Saranac Lake convenience store is a gateway into Indian food
By Amy Scattergood
SARANAC LAKE — Walk into Fusion Market on River Street and you’d think you were in any busy convenience store. There are the coolers loaded with beer and racks filled with chips and Tylenol, the vats of hot coffee, plus a deli counter where you can order steak and egg sandwiches, made to order on the flattop in the open kitchen behind the cashier.
But look closer and you’ll see, in the back of the 2,000-square-foot shop, shelves filled with chutneys, green cardamom and red lentils, and freezer cases loaded with saag paneer, samosas and korma. And on Thursdays, Fusion’s co-owner Pragma Prajapati turns that kitchen into a tiny pop-up Indian restaurant.
Days prior to each Thursday, Prajapati, who has owned the store with her husband Panesh since they bought the property in 2010, will get out her two metal spice boxes. Called a masala dabba, a spice box is an Indian home cook’s essential culinary suitcase. The lidded boxes are fitted with metal bowls, each filled with traditional spices such as turmeric, carom seeds, red chile powder, coriander and fenugreek.
On a recent Tuesday, Prajapati dropped spices into a huge pot layered with spitting oil, then added aromatics for what would become the week’s vegetarian special, a rich yellow South Indian dal studded with potatoes and moringa. A larger pot of Kadai chicken curry, tinged a fiery red from the chile, simmered at the back of the massive Wolf stove, the second of her weekly dishes.
“People tell me to open a restaurant,” Prajapati says as she tosses minced garlic and shredded coconut into the mixture — like most gifted home cooks, she doesn’t measure — and adjusts the fire.
“It takes a lot of work to do Indian food,” Prajapati says about why there isn’t more of it in the area. “The chefs don’t want to come up in this cold weather.” She references former Indian restaurants in Lake Placid and Plattsburgh. “It didn’t last long.”
Prajapati and her family first came to Saranac Lake nearly twenty years ago, a route that swung from India through New Jersey to the Adirondacks, where she worked in the healthcare industry. Even then, she says, she was cooking for the community, and would bring dishes into the hospital for colleagues.
The couple raised their two children, Eshna and Anuj, now 22 and 23, in the village. They converted Fusion, once a mini-mart and gas station, into the current shop, which includes a second floor apartment and office. The upstairs space is outfitted with a large open kitchen and production island, where Prajapati had been planning to hold cooking classes before the pandemic put the idea on hold.
In the busy downstairs kitchen, Robin Shanty, who has worked at Fusion for the last half-dozen years, keeps an eye on the pot of curry while she fills sandwich orders. Paresh brings in trays of rolls, noting that his wife also cooks for the family at home after work every day.
Both Paresh and Pragma are from the western Indian state of Gujarat, and met when Pragma went back to India for college after growing up largely in Tanzania. It was a childhood filled with cooking. “Everything was from scratch,” she says, and it’s the recipes she learned at her family’s East Africa kitchen that form the basis of her weekly specials now.
“My mom doesn’t eat chicken,” says Prajapati of her mother, who now lives in England, “but she can cook anything.”
She cycles through a hand-written list of dishes — palak paneer, chicken tikka, dal makhani, chicken vindaloo — that rely on what’s in season and the availability of ingredients they pick up from trips down to Albany every few weeks.
For a time, Prajapati tried growing some of the many herbs and vegetables needed for the dishes, but between the North Country climate and the demands of the shop, “I just gave up.”
When she first started offering Indian dishes at Fusion a decade ago, there was a small stream of regulars who would come to the store every week. “There’s a lot of yoga people around here, people who’ve been to Nepal, kids, people who knew,” says Prajapati. She also had a few folks from England, where Indian food is a mainstay. “Some don’t even know what I’m making; they just come and pick it up.”
Prajapati finishes ringing up another customer, then whirs a mix of more spices in a grinder and tips it into the simmering pot of dal. She makes her own spice mixes, although sometimes she uses blends that experimental friends send her from South India.
Lately, she’s been adding a few more dishes to the deli cases already filled with cold salads and desserts. In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, with so many area restaurants closed, there’s a continued need for fresh, take-away food, especially for vegetarian diners. “There’s so much street food in India,” Prajapati says, considering the selection in her case, and the rows of various chais stocked adjacent to the vats of coffee. “That’s what I’m trying to go towards.”
“There are times when I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ “ Prajapati says, acknowledging the effort it takes just to make her two weekly specials. “But people love it. And there’s nowhere else to go.”