Velen Ambalam never tires of repeating this one-liner to his customers at Idly Dosai International Market in Chanhassen: “I always hear people talking about Taco Tuesday, but how about Indian Friday?” he tells them. Ambalam punctuates what he refers to as a joke with a laugh, though it’s clear there’s a morsel of truth to his words.
After all, co-owners, Ambalam and Senthil Ramamoorthy, have high hopes for the ethnic market’s long-term impact on Chanhassen. That means building a loyal customer base among the immigrants hailing geographically from the Middle East to the Philippines, as well as Westerners with an appetite for something different for dinner. (Indian cookbooks are available to borrow.)
Nestled between a hair salon and a Kumon educational center in the Colonial Square strip mall near the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the market is a one-stop shop for international varieties of rice, ghee, spices, oils, coffee and teas, snacks and an assortment of fresh vegetables. Also for sale is jewelry, clothes, games, personal care products, home decor elements and religious items.
“The community is slowly coming around,” Ambalam says. “I’ve had more than 100 people take the recipe books home. I can’t only rely on the immigrant community. The more success in getting Americans in Chanhassen and Chaska to start the habit of cooking Indian food every Friday, my business will be good.”
Ramamoorthy serves as a tour guide on a cultural food journey through the market, explaining how a spice, rice or vegetable can be mixed together into tongue-tingling dishes such as biryani (a mixed rice dish served vegetarian or with meat), tandoori chicken (marinated in yogurt and spices) and palak paneer (a vegetarian dish made using spinach). “We are bringing a unique, international flavor to Chanhassen,” Ramamoorthy says.
“You will not find [most of what is sold there] in American grocery stores or anywhere else in Chanhassen.”
From Indian pickles and chapati bread to palm-based unrefined sugar and basil seed drinks flavored with lychee fruit, the market sells a bit of everything. And, if it’s not on the shelves, customers are encouraged to write requests on a notice board at the front of the store.
“We want to serve many communities,” Ambalam says. “It’s a big range of products to have. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
The market is small, only three aisles, but well-organized. “When somebody comes to an Indian store in the olden days, it was always messy,” says Ramamoorthy, who has been in the U.S. for about 15 years, while Ambalam has been here for more than 20 years. “They want to have a good clean shopping experience. We want to keep it clean and neat.”
The tops of the walls are bordered with dazzling images of the people, places and food from the other side of the world. “Instead of simply having a blank wall, we wanted to put some cultural stuff up,” Ramamoorthy says. “A lot of kids ask me ‘What is this?’ or ‘What is that?’”
Propped against a back wall is a carrom board, a tabletop game similar to billiards. Nearby is a box of bambarams, a traditional top toy used mainly in India and Pakistan. Ramamoorthy shows off his skills with the top, expertly flicking one to the ground. “Now, the kids are addicted to electronics, but I had a lot of fun with this,” he says.
In the back of the store, produce with exotic names such as turia (ridge gourd), dudhi (bottle gourd), dosakai (a round cucumber) and snake gourds (which live up to their name) reside near the more familiar sweet potatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. Ramamoorthy points to curry leaves, used for fresh seasoning or as part of several spice mixes, then picks up a bitter melon, used in food, drink and medicine to treat a variety of maladies. “You can stir fry it with onions and other stuff,” he says of the bitter melon. “It’s good for digestion. A lot of Indians eat it once a month.”
Indian cooking, he says, can be quite healthy, especially cooking from scratch. “We have some frozen food, but we don’t want to keep a huge amount of refrigerators,” Ramamoorthy says. “We want them to try cooking it.” Around the corner is bag after bag of different rice, including basmati and sona masuri. “The majority of Indians eat sona masuri for their regular intake,” he explains. “The basmati rice is used for making biryani.”
The inspiration for the market’s name comes from South Indian breakfast foods: idli, a white rice cake made by steaming a batter of fermented black lentils and rice, and dosa, which looks like a crepe, but its main ingredients are rice and black lentils. “It’s popular all across India, all over the world, actually,” Ramamoorthy says. “All Indians know what it is. It’s a core breakfast item. They give you a lot of protein, and you need more protein in the morning. We thought that would be more unique [as a name] instead of doing something like Indian Bazaar or Indian Spices.” The store also has a small boutique area, featuring items such as bindis, bangles, dhoties and sarees. “We keep bringing cool stuff every two months from India,” he says. “Something seasonal, something festival related.”
Sriram Viswanathan has been a regular customer since his wife discovered the market, which is close to their Chanhassen home. “You get much more authentic items here,” he says, “and vegetables that you can’t find most places in the area.”
Ramamoorthy would like to add a kitchen and offer fresh meats and possibly more locations. “This is my first business in the United States, so we want to be good, we want to be successful,” he says. “We feel like we’re helping the community.”
Where in the World
Ambalam and Ramamoorthy are from the southern tip of India, near the Indian Ocean, but didn’t meet until several years ago. Since the market opened in January 2018, they have taken on two additional partners. The store is a side venture, of sorts. Ramamoorthy, who lives with his wife, son and daughter in Eden Prairie, works in information technology at Optum; Ambalam, who lives with his wife and two sons in Eagan, is a real estate agent for Bridge Realty.