India is my chimera – it lives in my imagination as the place I will travel to one day, not too far into the future. It’s been years since my fascination with India, augmented by friends’ tales and imaginary trips I take through its growing output of excellent literature, my yoga practices and its food. Mainly, its food, so antipodal to the fare of my youth. Everything mixed together, fragrant sauces redolent of spices with exotic names (asafoetida anyone?), pillowy bread with the unmistakable charcoal taste of the tandoori oven.
In the absence of an imminent trip to the Land itself, I make do with Little India, a strip of avenue in the Los Angeles hinterland, where saris can be had for reasonable prices, cassette tapes of Bollywood soundtracks are still prominently available and food and spices need to be ordered by pointing as none of the menus or price lists are in English. And I love the surprise of what I ordered in a hurry, before the waitress becomes impatient with my questions.
My first introduction to Indian food coincided with my arrival in London. Indian and Chinese restaurants were pretty much the only ones I could afford when I wanted to splurge. Apparently, it wasn’t a bad introduction as the best Indian food outside of India is to be found in England – that colonial thing….The cold and dismal flat in Albert Square, in a thoroughly dodgy part of town that my friend Sue and I deemed cheery in a moment of dodgy judgment, turned out to have two saving graces. DiLieto, the Italian bakery around the corner where we could buy fresh bread and croissants (and where my mother could speak her lingo to her heart’s content every time she came to visit) and the neighbourhood Indian restaurant that fed us at least once a week. A Sunday afternoon, if not taken up with a movie, would consist of a couple of hours on the leather couches of the pub on the square, followed by a curry.
The place was small, neat, with the to be expected prints of the Taj Mahal and other Indian staples and the Vegetable Korma was exquisite. The resident waiter was a thin, middle-aged man, with a wisp of sad hair on his balding head and funny teeth. He was irredeemably convinced Sue and I were sisters, despite our futile protestations to the contrary and the fact she has red hair and blue eyes and I am as dark as dark can be. We gave up but, should he still be alive today and should we bump into him, he would still greet us as sisters. He was proud of having put his children through college with his modest job and his tales and care were as lovely as the food.
Here in LA, good Indian food is hard to come by. Just the usual tandoori, vindaloo and saffron in abundance as well as the pink leatherette banquettes that seem to come with every Indian restaurant in town. At times I try to fill my kitchen with the yellow curries, the pungent coriander, the sweet garam masala but none of my concoctions ever come close to the “colonial” India of my past or the dream one of my future.
To all of you out there, if you have authentic recipes, let them find their way over to me.
For wonderful Indian reads: “Midnight Children” by Salman Rushdie, “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth and “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry