It’s a well known fact that I’ve had a long standing passion for India that borders on the obsessive and compulsive. My times spent across India through the years have become some of my fondest memories in life, so much so that I often find myself missing the familiar and quintessential scent of frying ghee (Indian butter) mingling with masala chai, cow dung and fresh rain.
Like anyone in America who loves Indian food, I am constantly in search for grandma’s cooking, that sleight of hand that makes all the difference in a pinch of coriander, a pinch of garam masala. On a trip to Seattle this year, I came across an Indian restaurant upon recommendation of locals. In all honesty, I had low expectations when I heard that the proprietor was a white American man. I figured this would be like many watered down instances where foreigners visit some Asian country once or twice, go home and open a business based on a food, sport, fashion or religious experience they had and dare to call themselves experts.
I was soon proven deliciously wrong, I’m very happy to say. Walking up the steps to a charming Seattle house where Travelers’ Thali takes up the entire first floor, I inhaled a comforting smell of incense fighting over smoky tandoori. Leaves rustling in the background augmented the rustic sounds of traditional table music while rows upon rows of jarred spices and teas decorated one wall, and Hindu Gods lined another.
While waiting for my Thali, I began talking with the manager and owner of the restaurant, both of whom are white American men, both of whom have spent quite a bit of time in India through the years. Like me, they both fell in love with the infinitely rich culture of beautiful India, going so far as to become fluent in Hindi and learning traditional cooking techniques from local grandmothers. Spiritually, culturally and in nearly every way that matters, both owner and manager had assimilated into Indian life.
They brought my Thali out, complete with Papadum, Basmati rice, tangy achaar and cooling raita. My first bite was of the Aloo Phallia- garlicky green beans and potatoes stir-fried with chilies, onions and mustard seeds. Swirling flavors of the streets of India flooded back in that one instant and right there, I knew the rest of the meal was going to be spot on. The green beans were still crunchy, perfectly infused with smoky herbs and pungent garlic. A lovely Bharva Tamatar complemented the smokiness of the green beans, the savory mixture of rice, paneer and lentils in a roasted whole tomato, a decadent but healthful crowning glory to the Thali.
A lightly sweet Saffron Kheer ended a most resplendent meal, its’ incredibly comforting rice pudding texture luxuriating in a creamy mixture of milk, saffron and cardamom. I sipped on my barely sweetened chai, sitting back on a wicker chair and observed the hand-carved wood work brought from Indian villages, the rows of spices and teas and the statues of Vishnu strategically placed in various spots. The tabla music still rhythmically sashaying in the background and the incense forever burning, I was, for that one moment, back in Delhi, with a hundred grandmas in brightly colored saris smiling at me.