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Bombarded By Reminders Of Bombay

April 08, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

A quiet but crowded stretch of Artesia's Pioneer Boulevard--the one between South Street and the Artesia Freeway--is known as Little India to the local population. Coming here can be like stepping off a jet, right into a Bombay market district.

You'll find dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Indian-American owned businesses--sari shops, jewelry stores, snack vendors, restaurants and miscellaneous other operations all tied to an ancient culture that defines the exotic like no other. Many of these places are perfumed with incense. Hypnotic ragas ring in your ears while you shop.

11:30 a.m. to noon: One of the most exotic components of Indian culture undoubtedly is its music, which can be explored in depth at the Ziba Music and Gift Center. Proprietor Surinder Sabarwal, a Sikh born and reared in Iran, keeps hundreds of cassettes, CD's and music books on hand; they represent all manner of music the subcontinent has to offer.

This is also the only local shop at which to buy authentic Indian instruments--sitars, (from $300), tablas and harmoniums, a reedy-sounding version of the piano accordion (around $650).

If the challenge of learning an Indian instrument sounds daunting, consider that there are inexpensive self-instruction books for all three instruments, written by a man named Ram Avtar "Vir," as well as his book "Musical Instruments of India" for those who wish an overview of this haunting music.

Noon to 1 p.m.: During its hot afternoons, people in largely vegetarian India snack incessantly, and so can you--in style--at Standard Sweets and Snacks.

For those familiar only with the Mughlai style cooking of northern India, namely tandoori meats and the like, the Standard's cooking style should come as a welcome surprise. Start with the thickest, creamiest mango milkshake anywhere (known as mango lassi ,) then buy into the lunch buffet consisting of such dishes as stewed garbanzo beans, spinach with farmer's cheese, fragrant rice pilaf and samosas, fried triangles of wheat flour dough stuffed with potatoes, peas and spiced cashews.

The colorful, addictive sweets come in a variety of shapes and patterns, many covered with thinly pounded leaves of edible silver. Hapshi halwa is like a milk nut fudge. Besan laddu is kind of a Punjabi golf ball fashioned out of lentil flour and honey. Wash one down with milky masala tea, spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and clove.

1 to 1:30: You'll have to be buzzed in to Krishna Jewelers, one of the many goldsmiths on the street, a hot place to buy gold sets consisting of bangles, earrings and necklaces, or just to learn about gold jewelry in general.

Most of the jewelry here is 22-karat gold because, according to Krishna Jewelers manager Rakesh Chopra, "the 14-karat gold many Western jewelers use has no resale value." Although the store will do custom work in pure 24-karat, many of the items here--which nearly blind you with their luster--are machine-made, with finely intricate cuttings on top. The hand-made items show more versatility of design; they often are hollowed out, or ornately carved. Look for ones decorated with mina, the red and green enamel that Indian women prize. Krishna also does rings, nose ornaments and watchbands.

1:30 to 2: Now, it's time for the women in the group to be outfitted with saris. Loveleen Sari Palace is a manufacturer-importer that makes its own materials in a New Delhi factory and passes the savings along to the consumer. Prices start at $15 for ready-made, one-color dresses of pure cotton and go all the way up to $300 for gaudy, flashily embroidered Indian wedding dresses.

Fabrics are wound around giant spools--hundreds of them side by side, creating wonderful swirls of color. Cotton is the least expensive material; rayon and pure silk climb higher on the price ladder. The average woman requires about six yards of material for a sari (seven if she wishes to add a blouse). There also are anarkali, ready-made frock-style suits in fabulous purples and golds. Watching the salespeople dicker with the customers makes for great theater ("last price, $12.")

2 to 2:30: You haven't really experienced an Indian neighborhood until you've smelled one from the inside of a local grocery store, where the scents of aromatic spice and noxious oils wreak sensory havoc, especially with a first-time visitor.

Shree Ganesh Groceries is special because it features a complete range of products from India and all her adjoining countries--Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and even Nepal. Take some microwaveable Indian entrees home (lamb curry or shrimp vindaloo, for example) or a bottle of ayurvedi massage oil. The really ambitious can get a mortar and pestle, some fresh spices and a book called "The Art of Indian Cooking" by Yamuna Devi, sold at the front counter. You won't know India, a saying goes, until you know the inside of her kitchen.

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