I tacked the thayir sadam onto my order at the last second, no doubt hopelessly bungling the pronunciation as I tend to when I'm trying to be cool about something on a menu I've never seen before and don't know whether I'm asking for rice pudding or the cook's underpants.
The bowl came topped with badly chopped mint, hacked-up leaves and stems that made me feel like I had a mouthful of grass clippings and Tic-Tacs. Beneath the greenery was some runny, milky, slightly chunky stuff. I poked at it with my spoon, stirred it around, found mashed rice lurking at the bottom, more mint. It was something like rice pudding, but thinner; something like Mexican horchata rice milk, but thicker. It tasted dimly sweet, bitter with strong yogurt and fresh mint astringence, the whole breadth of flavor carried by the solid blandness of rice. It was good, but not much more than that, so I spooned some over my saag paneer and had a taste.
Just like that, the sadam was excellent. Fantastic, even, as its cold top tones mingled with the warm weight of the spinach and homemade paneer cheese. The combination made the two flavors stronger -- the mint and yogurt singing across the high end of my tastebuds like raita and cleaning off the low end, the saag bringing the noise, bringing the funk, giving those notes somewhere to land when they finally came back down to earth. I figured that if saag paneer and thayir sadam tasted so good with one on top of the other, then that was probably how they were meant to be served, and I silently patted myself on the back for such skillful negotiation of a menu written in a language I didn't speak, drawn from a culture that, despite years of eating its food, I still didn't understand.
"You did what?"
I was talking to a friend from New York the next night, telling her how happy I was that another Indian restaurant had opened in the dead-end, third-tier strip-mall spot formerly occupied by Maruti Narayan's, once my favorite Indian restaurant. Last summer the space was taken over by Denver Woodlands, a kosher restaurant and full-service Indian bakery. It's also vegetarian, which was fine with me, because samosa are vegetarian and I love samosa; saag paneer is vegetarian, and I love saag paneer. And when I told my friend about the thayir sadam at Woodlands and how I -- brave gastronaut and full-time culinary adventurer -- had discovered something that goes even better with a great saag than a perfect raita? That's when she started to laugh.
"Did they stare at you?" she asked. "Did they ask you to leave?"
I told her no, that the staff had been nothing but friendly and helpful, and when they weren't busy being friendly or helpful or both, they even managed to make a wicked lassi. (No rosewater, which I appreciated.)
"Okay, okay. But when you left, did you see them all pointing and laughing?"
"No, Sara," I said, because that's her name and because they hadn't -- at least not that I saw. "Why?"
Sara explained to me that thayir sadam (sometimes called thayir chadam) is a comfort food of southern India, immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent any time there or, as Sara insisted, anyone who knows anything about anything. Essentially, it's a preparation of leftovers. Yesterday's basmati mixed with curded milk or yogurt, sometimes mint, sometimes salt, sometimes cardamom, sometimes all three and whatever else might be lying around the pantry. Made thin, it's a beverage (which meant I wasn't entirely wrong in comparing it to horchata), intended to be drunk in the afternoon when the sun is hottest -- not quite as good as a cold beer, but some would say the next best thing. When thicker, it's a final course, a kind of dessert that often precedes the actual dessert -- which is the sort of thinking that makes me believe I'd feel right at home in southern India. It's a digestive, a palate cleanser, and what I'd done in spooning it onto my saag paneer was tantamount to dropping a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of a warm slice of meatloaf with gravy.
"Which would be wrong," Sara added, in case I hadn't gotten the point. "And gross, too."
After telling Sara she had no idea what she was talking about and hanging up the phone, I did a little research and found out that, in fact, she did know what she was talking about and that, in fact, I had embarrassed myself pretty good while sitting at Woodlands, ignorantly (though happily) gobbling up my meatloaf à la mode and smiling like a donkey the whole time. Looking around, I discovered recipes for thayir sadam, beautiful reminiscences by Indian daughters about how their grandmothers had mashed basmati for thayir sadam to be served at their weddings, stories of fathers in shirtsleeves sitting in their favorite chairs drinking thayir sadam at the end of a long day spent doing whatever it is that fathers do in southern India to work up a good sweat and a thirst that only cold, curded rice milk could quench. What's more, I learned that thayir sadam is not some obscure dish known only to the weird and the brave, but is rather common, even in this country.
After my initial annoyance at having to admit that Sara (who, for the record, is almost always dead wrong on matters culinary because she is terrified of sushi, doesn't eat red meat, and doesn't understand how any sane person possessed of all his faculties and enough spare change for a nice garden salad could possibly choose to eat pigeon, even when prepared in a perfect bastilla) was actually right this time, I realized that I wasn't that bothered at not knowing nothin' about nothin'. After all, I still add nuoc cham to my pho whenever there's some on the table -- even though to the Vietnamese, this is rather like squirting ketchup on Fruity Pebbles. When I go to a diner, I sometimes order a chocolate milkshake and french fries, then dip the latter into the former, an act my wife finds absolutely repulsive (and will no doubt one day mention in her divorce filing), but one I learned from watching my dad, who -- at the end of a long, sweaty day -- would sometimes go with fries and a milkshake from Schaller's when a cold Genny cream ale just wouldn't cut it.
I've never quite known what to do with myself at Indian restaurants, what with all the sauces and soups, chutneys, pickles and purées. No matter where I go, no matter what table I set myself before or what I order from the menu, it seems that twice as much as I've asked for (and half again as much as I could possibly eat) comes out of the kitchen. It's not just eating, it's exploring -- a sixty-minute visit to an unknown country of color and flavor, where I can discover something entirely new. At least to me. And if I make a boob of myself in the process, well, that's a small price to pay.
I decided to take another trip to Denver Woodlands. And when I walked back into the waiting area, with its wine-colored carpets and walls like French's mustard, the frames hung on those walls still filled with the pictures they'd been sold with (black-and-white photos of anonymous people doing anonymous things in anonymous places), the waiters, the host and the guy I figured must have been the owner, they all remembered me. So maybe Sara was right again. Maybe they'd all been standing behind the kitchen doors giggling at the goofy white guy putting ice cream on his meatloaf. But I was too hungry to care.
I started with dosa -- huge, paper-thin rice-and-lentil-flour crepes, griddle-cooked and folded around just about anything that a crepe could conceivably be folded around. With the thicker set dosa, it was a vegetable korma that wasn't great (too many green beans and scrap veggies for my taste) in a muted sauce that was. With the masala dosa, it was lemonade-yellow curried potatoes and soft wisps of onion. The dosa themselves tasted like a scrim of sourdough starter grilled in clarified butter and were the perfect tool for dipping in everything else on the table. Dal soup? Good on its own, even better as a dunk for leftover set dosa. I wrapped a little dosa around a bit of iddly rice cake, then plunked it in the coconut chutney. I wrapped a little more dosa around a bit more rice cake, then tried the tamarind chutney meant for the crisp sheets of papadum that kept appearing every time I looked away. I played with the mint chutney on the table, too, but it didn't seem to go just right with anything,
I'd ordered something that came with sambar, a sort of stew made with eggplant, tomato, chiles, lentils and sometimes okra (called bhindi in India, which I've always thought was a lovely word, even if it does mean something along the lines of "lady's fingers"). I got no less than three things that might have been sambar (but then again, might have been something else entirely) and had a fine time dipping puffy bits of poori bhaji into each of them in turn. Then I tried to devour a whole plate of samosa -- steamy-hot spiced potatoes and vegetables folded up inside a crisp pastry shell -- until I realized the samosa was just too spicy, even when dipped in or smeared with every cold liquid on the table besides my mango lassi. Vegetarian fare has a rep for being bland, but these samosa were like hand grenades with truly explosive filling. Woodland's kitchen clearly could teach those skinny, miserable, hippie vegan twig-eaters a thing or two about how to spice things up. But in a place that doesn't serve beer, too much fire can be a dangerous thing.
The saag paneer I ate unadorned this time, and it was amazing all on its own -- less a heavy creamed spinach (the standard preparation) than a frothy, impossible spinach foam. Each spoonful was like taking a bite out of a spinach cloud that was raining big chunks of seared cheese. The delicately keyed spices mounted on my tongue as I continued to eat -- hitting with a warm sweetness first, followed by an earthy solidity and that deep green flavor of spinach captured at the very peak of its life, then bleeding off into a background heat that hung around the back of my throat and cheeks and dissolved the minute I tasted anything else. It was truly exceptional, and proof that this kitchen isn't afraid to experiment with temper and texture, to play around even with a dish for which there are as many distinct recipes as there are cooks in India.
I left the thayir sadam for last. All through my meal, I'd no doubt committed innumerable breaches of good taste and decorum in the process of trying to dip at least one of everything into one of everything else, so I did nothing with the sadam beyond taking a bite. I tried to concentrate as I tasted. I tried to feel my way through the ingredients and how they were working together. I tried to think of it as a dessert, as a little something to settle the stomach and freshen the breath. As the yogurt dried out my mouth and the rice squished against my teeth, I tried to imagine it as a sorbetto course, as a refreshing beverage on a hot day. But I couldn't do it. The sadam was fine on its own, and I could even see developing a taste for it as I had for jackfruit and snails and crawdads, but the problem was, I'd already developed a taste for it. The wrong taste, but still.
Let the rest of the world laugh. I think meatloaf and ice cream go wonderfully together.
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