Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Indian Adventure

Growing up, my experience with ethnic food was limited to say the least. There was the occasional trip to a Chinese restaurant for moo goo gai pan which despite its name was exceedingly bland. Pizza and tacos were becoming popular, too. But it wasn’t until 1969 when I was a college student in London that I walked into a restaurant and didn’t have a clue what anything on the menu was.

I wish I could take credit for this trip into the culinary twilight zone but cannot. It was an era of experimentation, psychedelic fashions and “anything goes” attitudes but when it came to food I was still digging PB and J. My roommate, who prior to our European semester abroad had never ventured far from the Indiana farm where he grew up, coerced me. Since arriving in London, we had all heard about how good, plentiful and cheap Indian food was. After a dreary winter in Germany and way too many schnitzels it wasn’t a hard sell.

We chose at random (and there were too many to choose from) a place around the corner on the High Street. At the last minute, we invited our other roommate. We had excluded him initially since he only ate steak and chips (in Germany he had only eaten only steak and spƤtzle). After a bout of lobbying on his part to get us to change our destination he tagged along whining all the way.

I have to admit, I had my own reservations after I entered a space more suited for an Amsterdam bordello than a London eatery. It was oddly decorated with red flocked wallpaper and there was an even more peculiar smell, not unpleasant but nevertheless aromatic and very foreign. Seated, we contemplated the extensive menu which for all practical purposes could have been written in Sanskrit. Once again my friend who had initiated our visit to the Indian restaurant took the lead and suggested that the waiter order for us … the two of us that is … my other friend ordered steak and chips. My first thought was a big bill and mentally begin to calculate the shillings and quid in my pocket.

The steak and chips arrived first: a charred little cinder along with a serving of greasy white fried potatoes and some radioactive green peas thrown on the plate. Accompanying this meager meal was his Coke served without ice in a glass half full and clouded by fingerprints.

Before I could form more prejudices a teaming platter of paper thin wafers made from lentil flour (papadums) were set before us along with sundry dishes of brightly colored condiments. One taste and I was a fan. But in their wake appeared samosas, pyramids of pastry filled with a savory potato mixture and deep fried to a golden brown. More and more small dishes gradually covered the table, each more exotic and engaging than the other. Just when I thought our banquet was complete out comes a whole chicken, bright red, cooked in a charcoal tandoor… and rice, basmati rice, fragrant and light. Then chunks of lamb braised in a satin-smooth sauce and flatbreads: garlic naan, chapatti and paratha … and more rice. Of course, at the end came the bill. Even though our friend’s steak and chips cost more than our Indian dinners, being satiated and happy generosity prevailed and we divided the check three ways.

Obviously many Indian meals followed in London and elsewhere. Out of college and living in Chicago I was surprised that at that time there were only two Indian restaurants in the entire city. One—Bengal Lancers—was in my neighborhood and not very good. I had come to realize that Indian food was part of English culture—a remnant of the Raj—and the chances of it becoming popular here seemed unlikely.

More than a decade later, now living in Madison, I heard an Indian restaurant was opening on Monroe Street—Mount Everest. I was excited and pleased by my initial visits. The place was a family affair and the kitchen bustled with skilled cooks and the dining room with amicable servers and happy guests. As too often is the case, it slowly declined. My last visit there a lone woman seemed to be staffing the cash register as well as preparing and serving the food. It mattered little since we were the only diners. I wondered if I had somehow imagined how good the food had been and why I had not noticed how tawdry the place was with its tacky Air India advertisements and photo murals of beaches and palm trees.

My, how things have changed. If my count is correct, our city now boasts 10 Indian restaurants, three Nepalese restaurants, an Indian grocery (many supermarkets and specialty foods stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Willy Street Co-op stock Indian food products as well) and a local weekly cooking show on NBC15, White Jasmine


Campus Biryani and Kebab
1437 Regent Street

Curry in the Box
3050 Cahill Main, Fitchburg

Flavor of India
14 W. Mifflin Street

India Darbar Restaurant
6119 Odana Road

Maharaja Restaurant
1707 Thierer Road

Maharaja West
6713 Odana Road

380 W. Washington Avenue

Swagat Indian
707 N. Highpoint Road

Taj Indian Restaurant
1256 S. Park Street

Taste of India
2623 Monroe Street


334 State Street

2110 Atwood Avenue

Himal Chuli
318 State Street


India House
805-B S. Gammon Road

No comments: