WEST ROGERS PARK — Susan Pachikara has one goal in mind while leading people on tours of Indian grocery stores on Devon Avenue: "To get people in the kitchen."
The 43-year-old food writer grew up in southern Illinois with her Indian parents, with whom she found a passion for cooking Indian cuisine from scratch.
Now, she's bringing that joy to others on her Cardamom Kitchen tours.
"I really think that cooking is becoming a lost art. It's touted as being expensive, difficult and joyless," she said. "For me, it's none of those things."
The tours take about two hours and cost $50 a person. On a brisk day in April, one of those tours started at Patel Brothers, a Devon Avenue original that now has dozens of stores throughout the country.
Found here are ingredients you might not be able to find at a neighborhood Jewel-Osco, such as chickpea flower, masoor dhal, whole coconuts and the tour's namesake spice, cardamom.
"People say they're very intimidated by Indian food, and I kind of want to demystify things for them," she said. "I love ethnic grocery stores; I love to go to little Saigon, but, at the same time, I feel completely exhilarated and completely intimidated."
Pachikara says Indian food restaurants on Devon Avenue for years have been a popular destination for diners, but now, more and more people are coming for its grocers.
Suzanne Davenport, of Ravenswood, took Pachikara's tour last summer with a few of her neighbors and friends. In 2007, she visited India and discovered a love for India's diverse cultures.
Ever since, she's wanted to learn more about Indian cuisine.
"I just feel really ignorant here," she said of why she wanted to go on the tour. "I live a mile from Devon Avenue, the center of India and Pakistan in Chicago, but I don't know my way around Indian cooking."
Most of all, she no longer wanted to be "intimidated by the grocery stores on Devon Avenue."
The tour helped, Davenport said, and next month she plans to host a dinner party for friends, serving a homemade Indian dish.
Evanston resident Angela Pennisi, 41, said she became tired of referencing "dumbed-down" recipes that substituted authentic Indian spices for the more common.
After taking the tour, she said, she sees Devon Avenue as "a real jewel" for the neighborhood.
Ahmed Khan, whose family has owned Par-Birdie Foods at 2234 W. Devon Ave. since 1988, said shoppers asking for hard-to-find Indian spices has become a common occurrence.
Sometimes, he said, a person who just ate a meal at a nearby Indian restaurant might pop in and ask what ingredients they'd need to make at home a dish they just ate.
"We actually get a lot of people that come in who have a printed-out recipe," he said. "They don’t even know what the [ingredient] looks like — it’s kind of fun to go around and show them."
Pachikara's parents grew up in Kerala, India, which produces nearly all of the country's black pepper. In fact, there was a time when Kerala was one of the only places in the world to get the spice, which was referred to as "black gold" by traders.
"It brought people from all over the world to Kerala," she said. "It's as common there as people like to say dandelions are here."
Kerala also exports nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, and more.
It's those flavors — from home and from Devon Avenue — Pachikara hopes to share with Chicago.
"For me half the loveliness of coming to this neighborhood is there's so much you can explore," she said. "And you really do feel like you're in a different country."