Hawthorne Market and International Grocery, 24202 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, (310) 373-4448. Open 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Hawthorne Market may not be as impressive as the large department store that owner Shakour Hamidzadah left behind in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, but it's the best Middle Eastern market in the South Bay.
In 1978, Hamidzadah had just finished putting up a new five-story building in Kabul when Russian tanks rolled into his country.
As one of the largest stores in the country, it was an obvious target for government confiscation, so he canceled his plans to expand into the upper floors of the building. He also urged his two sons, then studying in Europe, to stay out of Afghanistan, where potential emigres were known to be executed. One day, with his wife and remaining children safely in India, Hamidzadah packed a small bag, quietly went on a business trip abroad, and never returned.
In 1983, with the family reunited in the South Bay, Hamidzadah acquired the tiny, struggling Hawthorne Market. Over the years he has managed to expand into three adjoining retail spaces, which are now as well laid out as any department store. Orderly displays of cookware, produce, Middle Eastern and Indian ingredients are arrayed in a bright airy space efficiently run by Hamidzadah and several of his adult children.
Many of the goods found on the market's shelves are manufactured or packed in the United States by people who, like Hamidzadah, have had to start anew. There are the Afghan-style pickles produced by a small company in Lancaster. Shelves by the door hold delicate Iranian-style cookies from several bakeries around town. The dairy case keeps American-made chaka, kashk and Middle Eastern breakfast cream to spread on locally made Afghan breakfast bread. Alongside the spices are Iranian herb blends packaged in Encino.
This eclectic mix means Hawthorne Market is well stocked with the basic ingredients of the Afghan larder. Because the country is located along the trade and invasion routes between Central Asia and India, Afghan cookery has a lot in common with both Indian and Near Eastern. It has inherited North Indian masalas and dals as well as Near Eastern kebabs and the Persian flair with fresh herbs. Afghan naan is the direct ancestor of India's tandoori-baked naan bread (but they're pronounced differently--the Afghan "aa" sounds like the English "aw").
At the moment, the only restaurants where you can sample Afghan food in California are San Diego's Khyber Pass and Helmand in San Francisco. But Afghan dishes are easily made at home. And if you want to try your hand at this cuisine, Hawthorne Market carries a cookbook that includes Afghan recipes. Fortunately you won't have to make do with the recommended substitutions for qurut or aash. The ingredients are all here, and Jamila Hamidzadah, an excellent cook, is also on hand to advise you.
Note: Afghanistan has two official languages, Pashto and Dari, the latter being very close to the Farsi spoken in Iran. Dari terminology is used here.
Urban Afghans eat rice at nearly every meal. Chalau (rhymes with "allow"; known in neighboring Iran as chelo) is plain basmati rice served with one or another type of curry-like sauce/stew ( qorma ) on top. In palau, rice is steamed with fragrant, spiced meat or vegetables and sometimes garnished with nuts or dried fruit.
Given the Middle Eastern and Indian passion for the grain, it's not surprising that Hawthorne carries many kinds of rice--15, to be exact. Most of these are various qualities and brands of basmati, one of the longest and most slender-grained of all rice varieties. In Iran and Pakistan, farmers add to its aromatic flavor (basmati is simply a Hindustani word meaning fragrant) by smoking the rice in an earthen room for several days. The best basmati, says Jamila, is aged for as many as 20 years in salt, but it's unavailable outside the Near East. Fussy Afghan cooks here prefer Elephant Brand. Aged more than a year, it has the longest and cleanest grains.
Jasmine rice, one-third the price of basmati, has a lovely fragrant aroma too, but the grains aren't as long as good basmati, and the rice may break and stick together unless it's expertly handled.
While basmati is the preferred rice for chalau and palau, the short-grain glutinous rice, often referred to as Japanese-style rice, is the grain of choice for shola dishes and some soups. Shola is both the Dari word for the grain and the name of a dish that combines the rice with cooked mung beans. Shole shiriin ("sweet shola "), a milky rice pudding-like dessert, is reminiscent of Indian khir, while shole holba, made with meat, is flavored with the fresh fenugreek ( holba ) leaves found in the produce department.