Food & Drink Lullaby of spiceland

The buffet is just a savory distraction from the sweet seduction of the dessert case

A Little India seems to be developing near the corner of Evers and Wurzbach. Two Indian stores have occupied the turf for some time now, and into the ’hood lately has come India Sweet & Spiceland. (Gotta love the name.) If their mondo-size neon sign is any indication, the market and restaurant intends to be more than the new kid on the block.

Indian Sweet and Spiceland, on the city's northwest side, specializes in a large variety of Indian foods and dry goods. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

A plain space lighted by unadorned fluorescent strips, the market won’t win any más-macho points for its interior. Shelves stocked with Indian products and best-of-Bollywood videos occupy one side while on the other sit simple tables and chairs unencumbered by such niceties as napkin dispensers. The decor gets more interesting at the rear of the market, where a glass-fronted display case holds an array of sweets, but as seductive as the dazzlingly hued dainties may appear, we’re saving dessert for last.

The first-timer may feel a little confused by the setup: To the left of the dessert case is a short buffet line and atop the case foil trays hold samosas and pakoras. Bungling right along, we asked to sample an assortment from the trays sufficient for four; the appetizers were taken back to the kitchen for re-frying and shortly reappeared — in a container on the buffet line. To the best of our collective memory, there being no printed descriptions, here’s what we had:

We began with a spectacular potato-stuffed samosa, the pastry-wrapped pyramid common to many Indian kitchens. The potato filling, spangled with green peas, was also studded with chopped chiles and packed a punch. We dunked the samosas in the sweeter of the two chutneys delivered to the table — tamarind, we thought, and sweeter and more complex than usual. Potato patties that easily could have been samosa filling as well, were also distinctive. Filled with chiles and cumin, they were best dipped in the very green, hot, and extra-fragrant cilantro chutney. The crisp chickpea-battered pakoras contained both the coriander seed and its leaves; unusual but well worth repeating.

We next tackled the remaining buffet (it’s a mere $5.99). Playing on the potato-pea theme, the aloo matar with “green matter” had a sneaky heat and overtones of fenugreek, turmeric, and likely garam masala. The chickpea masala’s flavor had only increased with time on the buffet. Saag paneer, the ubiquitous spinach-and-cheese dish, may also have benefitted from the back-burner treatment; it was surprisingly lush and creamy, the cheese having apparently dissolved into the harmonious whole. The lustily spicy mashed eggplant curry with tomato was the most complex dish of all, vying with the chickpea for most-favored status.

The sole dessert on the buffet line was the unavoidable gulab jamon: balls of biscuit-like batter fried, simmered, and soaked in sugar syrup. Lengthy soaking improves the flavor, but it also makes the balls springy; they fought back.

Indian Sweet & Spiceland and Grocery

5718 Evers Road
10am-9pm daily
Price range: $2-6
Credit cards
Bathroom not wheelchair accessible

And now we return to the cabinet of delights. Most of the offerings are made from a combination of reduced milk and cheese. The roughly cut and densely cheesy kala kand is the most basic of all. Pale ivory, only lightly sweet, and barely hinting of cardamom, it would be a perfect accompaniment to tea. The diamond shape of the dense and creamy barfi (also, and perhaps more appetizingly, spelled burfee or burfi) signals a more refined product, and the almond-and pistachio-topped pieces differ only subtly from one another with hints of nutty flavor. The colorful cham-chams, made from reduced and kneaded channa, Indian-style cottage cheese, have been fashioned into date-like shapes, each tinted with food coloring. The black were the most intriguing, with a toasty flavor that suggested further cooking after forming, the yellow had a honeyed quality, and the pink tasted just as fruity and frivolous as they looked. A sliced roll flaunting candied red-and-green citron was one of the sweetest selections sampled, but still reasonably restrained.

Many sweetmeats remain to be tried, but there is more for future exploration: While paying, I discovered a menu taped to the glass top of another case full of snacks, mostly fried lentils, chickpeas, and such. The largely Indian clientele eating dishes not on the buffet had aroused suspicion, I admit, and the menu lists a large selection of Punjabi and southern Indian items — not to mention drinks I’ve never heard of. I did try the fried dals, which were salty and lemony and could easily become an addiction. They’re sold by the pound, so why not take home a selection of both sweets and snacks and go crazy in the comfort — and privacy — of your own home? That’s what I’ll do next time.

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