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.