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A `Little Madras' here too ....

When work-focussed South Indian families decide to unwind during the weekends, it is to this stretch of El Camino Real that they head towards, says S. MUTHIAH.


EL Camino Real, the King's Highway that runs from San Jose to San Francisco, was for long California's main highway. When I first knew it 55 years ago, it was pretty much like what our own NH-45 was till the latest improvements. Today, El Camino Real has been left behind by the super highways on either side of it; it may have now been upgraded to what Prime Minister Vajpayee's "Quadrilateral" stretches are promised to be, but it is no super highway. It is, however, California's main drag, a highway that has strip malls on either side of it all along its 100 kilometre route.

These shopping centres, set well off the road and providing ample parking and pedestrian space, are models of planning that could well be copied by our road builders, especially those working on Chennai's East Coast Road and the IT Corridor, where shops squat on highway's edge and parked vehicles and pedestrians vie for highway space. On El Camino Real, however, you drive in and out of strip malls which offer, apart from the well-known American commercial names, restaurants, supermarkets and stores representing almost every country.

... even here, a smile and a bit of banter seem beyond the service industry.

Passing through Silicon Valley, El Camino Real is dominated by Asian businesses. But in the stretch through Sunnyvale, home of Lockheed's, and a bit on either side of it is something more than Asian for anyone from South India; it is truly "Little Madras". Cupertino may be "Little China" and Fremont "Little India", with the focus on North Indian business establishments, but when work-focussed South Indian families in the Valley decide to unwind during the weekends, it is to the "Little Madras" stretch of El Camino Real that they head — to shop and dine. "Nalli's" is not always a part of the programme, but the food stores are. The "Nilgiris" franchise might have its shelves with gaping gaps in them, but its video library is packed with Indian films, particularly South Indian ones, to suit every taste. "India Cash Carry" is much more spacious, has far better stocked shelves and freezers, a wider range of Indian kitchenware and even a row dedicated to Sri Lankan kitchen items and processed foods. For a person like me who only occasionally steps into a shop in Chennai, it was a revelation, making me aware of the range of processed foods India — and its South Asian neighbours — are now producing, be they in ever so shabby packaging. But it also struck me how much fresher the vegetables were, how much more neatly arranged, better displayed and shelf-filling the stocks were, and how much friendlier the service was in the Chinese and Japanese shops in the Valley. The Valley cries for "Food World" — and "Nilgiris" — and "Amma Naana"-run shops in terms of stocking and display, but even they'd have to go a long way in matching the friendly service of the East Asian businesses.

I don't know what it is with us, but a smile, a hello, a bit of banter all seem beyond the Indian service industry at home as well as abroad. Take those restaurants in `Little Madras" that most of those shopping for the week wind up at to get a break from bulk-cooked idlis, rice, sambar and sabjis heated up for dinner during the previous week You name a Madras name it's on El Camino Real or nearby ... "Dasaprakash", "Woodlands", "Saravana Bhavan", "Udipi", "Madras Café", "Spice Hut", "Dhaba", "Komala Vilas", "Hot Breads", they're all there. To someone fresh from home, they serve indifferent food; to the Valley dwellers, particularly the `H-1's and `L-1's, it is manna from Home. But must service be without the courtesies common in America" What a contrast their Chinese and Vietnamese and Japanese neighbours, are, determinedly attempting to make brighter the smallest place with imaginative décor and carefully-chosen furniture, managing with fewer staff offering better and friendlier service, and ensuring high standards of cleanliness obvious at a glance!

"Saravana Bhavan", the most popular of the lot, is little better than a glorified diner that offers tables and chairs instead of the counters and stools of the past. It always has a queue for tables, but the waiting hall is an exposed-to-the-elements corridor where even in California you can freeze till the maitré, who appears never to have heard of that courteous form of address, Mr. or Mrs or Miss, calls for Muthiah. And, inside, Muthiah discovers that apart from the Mexican waiters, ubiquitous in Indian restaurants in California, there are several managers and maitrés and supervisors, all operating to a strict hierarchy to judge by the "Ask him" you get when you ask about the half-inch thickness of the baiji's batter, or the dryness and sogginess of the respective elements that constitute a masala dosai, or the podi for the cocktail idlis the four-year-old I referred to last week insists are his favourite combination.

"Dasaprakash", "Woodlands" and "Udipi" might be a little more upmarket, but service with a smile is not an Indian thing it is obvious even in them. "Spice Hut", "Madras Café" and "Komala Vilas" are what might be termed fast food outlets, but no single item is inexpensive. "Spice Hut's" combination menus, shared by a couple or three, however, can work out very economical, not more than $2 to $3 a head. "Spice Hut" and "Madras Café", the former a little less spare, are now reflecting their success by planning for new outlets elsewhere in the Bay Area. More significant are the stories of their genesis. "Madras Café" owes its beginning to four IT professionals who, in the industry's dark days, decided to pool their savings and enter a new business. "Spice Hut" was born when an Indian hoteliering graduate who was a chef in the Valley, wanted to strike out on his own and sought venture capital from the IT professional who now runs the business, while his partner runs the kitchen. I wish there was someone to run the dining space.

The presence of South Indian cuisine in Sunnyvale and North Indian fare in Fremont, with the occasional other Indian restaurant in other towns in the Valley has begun to make Indian cuisine a more noticed one in the Valley. The Los Angeles Times thought it worthy enough to feature "curry leaves", stating, "In this country, the word curry is almost meaningless. It usually refers to a dish flavoured with curry powder ... as if all dishes with spicy sauce could be lumped together into a single category. In southern India, the signature flavour in cooking comes from curry leaves, which despite their name, taste nothing like curry powder ... " And after describing the leaves, Barbara Hansen writes, "They add a slight peppery flavour to all kinds of dishes ... " Stating that the leaves — which "keep longer" — are available year-round in all Indian markets in California, she also advises on how Murrayo koenigii Spreng (I've at last learnt the botanical name for karavepillai) can be grown in home gardens and offers for good measure a couple of recipies — one from a Sardarni who runs the "Madras Tiffin Café"!

On another day, I caught up with Marion Cunningham's recipe for "Mulligatawny soup", the ingredients including celery, green bell peppers, grated apples, ground nutmeg and the not-to-be forgotten curry powder. The "Madras Club" chefs, where the "soup" was invented, would be aghast if they read the rest of the recipe. But no doubt this is just one more step to the Americanisation of Indian cooking, like describing the "Dasaprakash" restaurant as a "bistro". That's the in-word in the Valley for restaurants that are anything but bistros. The word in classical usage describes a small café serving traditional French cooking. Now, in the Valley, it's being used for restaurants that "take old dishes, classical dishes and present them in a more refined way," according to Aleta Watson of the San Jose Mercury News. Does the "Dasaprakash" fare conform to that description? I wouldn't be too sure of that, but why worry about the niceties of language so long as the word draws the crowds, particularly those weekend Indian diners — out from the world of hi-tech, who will be my focus next week in the last article in this series.

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