tells Metromode, "but prior to that right from the 1960s, you have engineers and business folks coming to the U.S. and settling down, and from Pakistan and Bangladesh a lot of them also came as refugees."

Different nations, similar cuisines

When it comes to the food of the Indian subcontinent, Acharya says the cuisines of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan "have a lot in common." But there are still regional specialties and preferences like Hyderabadi biryani, a mixed rice and meat dish that originated in India but is very popular in Pakistan. And Pakistanis tend to eat a lot of red meat and a variety of biryani mixed rice dishes. Vegetarian cuisine, on the other hand, is very central to Hindus in India.

Metro Detroit ethnic markets run the gamut of these traditions. Metromode profiles three of these shops here to help our readers get a deeper understanding of the diversity of South Asian culture and cuisine in our region.

Amanah Poultry & Groceries

Perched on the corner of Conant and Yemans in Hamtramck, Amanah Poultry & Groceries makes its home in a sturdy brick building with a big yellow sign proudly announcing its name in English and Bengali.

The shop—which carries a sizable assortment of imported goods, frozen foods and meats and is known for its extremely fresh chicken—is well-positioned to draw in folks from the growing Bangladeshi community that makes its home in Hamtramck and a nearby slice of Detroit.

Amanah's owner is a friendly fellow with a cap and a long goatee named Ahmed Hussain; he has a good-spirited candor about him that seems to fit well with the name Amanah, an Arabic word that refers to the fulfilling or upholding of trusts.

Born in the city of Sylhet, Hussain immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, following in the footsteps of his father, a sailor, and his brother, who served in the U.S. Army. Although his first home in this country was Queens in New York City, he heard about Hamtramck from his brother, who had settled here and found a job with Ford. His sibling's tales of cheap land and inexpensive living conditions in Michigan eventually proved too hard to resist.

"[My brother] went to New York [to] vacation, and when he came [back, he took] me with him," says Hussain.  "We drive here, and then I look, and I say: 'OK, no problem!' We did buy this place and then fixed everything."

At first, the brother was the owner and Hussain served as the shop's butcher. Eventually, his sibling opened a travel agency called Fair Sky Travel, and Hussain ended up owning the shop. He now runs the place with the help of his sons.

In addition to spices, rice mixes, lentils, rice and a nice assortment of pickles, the store offers a selection of fresh produce, including mangos from Pakistan that Hussain says are as "sweet as honey." The store also boasts an ample selection of frozen foods including kebabs, chicken and beef patties, fish (both Bangladeshi-specific and more typical U.S. varieties) and an oily flatbread called paratha.

For many of the customers, however, the real attraction is the fresh chicken. Hussain has been a butcher all his life and slaughters the chicken (and Turkey for Thanksgiving) himself.

"Our chicken is special. Amish people raise [it] for us, and we slaughter it  [in a special room in the back of the store]," says Hussain. "We take the skin off [and charge] $2.25 a pound."

Hussain is an authorized Halal slaughterer and has also cooperated with a rabbi to butcher chicken in a kosher manner for Jewish holidays. The shop gets brisk business from Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis and Yemenis in the area.  It used to get a lot of Polish customers too, but Hussain says most of them have moved on to the suburbs at this point.

Hussain says he has no complaints. Hamtramck is thriving these days, and business is good, a state of affairs he attributes to hard work and God's assistance.

Payal Grocers

Payal is a Hindi word that refers to an anklet, a special kind of jewelry that covers a woman's ankles. While Payal Grocers in Sterling Heights may not have any anklets in stock, it has plenty of products to cover folks' Desi cooking needs.

Known for its fresh vegetables, the shop carries staples like spices, flour, rice and frozen foods. Although the Payal has ketchup and a few other convenience items, most of the products there are decidedly non-American.

"[It's] mostly Indian foods," says owner Romy Patel. "Pretty much everything comes pre-packed from India and is directly shipped over here."

As for the produce, Payal gets much of it locally, though some is shipped in from Florida. In addition to the edible stuff, the store also carries a variety of beauty supplies and phone cards.

A native of India, Patel originally hails from the city of Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat; he later immigrated to the U.S. with his family. After first spending time in New York, he eventually moved to Michigan after hearing great things about the school system from relatives who lived here.

Eventually Patel married, and he and his wife decided to open a market. In their search for a storefront, they ended up stumbling onto an already existing market on Dequindre between 16 Mile and 17 Mile.

"We just happened to come upon it, talked to the owners and they were looking to sell," Patel tells Metromode. "We have other family members that have the same kind of business, and they've had pretty good success with it, so we decided to give it a try. "

About two years after acquiring the space, the Patels built out the inside of the building to accommodate more goods. They now carry nearly twice as many products as when they opened.

Payal attracts a mix of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Middle Eastern customers, as well as quite a few non-immigrant Americans from the surrounding area. While the owners have advertised on some Desi community websites to let folks know about the shop, Patel tells Metromode the majority of their clients shop there because of positive word of mouth.

"Customer service is number one," says Patel. "Customers tell us that one of the reasons that they like coming here is they always see a smile on our faces, and we are always ready to help them."

Asia Grocers & Halal Meat

Located in a strip mall on Middlebelt near 12 Mile Rd.,Asia Grocers & Halal Meat offers a bountiful collection of Desi food options to shoppers in Farmington Hills and other nearby areas of Oakland County.  

The market's shelves are packed with rows of South Asian seasonings and rice mixes, cans of beans, cookies and sweets from the Indian subcontinent. Customers can also pick up heaping bags of rice, Desi-style yogurt and various types of frozen foods and vegetables.

Mahmoud Ahmed, a native of Pakistan, founded the store in 2009. Although he wasn't available for comment, Khurram Arif, a part-time employee of the store, was happy to tell Metromode more about the shop.

As the name suggests, the market is well-known for its meats. Shoppers have their choice of various cuts of goat, lamb, beef, veal and chicken.

"Most of their product comes from... a slaughterhouse in downtown Detroit. It’s certified to do halal there," says Arif. "Chicken they get from Chicago."

Another attraction is Karachi Corner, a small kitchen that sits in the back end of the store behind a small dining area. The food is made by a local cook named Ahmed and is popular with Farmington Hills' Pakistani community and Indian students who live in the area. The little kitchen offers all kinds of hot meals for visitors, like chicken biryani and nihari, a stew made mainly of slow-cooked meat like beef or lamb, sides like naan and kheer, and a rice pudding.

Asked about his favorite meal offered by the kitchen, Arif doesn't limit himself.

"Everything," he says. "Everything that he makes, all the kebabs and the chicken tikka. It's all delicious!"

This is part of an ongoing series on Metro Detroit's ethnic markets, Read more in the series here.