Basil, Thai galangal, the creamiest ice creams from abroad… your neighbourhood store has started stocking everything you need to rustle up a fancy meal, writes PRIYADARSHINI PAITANDY

Wasabi nuts are yummy, but finding them here is next to impossible. So when a friend suggests Mercado, a new gourmet store in the city, I head there with my fingers crossed. And guess what? Sitting smugly sealed on a shelf are packets of my objet du désir, jostling for space with pretzels and cookies and sauces. Nearby are an assortment of cold cuts and Ben & Jerry's ice creams.

“We have around 45 varieties of meat,” says Nicholas Paul, owner of Mercado, Spanish for ‘market place. “The idea behind the store is to make available products that are still an elusive buy for most food enthusiasts. We also have a wide selection of fruits, vegetables and herbs such as Thai galangal, basil, Mandarin fruit, snow peas, and seven to eight varieties of lettuce.”

If the past couple of decades brought us junk food and fine dining, the last couple of years have introduced us to stores that promise a global culinary shopping experience, right at home.

Suddenly, everything comes with options. And resignation at having to make do with ordinary-tasting local cheeses has been replaced by glee over the entry of feta and parmesan, gouda and haloumi.

From humble beginnings, gourmet stores have evolved into a popular, taken-for-granted fixture on the shopping itinerary of foodies on the prowl.

Increased demand

Even the unpretentious Amma Naana that supplied us our daily groceries has come of age, adding delicatessen products to its regular fare.

Explains Sentil Kumar of Amma Naana: “Around 12 years ago, we introduced such products based on customer requirement. Lately, there has been an increased demand because of economic development, awareness and the growing number of expatriates.”

Nagaraj of Maison Des Gormet agrees that the growing expatriate population has fuelled the gourmet revolution. “When we travel abroad, we look for Indian food and ingredients. Similarly, when expats arrive, they require their own ingredients, and that's where we step in to meet the demand.”

And, there are different clients for different products. “For instance, Korean and Japanese clients especially ask for our European cucumbers,” he adds

Nagaraj says that though most of his clientele comprise expats, he does not want to turn his store into an elitist bastion. As for Nicholas, 70 per cent of whose clients are Indian, he says: “Mine is more like a neighbourhood store. I want people to walk in, try my products and buy them only if they like them.”

Variety fare

Remember how when we were in school, pasta was a grand term that stood for macaroni doused with cheese. But where there was once deprivation now exists prosperity.

Havens such as Maison Des Gourmet offer 20 kinds of pasta, a plethora of pesto sauces, and over 45 varieties of cheese.

The pricing is, of course, on the steeper side, but that hasn't deterred well-heeled connoisseurs from digging deep into their pockets for a taste of Western Europe, or South Africa.

Old-timers such as Nilgiri's and 5-Star Supreme have caught on as well, as have specialty outlets such as Nuts and Spices and Brown Tree. And, although a large chunk of the products on offer are imported, there are some Indian varieties too — masalas, home-cured meats, fiery chutneys and good-old podis.

Cable TV and the Internet have ensured that every kid worth his cheeseburger now mouths ‘risotto' or ‘fusilli' before he can actually spell them. Four-year-old Shreeya Rajarajan can barely get her nursery rhymes right, but when it comes to her favourite tacos, she insists on having them stuffed with re-fried beans, and served with sour-cream dip.

“When we take her shopping, she manages to pick up a packet of taco shells and a can of baked beans,” laughs her aunt Abirami, who admits that gourmet stores with “fancy commodities” have helped ease the cooking process.

Restaurants whipping up Thai, Italian and other Continental cuisines, too, have it easy thanks to readily-available ingredients.

While Maison Des Gourmet already serves sandwiches and delectable desserts and salads made of superior ingredients, Mercado too shortly plans to do the same.

A sandwich here starts from Rs. 110 and, depending on your customised preferences, could go up to Rs. 600.

Spoilt for choice, no longer do we have to badger our friends and relatives abroad to get us garlic olive oil or a tin of caviar. And the next time you travel, forget about loading your bags with Italian balsamic or pure maple syrup.

Grab that huge, inexpensive artefact perched alluringly on the display window, or even an oversized piece of street art. Thanks to the gourmet stores back home, there is bound to be space in your luggage.

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