I saw successively imprinted on every face the glow of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment, and the perfect calm of utter bliss. -- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
It was the strangest sort of party, uncomfortably intimate and cheerful for no reason at all. This was 1994, maybe 1995, the year fixed loosely in my mind (like all other years) by what I was doing at the time, where I was cooking and for whom. I still wasn't sure if this was the career for me (in fact, it was early enough that calling it a career at all was something of a joke), uncertain if food was where I ultimately wanted to fix my gaze. The party was with the family of my girlfriend at the time -- the one destined to someday become The Ex, like a proper name -- and it was being held because her grandmother had just died.
After she'd passed away at home, peacefully, her children had found a hundred- dollar bill in her pocketbook and decided to use it to throw a party. The day found me sitting at a long table at an Indian restaurant in Rochester, New York, called the Raj Mahal, drinking mango lassi and eating channa chat on the dime of a dead woman.
330 East Sixth Avenue, 303-871-9777. Hours 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Channa chat: $3.99
Shrimp tandoori: $13.99
Chicken curry: $10.99
Lamb masala: $13.99
Saag paneer: $9.99
Navratan korma: $9.99
Alu mutter: $9.99
Alu paratha: $2.50
Back in 1994 or 1995, I didn't know much about Indian food. It was as foreign to me, as thrilling and mysterious, as Chinese food had been when I was twelve, as sushi when I was sixteen, as French when I was twenty. I remember stupidly affecting some kind of accent when I ordered (a stupid thing I still do today), not wanting to botch the words on the menu that I thought were so beautiful, hoping to sound like I ate mughlai soup and dal makhani all the time. Besides, since I didn't know what to say, how to react or who to talk to, I was desperately trying to seek refuge in food -- which, unlike death, I at least marginally understood.
There were lots of tears at the table, and a fair share of laughter, too. Half of The Ex's family were (and still are, I assume) psychologists of one breed or another, so all manner of coping mechanisms and grief strategies were on display. But as the food started arriving, that slowed, dried up, finally stopped altogether. And, as Brillat-Savarin wrote, "I saw successfully imprinted on every face the glow of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment, and the perfect calm of utter bliss."
I was not exempt from this awesome, subtle power. Indian cooking, which I knew only barely and understood not at all, had moved a room full of mourners if not to bliss, then certainly to calm. The transformation was amazing and, frankly, a relief.
This unusual meal wasn't a turning point for me or my career in the kitchen. That kind of one-shot revelation only comes in the movies or under the influence of cheap hallucinogens. But it was a step. The incredible power of food had been laid out plain in that one moment when I was prepared to see it, and whatever magic it was that those cooks had, I wanted some for myself.
Flash forward ten years. Although I understand Indian food now, it's still only from the perspective of a diner. I don't know what an Indian kitchen is like because I've never worked in one, and while I'm not sure when something is done right, I do know when it is done well. I may not be clear on what spice goes where and how they all work together, but I know what I like and what moves other people. And I know a kitchen with the power when I see it in action.
At the table across from mine at Little India (the six-year-old original on Sixth Avenue, not the second outlet downtown), a couple is fighting. They're doing so quietly, faces pinched, voices hissing like cats. I, as eavesdropper, can't hear the specifics, but I can watch the body language -- the back-and-forth volley, each one pitching and catching in turn. Balled fists. Clenched jaws. It's like spying on a highly personal game of Battleship, as one player crumples, as if punched, when the other scores a direct hit. Honestly, I'm waiting to see which one will sink first.
On the other side of the plainly decorated dining room is a family -- mother, father, young kid, older kid -- that's less exciting to watch but still provides a study in well-rehearsed parental routine. The adults manage to conduct a conversation while simultaneously taking the fork away from the baby, picking up dropped napkins, keeping the older child from upsetting his water glass -- and all without really looking at the kids.
Most people come to restaurants for the food -- to be thrilled and moved and transported, however briefly, by the daring, complicated, beautiful work done by the cooks. They come to be coddled, taken care of. At the very least, to get out of their own kitchens. I love watching the magic happen for other people, seeing Savarin's bliss and desire in action. I know the effect good food can have on me, and I thrill to see the trick work on somebody else.
There are no funerary moments in Little India's dining room tonight -- at least, none that I know of -- but I am nonetheless reminded of that terrible, wonderful party ten years ago. This food is just as powerful. At their table tucked up against the exposed-brick wall, the family has settled into a groove, conversation on hold, the smiling parents eating tandoori with one hand, trying with the other to keep unimpressed children from putting their fists in the lassi. Saag paneer and alu paratha inspire a truce between the warring couple. On its own, food may not fix anything (again, that only happens in the movies), but it temporarily stops the bloodshed, at least long enough for them to tear into their naan bread and scoop up pinches of delicately spiced creamed spinach and long-grain basmati rice. Her eyes flutter closed briefly, the corners of her mouth twitching up in what I figure is the closest thing to a smile her fella's seen in a long time. His brows furrow in concentration, like he's chasing the tail of some spice he can't identify.
I can sympathize: Little India's particular take on Indian food is an odd mix of regional specialties, all cooked in the tradition of northern Indian cuisine by a Punjabi chef hired by the restaurant's Punjabi owners, the Malhotra and Baidwan families. The menu is long and dignified, showcasing the curries and masalas that even casual eaters of Indian food would recognize, as well as seven kinds of saag, specialties of Madras, Danshak, Bombay and Punjab, and even colonial dishes like the vindaloos from Goa -- their brutal heat and strange balance of spices a record of Portuguese occupation, British colonialism and unbroken Indian culinary tradition. Because I've become accustomed to the homogenization of varied ethnic traditions in Indian kitchens cooking for an American audience, Little India's food can be a surprise -- savory where I expect spicy, hot where I expect sweet -- but everything from the complicated vindaloo to the simplest chutney has the potential to transport a diner to utter bliss.
At another table, a woman dining alone eats with her eyes shut, the book in her hand (The Da Vinci Code, of all things) forgotten. In thrall to her navratan korma, she's oblivious to a dot of beaten curried cream sauce on her chin. Across the room, sitting near the dark wood bar with its foreign-label bottles and a cricket trophy (runner-up, 1998) standing between framed awards and pictures of family and friends, a table of three is sharing plates, forking cubes of boti masala and curried chicken in a thick ginger-and-tomato brown sauce into each other's mouths. Nearby, a plate of alu mutter (big chunks of potatoes and peas in a hot, red-brown gravy with hints of every spice in the rack) and warm Indian puri (deep-fried whole-wheat bread) has reduced two stick-skinny girls with the wasted look of terminal compassionate vegetarianism to a starved, brooding silence.
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I sit beneath art taken from the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita, at a table near where, mid-day, the people will line up for Little India's lunch buffet. In front of me is an order of channa chat -- cold chickpeas and potatoes in a simple, tart sauce heavy on the cilantro, which I pick up with triangles of warm, chewy roti -- that tastes very close to what I remember from that day in Rochester. A little milder, maybe, and not so acidic or citrine. It's gentle in its use of intense spice, rather than the nine-volt surge of sour yogurt or vinegar. I've also ordered tandoori shrimp -- huge and spiced red around the edges, but poorly veined -- and a beautiful plate of heavy lamb masala that's so good, so overwhelmingly earthy and deep with spice that I have to eat it in small, delicate bites, afraid that if I shove big fistfuls of it into my mouth the way I want to, I will miss the point of the carefully balanced flavors.
Indian food -- in particular, Little India's Indian food -- uses spice like a painter uses his oils. Nothing is ever one color, but many, all mixed together, one giant wheel of shades and color. So the language of description falls strangely flat when tasked to explain the interplay of cold, thick cream and hot curry on the tongue; the swirl of yogurt, ginger, onion and tomato in a saag; the way the tandoor oven infuses smoke and mesquite sweetness into everything stuffed into its blazing maw, and how a simple squeeze of lemon can tame all the spice rubbed into the skin. It's much easier, perhaps even more accurate, to watch the food in action, to see how it makes other people feel.
I eat at Little India three times in two weeks, twice in three days, and each time, I keep my eyes on the crowds (which are never small), watching as they're overtaken by the wonder. Never once do I see anyone send something back, make a sour face, hide a bite in a napkin, seem unmoved by what's been set before them. In the faces of those around me, I see it all: the desire, ecstasy and bliss, the power of food to obliterate, to transport, to offer refuge from all things external. No one walks out the door without being touched, at least a little.
Least of all me.