Foods for thought
When my American friends say they love Indian food, many of them are thinking of chicken tikka masala in a mild creamy tomato-based sauce; saag paneer, made with minced, not cubed, paneer in a creamy, pale green sauce; and naan. Indian restaurants in the US typically offer one "very hot" curry, i.e. vindaloo. The complimentary appetiser is a regulation papad served with mint chutney.
When I first moved to the States back in 2002, I spent two years in the university town of Gainesville in Florida. At the time there were no Indian restaurants there and we sometimes drove forty-five minutes to the next town, Ocala, to visit the one with gaudy décor and gold-framed paintings of Bollywood stars and Hindu goddesses. By the time I left Gainesville, a small mom and pop's restaurant called Amrit Palace had been launched. It served a couple of very hot and very oily curries in Styrofoam containers.
Then I moved to Houston, the fourth largest city in the States, a city with a massive desi population and a South Asian neighbourhood called Hillcroft. Here, alongside sari shops and halal meat stores stood casual vegetarian eateries such as Balaji and Bombay Sweets which served chaats and South Indian food. There was even a Hot Breads franchise and several restaurants that offered the Americanised North Indian staples mentioned above and, sometimes, Indian Chinese (unlike the bland, greasy incredibly popular Chinese sold elsewhere).
While most Indian restaurants in the States offer a very standard menu at their reasonably priced all-you-can-eat lunch buffets, a few of Hillcroft's restaurants served an impressive variety of north Indian, south Indian, and Indian Chinese dishes. But my favourite restaurant in Hillcroft was Himalaya, a small place run by a Pakistani gentleman. A TV in the corner always played Hindi movies and the menu included really good goat biryani on Saturdays and a juicy beef chapli kebab with pomegranate seeds.
After five years in Houston, I moved to Atlanta, where instead of an organised South Asian neighbourhood, there were numerous Indian restaurants scattered across the city, including near where I lived. In fact, within walking distance was a small vegetarian place that sold chaats, idli and dosa, chole bhature and the likes. It was nice not to have to drive 25 miles to go to the Indian ghetto to get my Indian food fix. By this time I had also begun to cook quite a bit and luckily there were a few really well-stocked Indian grocery stores. It's always fun walking through these stores to discover packets of Bourbon chocolate biscuits, hot chips, Maggi noodles, and even ludo boards, all relics of a childhood spent far away.
From time to time, on travels to other regions of the US, I have tried local Indian restaurants, such as in downtown San Francisco and Chicago's Indian neighbourhood of Devon, in Denver where they had belly dancers, and, of course, Lexington Avenue in New York City where the dhaba-style places stay open all night. Some restaurants, usually the less fancy ones, are more authentic than others, some are part of large grocery stores, and some are award-winning places with star chefs. Some are clever entrepreneurial ventures such as the popular kati roll company in New York's Greenwich Village.
But, no matter where, no matter how hungry you are or how spicy the food, somehow everything tastes like a compromise.
At present I live in Grand Rapids, a small city (by Indian standards anyway) in West Michigan, which has just the one Indian restaurant, Palace of India, run by a Sikh couple. It serves north Indian dishes that are mildly flavoured to suit the Michigan palate. Despite its popularity with the locals who enjoy international cuisine, I find that these days the only way to satisfy any Indian food cravings I have is to cook.
Well, actually, there's one other way.
The most important reason - if not the only reason -- for coming back to India is for the food. For months before I landed in India, I've been thinking about all the things I'm going to eat here and making lists. I have a few favourite places that I make it a point to visit every time I'm around Delhi, the chaat capital of the world. Karim's in Nizamuddin for the greasy but wonderful Mughlai food, might be my favourite restaurant in the whole world. My purist friends sneer at me for never having been to the original Jama Masjid Karim's, so I promise this time to remedy that.
Speaking of old Delhi, one of the most unique foodie experiences in the world is threading your way through the narrow, crowded bylanes of Chandni Chowk to the small shops inside Parathewali Gali, where cooks whip up a wide variety of parathas with sweet and savoury fillings ranging from the usual cauliflower, radish, potato, kheer, rabdi, mixed vegetable, and even papad!
As a child, every time I used to visit Delhi from Calcutta, I would go to Evergreen Sweet Shop in Green Park for their large variety of chaats. It seems that pretty much any snack, from the samosa to the aloo tikki, can be transformed into a chaat covered with yoghurt, chutney, and chole (chick peas.) Nowadays, it seems easier to go to the nearest Bikanerwala for chaat, but I have to confess I go there mostly for the sinful thick and creamy concoction - the saffron malai lassi!
My Kolkata friends swear by the superiority of their city's phuchkas but somehow I've always been partial to gol gappes with their green minty tamarind water. I am one of those who loves the fact that many gol gappe sellers now wear gloves and use mineral water. Still tastes as good, but with fewer germs. No, my dear friends who're about to protest, the germs do not add flavour.
The one thing I've been unable to find is a good pav bhaji, one of my favourite foods. Even the packaged, ready to heat Raj pav bhaji which I buy from Indian grocery stores in the US tastes more authentic than the oily curry-like bhaji they serve in most parts of Delhi. Dilli Haat's Maharashtra stall probably has the most edible version, but it falls short. It's a good thing I'm going to Bombay next month.
But Dilli Haat does have some good regional foods. The momos at the north eastern outlets are not bad and BijoliGrill serves decent Bengali fish fry, mutton cutlets, kosha mangsho and Mughlai parathas.
I've often thought that I'd find it much easier to turn vegetarian if I lived in India. In Gurgaon itself, since I got here, I've had a Gujarati thali at Rajdhani and a Tamil thali at Naivedyam.
Since I'm not a native Delhiite nor a regular diner here, my knowledge of the best places is limited. So, readers, recommendations are welcome.
New upscale restaurants seem to be mushrooming all over Gurgaon and Delhi, in the malls and elsewhere. I'm always fascinated by the fusion foods here such as the paneer tikka and chicken chettinad toppings on Dominos' pizzas. They taste interesting but not like pizza at all. The other day I saw a pizza dhokla at Bikanerwala which I intend to sample. Drinks too find themselves crossing national borders with ease. So far, I've had a masala mojito and a cardamom pineapple vodka.
My thoughtful friends make sure we go to Indian restaurants when we eat out, but on a few occasions there have been people who've suggested a Ruby Tuesday. They are not on my friend list any more. The other day, some American writer friends and I walked into a mall for lunch, and bumped right into a TGI's Friday. We looked at each other and walked on. Sometimes, no words are necessary or indeed adequate.
I notice increasingly on each visit to India the growing popularity of international cuisines. This is a wonderful thing. The proliferation of sushi and Italian restaurants and salad bars would have made me very happy if I'd lived here all year. But one has to wonder if a tiny bit of the obsession with, say, risotto, isn't an element of the coolness factor. The TV commercial that I am subjected to a million times a days where the lady orders salmon, risotto, and tiramisu in a restaurant is interesting because of its insistence on a completely Western meal. To what extent in urban India today is it a sign of sophistication, a status symbol in other words, to eat Western foods? The real test is to reflect on why you're eating what you're eating. What is it that you love about tiramisu? Is it the delicate mix of coffee and spirits or the moist spongy texture of ladyfingers? Or is it the landscapes and lifestyles that it evokes?
The converse is also true of Indian food. And no one is more guilty of underestimating the cultural significance of traditional family recipes or local street food than an expat. Yes we miss the tastes, but we also miss long, lazy meals with family, standing around a phuchka/pani puri/gol gappe stall outside college with friends, wedding buffets with long lost relatives, communal lunches served during religious festivals, snacks bought for a few rupees in school canteens. When was it ever just about the food?
So if you're taking me to lunch this summer, please, can we avoid Subway?