Website posting will be a bit light until Thursday, as I have three visitors to entertain. But one of the advantages of having visitors is showing off Chicago—especially its cuisine.
I’ve eaten all over the U.S., and I have to say that the two greatest American towns for eating are (in decreasing order) New Orleans and Chicago. The ethnic diversity of this town means we have a tremendous diversity of cuisine. I can’t think of a single nationality of food that we can’t get here. We even have a Georgian restaurant! And while New York City probably has an equal diversity, it doesn’t have the same quality in every area.
That disparity between the Big Apple and Chitown is most evident in Indian food. The “Indian” section of NYC is small, and the food barely okay. In Chicago, on the other hand, we have a huge Indian area, centered on Devon Avenue on the far north side. It goes for several miles, and is full of Indian clothing and DVD stores, Indian groceries, and, of course, Indian restaurants. I believe I’ve said before that I think the three greatest cuisines of the world are French, Indian, and Chinese—especially from Hunan and Szechuan—and that’s not a ranking. In Chicago one can get Indian food equal in quality and authenticity to the stuff I’ve eaten all over India.
So when my friend and editor from Oxford University Press, Latha Menon, came to visit (she’s helping me design another book proposal), it was natural that we go to Indiatown, especially because Latha comes from Kerala, though she’s spent most of her life in the UK. She’s also, as are many south Indians, vegetarian. But that’s not limiting, as there are many great vegetarian Indian restaurants in Chicago. I took her to one of our best veg Indian restaurants, the Udupi Palace.
As is her wont, Latha had a paper dosa, which the equivalent of an Indian crepe. This is the paradigmatic south Indian dish, made from lentil and rice flour formed into a batter, poured into a great thin circle like a pancake, and quickly cooked on a big griddle. It’s savory and crispy and a fantastic meal or snack. And it’s always served with sambar, a spicy vegetable soup, and nariyal chutney, a wonderful coconut chutney. (You always eat with your hands, of course, using only the right one.)
Here’s Latha, ready to dig in. True dosa connoisseurs eschew dosas that are filled, like the tyro’s masala dosa that contains spiced potatoes. What you want is simply the crisp crepe itself, torn into pieces and dipped into the chutney. In between bites you sup a bit of sambar, and wash it all down with a mango lassi. (Click on all photos to enlarge.)
I love dosas too, but I love another south Indian dish—the uttapam—even more. It’s a thicker cake made with the same batter used for dosas—the pancake to the dosa’s crepe. And it’s usually cooked with various vegetables mixed in. I had a wonderful chili and onion uttapam:
After lunch we repaired to the local Indian sweet shop, Sukhadia, for rasmalai (Indian cheese patties soaked in sweet, cardamom-flavored cream). Along with baklava from Turkey, this is my favorite of all desserts. Sukhadia has a wide range of Indian sweets and snacks. Here is their selection of barfi (the unfortunate name for delicious “fudge” made from boiled-down milk):
And chaat, or savory snacks:
After a filling Indian meal what you want is a paan, a betel leaf wrapped around various substances that you specify. The classic paan has lime paste and betel nut inside, but after meals I prefer a meetha paan (sweet pan), which contains date paste, coconut, cardamom, fennel seeds, and a variety of sweet spices. You chew it, swallow the juices, and spit out the remainder. I’ve dissected a meetha pan for you here:
I love a good paan, but nearly every visitor I take to Indiatown eschews it. It’s a wonderful digestif. Down the hatch!
Then for a wander. Here’s a typical block of Indiatown:
I invariably make my way to Patel Brothers grocery store, which you can see above. It’s a huge Indian food emporium, and, as usual, among the crowds inside I was the only non-Indian or non-Pakistani person. I love to wander the aisles inhaling the different fragrances, picking up some chutneys and my favorite Mysore sandalwood soap..
The daals (lentils):
Nice vegetables, many not familiar to us:
And all the wonderfully-labeled boxes and bags:
I can’t go back soon enough. But my next visitor gets taken to Chinatown, where there’s an awesome Yunnanese restaurant. . .