The flavors, animals, trains, landscapes and people of India are all captured phenomenally in this latest episode of The Perennial Plate. Chef Daniel Klein and camera-girl Mirra Fine are currently on a world food tour that would make anyone supremely jealous. This video is only their first from India and it has me watering for more; the wealth of experiences conveyed are absolutely amazing.
Definitely be sure to check out their other videos we have previously featured, including their travels to Vietnam, Japan and China. Soon they will be traveling too Argetina, Sri Lanka and Italy. I simply can’t wait for more!
Is it possible to get lunch in Chicago for $3.49? That was the question I sought to answer on Friday at Annapurna, an Indian vegetarian restaurant on Devon Avenue, in the heart of Chicago’s largest South Asian neighborhood. Whenever I need a quick trip to a foreign country but can’t make it to O’Hare, I gravitate to one of my two favorite ethnic enclaves in Chicago: the Arab corridor of Albany Park, on Kedzie Avenue between Wilson and Lawrence, or the South Asian section of West Rogers Park, on Devon Avenue near Western.
Devon Avenue is filled with exotic delights: women wearing the niqab, men in the traditional shalwar kameez, sari shops, Hajj travel agencies, and endearingly bizarre little shops like the House of 220 Volt Appliances, which sells ridiculously large suitcases, tiny little microwaves and everything in between. On one side of the street, a storefront advertises Islamic mortgages right across the street from Gandhi Electronics. On the subcontinent, India and Pakistan are geopolitical adversaries, but on Devon Avenue, Indian and Pakistani immigrants coexist peacefully, even if in parallel universes.
I’ve been eating at the Indian and Pakistani restaurants on Devon Avenue for years but, as a devoted carnivore who is addicted to dishes like Butter Chicken, Vindaloo and Korma, I’ve never been tempted to try any of the street’s vegetarian restaurants until I saw a sign outside Annapurna advertising a $3.49 lunch special. I’m a bargain hunter – in Virginia, I used to patronize a Korean beauty school for $5 haircuts, and I’m not put off by a language barrier.
But I have an above average appetite, so I was skeptical that a three-dollar meal at a vegetarian restaurant would leave me feeling satisfied. Nonetheless, the price was irresistible, so my wife and I tried the place for lunch on Friday.
Annapurna’s décor is surprisingly smart for a place whose menu is filled with items that cost less than four bucks. But it is indeed like going out to eat in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and have no idea what to order. There are no descriptions of any of the items on the menu and we were the only gringo diners on a day when the place was packed with Indian regulars who knew the menu well and didn’t need to ask questions.
I knew I was going to try the dirt-cheap lunch special, but wanted to ask some questions about what we were ordering and some of the other menu items, but the stern-faced, attractive woman working the counter seemed less than eager to talk to us about the menu.
The lunch special changes each day. The Friday special is masala rice and curry soup, and it comes with a glass of buttermilk, chilies, and a small tomato, onion and cilantro salad in a plastic container. The rice dish was nicely spiced and came with potatoes and onions mixed in it. The soup was very sweet and tasted a bit like coconut to me, though the woman at the counter said it was made with yogurt. Either way, I thought that both dishes were delicious, though my wife thought the soup was “peculiar.”
But we both agreed that the buttermilk, on the other hand, was revolting (see video). It was lukewarm, salty and intensely sour. The look on my face when I took a gulp of the stuff would have made for an entertaining passport photo. Still, I felt satisfied – not stuffed, but content – and we had spent a total of $7.66 for two meals, including tax. You can’t get one meal at Panera for that price, let alone two.
I’d had enough to eat, but in the spirit of adventure and gluttony, we decided to split one more dish, a chickpea-based dish called chole bhature, which came recommended by a group sitting near us. At $3.99, it was a nice little splurge and came with two pieces of what tasted very much like the kind of fried dough you’d find at a state fair. It was greasier than Paulie D’s hair, but it tasted damn good.
When the line evaporated and the place started to thin out, I asked the woman at the counter to write down what the special is on each day of the week (they are closed Tuesdays). None of what she wrote means a thing to me, but I’ve included a photo of what she wrote here in case you’d like to try to decode it. I’ve also included the restaurant’s menu, which isn’t available online, in case you’d like to Google these menu items before trying the place.
All in all, it was a tasty and economical outing. We learned that you could indeed eat out in Chicago for $3.49 at 2608 W. Devon Avenue. If you want a tasty, dirt-cheap lunch that comes with that pleasantly helpless feeling you get when out of the country, try it yourself.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the reign of the “Two Hot Tamales,” Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken were the badass female chefs/restaurateurs of the ’80s and ’90s, and the darlings of the Food Network in its infancy (read: when it was good). They helped to put world and regional Mexican cuisine on the radar in the United States with their L.A. restaurants CITY, City Cafe, and the Border Grill, and subsequent TV shows and cookbooks.
In June, I caught Feniger doing a pre-release-inspired cooking demo, “Irresistible Street Food,” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. I’ve attended a lot of cooking demos in my day, and she’s without doubt one of the most engaging, down-to-earth chefs I’ve ever seen, and not just because I’m piggishly besotted with street food.
Caught up in sharing the travel stories behind the recipes she was preparing (the book is packed with anecdotes from her trips to places like India, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Singapore), Feniger was reminiscent of a modern-day Julia Child. “Oh! Salt. Forgot the salt. Oh well, let’s add some more gin!” she said of her Honeydew Cucumber Cooler. In her defense, I, along with the rest of the audience, was suffering a classic Food & Wine Classic hangover right along with her. The weekend’s motto should be, “You play, you pay.”
Feniger also prepared Indian Puffed Rice Salad, and Egyptian Bus Stop Kushary (a lentil dish), in between anecdotes. Whether you’re an armchair traveler or a street food-obsessed adventurer, her book will leave you inspired, intrigued, and hungry for a taste of what the world’s back alleys have to offer.
If you’re in the Bay Area, catch Feniger at a “Cooks with Books” event sponsored by Book Passage, featuring a meal made from the book’s recipes. She’ll also be doing a signing at Omnivore Books in San Francisco on September 21, and at the Book Passage in the San Francisco Ferry Building on September 22.
Indian food in London is often mediocre and overpriced, and a good curry joint is as highly prized as a traditional neighborhood pub. I’ve been to a lot of Indian restaurants in London and a new discovery I made last week ranks as one of my favorites.
Simply Indian is one of those places you’ll only find if a local tells you. Located on 25 Tabard St., it’s away from the tourist center and easy to miss. It’s poorly advertised and its website doesn’t seem to work. The food and service, however, are fantastic, and that’s all that really matters.
The menu offers all the usual favorites like Chicken Jhalfrezi and Lamb Pasanda, along with less familiar fare such as Murgh Sagrana, a mild chicken dish that’s creamy and not too spicy.
“Not too spicy” is a key term here. For heat rating I ordered a medium, which in London still often means you need to call out the local fire brigade. For too many people in this town, eating curry is some sort of endurance contest, best done after fourteen pints of lager. Indian food in India is generally not like that. At Simply Indian the spices are well balanced and are there to be tasted, not simply tolerated.
The service was friendly too, with no surprises when the bill came (something to watch out for on Brick Lane) and only came to a reasonable 27 pounds for two people. They don’t have a liquor license but you can buy booze at the supermarket right around the corner and there’s no corkage fee.
If you’re going to London’s South Bank and are hankering for some good Indian food, check them out. Tucked out of the way as they are, and not catering to the after-pub crowd, I fear for their future. Competition between London’s restaurants is fierce and I hope they’re still there when I return. Their phone number is 020 7407 5006.
From YouTube comes this very amusing clip of Pizza Hut employees in Agra, India, busting out the funky moves to distract customers while their pies bake. In other countries service with a smile apparently means more than just, “You want fries with that?” Take heed, America.