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Eating My Way to India - Part 2


          The great thing about learning any new cuisine is all the new and interesting ingredients you get to play with and learn how to use. Part of my introduction to southern Indian cuisine was the many trips to various Indian groceries our friend instructors insisted we visit in order to get to know the products we would be cooking. One of my most memorable grocery visits was one particular trip to Chicago with Swami, Chef Steve and his son, Mike. On the near north side of Chicago, on Devon street is a couple mile stretch of ethnic neighborhoods complete with region-specific services like restaurants, grocery and clothing. One three block stretch is totally given over to all things Indian. This area is sandwiched between a long stretch of Arabic/Persian- centric shops and an equally lengthy section of Jewish grocers, clothiers, etc. A typical sort of setup in Chicago.


          On this day Steve and I were there to stock up our respective larders at work. Swami was buying about two months worth of groceries for his family and the families of many of his Indian compatriots living in Holland and Grand Rapids. Steve's son Mike was there for muscle and to eat. In fact, we were all there to eat. Swami was actually playing hooky from work, which was sort of tricky because his wife Priya works as a consultant for the same company and although she does most of her work on the road, she did from time to time pop in unexpectedly at Swami's office. Swami worried the whole day that he would be found out by Priya who was known among the community to have supernatural powers allowing her to sniff out deception from hundreds of miles away. Of course, Steve and I tortured poor Swami the entire day about this duplicitous behavior. We told him that he would likely come back in the next life as a sentient inanimate object like a toilet seat in a cut-rate bath house in Mumbai or as a brush used by a Mahoot to wash his elephant's private parts. Swami, being somewhat Americanized and quite skilled at sarcasm, gave as good as he got. He told Steve that he was already likely to be reduced to Dung Beetle status on his next go-round and that I wasn't likely to come back at all, which is the fate of all spiritual dabblers like myself according to Swami.



      The first thing we did when we got to Devon street was go to Patel's grocery, which is like an Indian Costco. The produce was amazing. Ultra-fresh, beautiful and only about fifty percent identifiable by my Western eyes. Luckily we had Swami as our guide and the staff was equally anxious to help us with any questions we had without being intrusive or annoying. Each of us had our lists and as we made our way slowly from aisle to aisle we picked up a small retinue of staff that helped pack stuff into our carts and even pushed our carts as we made our way around towards the checkout. Eventually, Mr. Patel himself appeared and greeted Swami as if he was the Prodigal son. He looked at Steve and I with a bemused expression, but seeing the mountain of groceries we had accumulated his expression changed to one that has seen not one Prodigal return, but three. Soon, we were being plied with samples of all manner of foods, which thrilled Mike to no end because Indian food is his favorite and he has a bottomless pit for a stomach. I made sure to make note of the bathroom locations about mid-way through our shopping/tasting binge, just in case. I love the food, but its effects on my system can't be easily predicted. That said, my taste buds soon wilted under the assault of spices, textures and flavors so I begged off on a lot that was offered. Mike ate everything coming his way. Consequently his descriptive vocabulary quickly ran out. He was reduced to rapturous moaning sounds and carnivorous grunting. Steve and I teased him that soon he'd be making those kinds of sounds for reasons a whole lot different from eating spicy pickled vegetables. Swami blushed and said, "Oh yes. That is true."



          After hauling and packing our groceries into our van we made our way down the street for lunch. Swami suggested a snack shop called Sukadia's http://www.sukhadia.com/ because it was very good and very quick. We all pooled our money and let Swami do the ordering. The quick "snack" turned into a 90 minute parade of Southern Indian food featuring some of the cuisine's greatest hits like, Pani Puri, Chana Masala, Dosa, Upma and Bhel Puri. The variety was dizzying and it was enlightening to see the difference between how Sukadia's made some of the dishes and how I had made them. I immediately knew just how far off the mark I'd been with some of the food. Mike methodically shoveled the food down, a blissful smile plastered on his face. With each new dish Swami provided a little history from his own perspective and the perspective of his family in relation to the dish. The commentary was constant as we ate.

          "This here? This we only eat on special occasions. It is very difficult to make because it takes a long time and there are many steps. And that is the mango pickle. Do not eat it like Steve, it is very salty and meant for only small bites. Steve will have a heart attack if he continues to eat mango pickle like that. This Upma? I have that every morning, it is a breakfast food like your cereal and milk. People all over India eat it and my mother makes the best Upma. Yes, the best in all of India. Not even Priya can make Upma that good. You can ask, she will tell you."

          Popping a piece of Dosa into his mouth, Steve smiled mildly back at Swami.
"Oh I don't think Priya's gonna want to talk about your mother's cooking. Especially after she finds out you deceived her today."
"She will not find out."
"Oh, I'm not so sure..."


          And on and on like that throughout lunch until we were all completely stuffed. Then Swami suggested a little window shopping. We strolled up and down the streets looking into the various shops. It was a little chilly, but even so, there were a lot of people out shopping. Men and women in traditional dress everywhere. A dizzying array of colorful Sarees on the women and many men in the skirt-like Longi with the familiar Nehru cap. A few turbaned Sikhs blended in. We visited a few clothing stores so Swami could show us some formal clothing for special occasions and weddings. Every place was redolent with Sandalwood, Patchouli and the ever-present tinge of curry. The clothing was meticulously tailored and fabricated from the best natural cloths with silk, linen and cotton being the dominant mediums. The handiwork was precise and showy without being too gaudy. Of course, it was all very expensive.
Soon, the unending maw of appetite that is Mike began complaining of being hungry again so Swami steered us towards a more traditional restaurant that featured the signature southern Indian dish, Dosa. A Dosa is essentially a large, thin, flat bread made from chickpea flour, vinegar and water. The dosa can be filled with all manner of vegetables, but the traditional dosa comes filled with a mixture of fried potatoes, peas and onions seasoned with curry and a little ground chili. It is accompanied by yogurt, coconut chutney and sometimes another herbaceous chutney like coriander. Dosas are usually the size of your average manhole cover and meant to be shared amongst several people. In this case, Steve, Swami and I were still full, so we sat drinking Mango Lasi (a smoothie with yogurt, mango and chunky ice) while we watched Mike put down about 3 pounds of dosa and filling.

          After Mike had been filled up, we decided it was time to head back home. Swami, in order to complete his deception of Priya, needed to be back in his office by five o'clock so he could pretend that he had been there all along. During the three hour drive back we had a good discussion about the ethics of deception as it relates to walking the path of an Enlightenend Hindu. Or even a somewhat dimmed Hindu. Mike, an hour into the trip back, spied a sign for a Popeyes at an exit ramp and announced that he could sure go for some chicken, rice and beans. Meanwhile, Swami's driving and making calls to his compatriots at work making sure they pick up their food orders before they leave work and also making sure they make no mention that Swami himself had gone to Chicago for the groceries. Steve and I shake our heads sadly at Swami as he dials and drives. He can't look directly at us as we shame him with sighs and mumbled admonishments. The web of lies and deciept growing ever more complicated as the miles go by.