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Henna powder, fresh coconuts, Mexican hot sauce and AAA batteries share shelf space down one aisle at the newly opened Oakley Spice House, where local shoppers can get an education in Indian cuisine or pick up a pack of hot dog buns.
Husband and wife Ranbir and Souk Bhatti opened Spice House, 3513 Main St., on March 1 with an eye toward offering Indian and Pakistani ingredients to local families. Soon, residents of the neighborhood showed up asking for less exotic fare like tortillas and peanut brittle.
Ranbir Bhatti, who owns a gas station and convenience store in Sonora, expected to carry some quick pickup items for locals, but has found himself filling a niche. With nearby grocery store slated for closure,
residents without cars seem keen on finding their favorite groceries within walking distance, he said.
The Bhattis are happy to oblige, bringing in requested items (many of them Mexican food staples), a smattering of fresh produce, popular snacks, drinks and even motor oil.
“We make it convenient for this neighborhood because a lot of people don’t have cars. We are trying to fulfill their requests,” said Souk Bhatti, who runs the store most days.
You might also run into the couple’s two children Shawn, 10, and Ravneet, 7, when they aren’t in school at Iron House Elementary. The store is open every day, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
It’s an eclectic mix at Oakley Spice House, but the prevailing flavor is Middle Eastern. Fresh
paneer cheese, dozens of quick mixes for Indian and Pakistani dishes and shelves of spices, flours and raw ingredients make up most of the store’s offerings. Free Indian language newspapers sit in the back and there are Indian language videos to rent or buy. Saffron, the golden ingredient of Indian cuisine, is encased in glass next to bangles and earrings. The Bhattis’ plan to add a frozen foods section with prepared foods, goat and lamb meat.
Ranbir said he and his wife once made a biannual
trip to Oakland to stock up on Indian staples such as basmati rice and chickpea flour. There are a few small stores carrying Middle Eastern staples in small quantities, but not enough to keep the Bhattis happy. So they decided to open a store in Oakley, where city planners were welcoming and helpful.
“We looked at this area, and they don’t have any Indian grocery stores,” Ranbir said.
The couple is hoping to draw more than Middle Eastern families. They encourage Oakley residents curious about Middle Eastern cuisine to stop by for ingredients and advice.
Cooks who don’t know their jal jeera from their petha shouldn’t be intimidated. Souk is an experienced cook who warmly shares tips with newcomers. Not feeling well? Try jal
“When your stomach is upset, you drink this,” she said.
A recent customer said her doctor suggested healthy, vegetarian Indian cuisine. Souk sent her home with two bunches of fresh spinach, the ingredients and her own recipe for palak paneer. Souk even offered her own recipe for the ubiquitous garam masala spice blend, something often guarded in Indian households:
Grind in a blender. Pick
out any large black cardamom shells. Store in tight container for up to 18 months.
That’s a lot of garam masala, said Ranbir, probably too much for a novice. He and his wife encourage newcomers to try a small, cheaper, pre-made mix before they move on to more complicated dishes and spices. The hope is that customers will return to try something else.
“I want you to buy something and come again, and again and again,” Ranbir said.
Hey, he’ll even get you a pack of hot dog buns.