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Taste of home

Chennai's favourite food, dosa or `the vegetarian crpe from South India,' is clearly going places, especially in the U.S. SHONALI MUTHALALY writes...


I AM IN New York's hip Greenwich Village. Formerly the home of arty, impoverished painters and artists, it's now become one of the most expensive places to live in Manhattan. A locality where you pay thousands of dollars for a studio apartment so small that you need to keep your elbows tucked in every time you take a deep breath. On either side, there are eclectic boutiques selling everything from designer stilettos to semi-translucent bars of exotically flavoured soaps with equally exotic price tags.

"Pick a cuisine," my friends say. "Name any cuisine in the world and you'll get it in Manhattan." In dimly lit, exotic smelling restaurants, small groups of people hunch over Ethiopian dinners served on a single plate and piled high with meats set slathered in spicy gravies. Italian restaurants dish out oversized slices of fragrant pizza topped with crunchy onion rings and jalapeno peppers. Chinese dim-sum joints ladle out bowls of noodles floating in steaming soup. There are upscale Japanese sushi bars, crowded Mexican restaurants, Spanish Tapas bars soaking in sangria, laidback Caribbean outfits, uppity French cafes and even a joint that specialises in just peanut butter sandwiches.

And in busy corner, New York University students and hipsters stand in fascination, waiting for a dosa or `the vegetarian crpe from South India.' Chennai's favourite food is clearly going places.

According to a food review in New York, Kumar, the owner of the food cart, "works his small grill like a hyperactive DJ, pouring batter and spreading on curried potatoes... When the batter is cooked through, Kumar folds it with an artist's flair, effortlessly lifting the ethereally thin lentil-and-rice-flour wrapper from the grill... and serves it with a gingery coconut chutney and a small tub of spicy lentil soup."

Who knew our everyday dosas could make someone wax this eloquent! Hmmm... so when was the last time you broke into poetry as your dosa was drenched in ghee at Saravana Bhavan?

While we're on the subject of Saravana Bhavan — and dosas — take a quick trip to the opposite coast and peep into their restaurant in Mountain View, next to San Francisco. Not only will you see notice long queues of Indian IT professionals hungering for a taste of home, but you will also notice the fact that the Americans are also jostling for space in the restaurant. Indian food in the U.S. is clearly not the sole preserve of Indians anymore.

Remitha, who lived in Santa Clara for four years, waxes eloquent about the Udipi restaurant on El Camino, which stands shoulder to shoulder with restaurants like Komala Vilas, all serving "home cooked, regular Indian meals, complete with rasam, sambar and thayir sadham." And she says that the regulars at these places include both Indian and American customers, "all of whom have to wait to find a place to sit."

And it's not just the dosas that have caught America's imagination. Back to Greenwich Village, the latest exotic addition to the area's ever-expanding menu is `Indian Chinese,' complete with our very desi chicken Manchurian and crispy lamb. India's Chinese food, a combination of Indian cooking and the spirit of stir-fry, is evidently finally being recognised as a genre of cooking in its own right... and rightfully so.

The American menus include the likes of Manchurian cauliflower, Szechwan paneer and `home style chilli chicken,' all served with "long grain basmati rice in bowls, which is ideal for mopping up the really spicy sauces that go with these dishes," according to an excited reviewer who predicted that the restaurant he discovered it in, is "probably going to be one of the hottest Asian restaurant in the area before long." These slices of Authentic India, delivered by homesick Indians craving the cooking they grew up on, are probably the most effective way to battle the `curry phenomenon' sweeping the world, giving the impression that Indian food is always blandly oily, sopping in a violently red gravy and found in `microwaveable' packages.

It's about time too. Now, there's finally more to Indian cuisine than polyethylene wrapped naans and chicken tikka. So, all hail the dosa. And give chicken manchurian a quick salute while you're at it.

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