India-born Roopa Chawla does much of her grocery shopping at the Vons near her Granada Hills home. But once a month, she visits Bombay Spiceland in Northridge to stock up on Indian foods she can't find in her supermarket-- moong and besan flour, mustard oil and vegetables such as sweet green squash.
"This is a delicacy you can't find in the supermarket," Chawla said, picking up a leafy bunch of green methi, which she cooks the same way as spinach.
"Indians are very conscious of different tastes in their food," she added, pointing out more than two dozen varieties of beans, lentils and whole spices.
Chawla, a bilingual coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that when she moved to the Valley 10 years ago, there was not much in the way of exotic food available in the supermarket.
"We used to go every six months or so to an Indian store in Orange County to stock up," she said, leaning against a pallet of 25- and 50-pound bags of basmati rice. "Now, there must be 10 or 12 Indian stores in the Valley."
Supermarkets aren't the only stores to cash in on the growing demand for ethnic foods. The number of small specialty markets in the Valley is growing, according to the Southern California Assn. of Grocers, and store owners report that their client base is expanding.
"More Americans are trying different foods," said Jane Kanji, the owner of Bombay Spiceland. Although a majority of her customers are Indian immigrants or of Indian descent, Kanji said, the store has begun to attract Valley residents of all backgrounds. Every weekend she sells trays of vegetable samoza, a fried triangular hors d'oeuvre, to local party-givers, who, she reports, also like the cashew barfi, a dessert made of raw milk, sugar, butter and cashews.
Tomi Ryan, who teaches cooking at the Learning Tree, Everywoman's Village, Los Angeles Valley College and Glendale Community College, touts the Valley as an ethnic paradise because of its wide selection of specialty markets.
"There are wonderful Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Thai markets," she said. "Eastern cuisine is so well-covered. No place else has the luxury that we do in Los Angeles, in the availability of food items."
Some of the items that Ryan seeks at ethnic stores are jellyfish, endaui (a spicy sausage), or spices such as whole white pepper, mace and summer savory.
Cecelia DeCastro, a food writer who teaches cooking at UCLA Extension in Woodland Hills and the Ma Maison cooking school in Newport Beach, looks to specialty stores for lemon grass, Oriental eggplant and bitter melon, as well as conch, vanilla clams and macatuno coconuts, which she uses in desserts such as litchi flan or jelly rolls.
"Luckily, there are a lot of Oriental markets in the Valley," she said.
Gloria Alvarez, executive director of operations for the Mexican American Grocers Assn., said smaller neighborhood groceries also continue to flourish in ethnic neighborhoods.
"Culturally, new immigrants feel more comfortable shopping first in smaller independents," Alvarez said. "As they assimilate, they go to larger chains."
Rosa Sanchez of Pacoima does most of her shopping at Tresierras, a Latino market there. "I like the meat and the Mexican products," she said as she stood in line at the butcher counter on a busy Saturday.
Customers were waiting to buy such items as steak ranchero (beef flank), chili-basted pork, chicken gizzards, menudo, beef feet and lips, tripe, marrow and guts. There was also a small selection of catfish, shrimp and perch.
Sanchez, buying thinly sliced meat for tacos, chicken and six dozen tortillas, said she also likes to buy Mexican brands of some products, such as Ariel detergent and Embasa chilies.
Steve Salazar, assistant manager, said many Latinos, especially if they don't speak much English, like to shop at specialty stores because they feel more comfortable. "They feel they can talk to us if they can't find something. We carry a lot of Mexican brands; we have signs in Spanish. There are some things they can't find in other stores, like queso cotija or requeson (white cheeses used in many dishes)."