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I pass on wearing a bindi (red dot) on my forehead, because in many parts of India it has a religious significance, but I do want to don a sari.

I raise my arms as a salesperson takes a 9-foot strip of ruby-red silk, makes a few deft moves, and within minutes transforms me from a khaki-bedecked tourist to a classically clad Indian woman.

“Try putting it on yourself,” she says.

I do, and after a half-hour of winding, pleating, and tucking, I look like a Christmas present that’s come undone.

I admit defeat and go outside to further explore “Little India,” a community that looks as if it’s thousands of miles away in south Asia but instead is in Artesia, California, just 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Here, within a five-block stretch along Pioneer Boulevard, women with brightly colored saris (the traditional dress of southern India) stroll the streets alongside others in salwar kameez, the tunic-and-pants ensemble that is increasingly popular in northern India.

They shop in family-owned businesses filled with fabrics that are so vividly colored, richly embroidered, and laden with beads that they are as much works of art as items of apparel.

My husband and I inhale the sweet smell of incense, as a turbaned man, carrying a tall stack of white bakery boxes, rushes by.

“Pardon,” he says in heavily accented English.

I ask him what’s in all the boxes. He smiles and points to a nearby shop. We follow his finger to Bombay Sweets & Snacks, where we’re confronted with a near-overwhelming choice of tempting pastries.

Do we want cardamom or coconut, dry or syrupy, crunchy or chewy? We settle on a lime-green cookie and a pale-pink mini-cake before heading down the street to try another one of Artesia’s most popular desserts: ice cream.

Ice cream isn’t a traditional treat in India, where many people don’t eat eggs, but Saffron Spot makes an eggless version that features Indian-inspired flavors such as jackfruit, lychee, masala tea, and mango.

In line with our philosophy that we should test foods that have names we can’t pronounce, we share a small scoop of rajbhog ice cream, which contains a chunky mix of pistachios, cashews, and almonds spiced with saffron and cardamom. Delicious.

But we really don’t want a meal of snacks and sweets; we want something more substantial. My husband has read about thali, an Indian specialty consisting of several small dishes surrounded by various condiments. I want a frankie, a popular street food in India that’s usually made from vegetables wrapped in a crepe. (Think Indian burrito.)

We finally decide on Ashoka the Great, a lunch buffet that offers a wide variety of choices. There we taste-test everything from chicken tikka masala to saag paneer, vegetable samosa to goat stew.

Afterward, we wander into a market, intending to buy take-home spices, but we’re distracted by bins of veggies with unfamiliar names like karela, tindora, raviya, and turai. There are also seven kinds of mango pulp, several brands of ghee, and piles of fresh roti (unleavened bread).

We finally find the spice section and, after much sniffing, select small bags that a young woman tells us are “Bombay Masala” and “Tandoori Spice.”

A sign directs us upstairs to a shop called “Moon, Gems, and Rudraksh,” where we find items related to astrology (the moon), 22-karat gold jewelry inset with brilliant rubies, emeralds and sapphires (the gems), and necklaces made from seeds of the rudraksh tree.

“These seeds have medicinal power. They are used for prayer,” says storeowner Mahesh Goel.

He gives us a crash course in Hindu philosophy before suggesting that we visit the nearby Swaminarayan Hindu Temple, the closest of four Hindu temples in the vicinity of Artesia.

We enter to find men and women sitting separately but praying together to the rhythm of beating drums and shaking tambourines. Despite the syncopated sounds, the atmosphere is relaxed, almost tranquil.

Before we head back to downtown Los Angeles, we return to the store where we began our day. I’ve given up on outfitting myself in a sari and opt instead for a salwar kameez.

“Easier to put on,” says the salesperson, chuckling as she remembers my tangled tries with a sari.

“Easier to use,” I say, as I imagine myself gracefully serving guests masala tea while outfitted in exotic Indian clothes. But first I’ll have to learn to make rajbhog ice cream.


Photos © Irv Green unless otherwise noted; story by Andrea Gross (www.andreagross.com).

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