I think it's because of the context, actually. Ethnic minorities bring something important to our cultural experience. Because, typically, minorities are oppressed, they often learn to make something beautiful out of what the general culture regards as humble or evidence of suffering. That's what soul food is, for example: a cuisine developed by African Americans to transform humble ingredients into something wonderful. When the rest of us eat it, it takes us beyond ourselves and reminds us of the universal plight of the human condition to make something beautiful out of life's inevitable suffering. We are all outsiders at some level.
Of course, I don't think this experience is completely conscious. Instead, we experience it in terms of heritage, tradition, memory, taste. The way memory gets attached to taste is fascinating and you can see this operating at deep collective and cultural levels in rituals of feasting around holidays and other special occasions. But we can have this experience of beauty, of remembering our natures, any time we sit down to an ethnic meal.
In some ways at least in my experience the more alien the ethnic cuisine is, the more compelling. The food of India, although common in America now, is surely one of the most difficult for us to relate to our own. For years, the food of northern India was best known to us. It features a good bit of meat and, although exotically flavored, isn't particularly hot. In recent years, we've had an influx of southern Indian food, though. It is largely vegetarian and can be fiery hot. To my palate, the best vegetarian food in our city is at restaurants like Indian Delights, Madras and Woodland. Vegetarian Indian cuisine is part of a long tradition, unlike our own, which often tastes like an apology for the meat it lacks. You don't hear Indians saying, "This tofu tastes just like chicken!" But it is definitely something beautiful made of the humble.
My favorite south Indian restaurant of late has been Udipi Café (1850 Lawrenceville Highway, 404-325-1933). That's in Decatur, next to the also wonderful Istanbul Café. Udipi is immensely popular with the Indian community, as well as American vegetarians and gourmands, so I warn you that parking is difficult. That's my only caveat.
The moment you walk into this restaurant, you feel welcome. The hostess is a non-hurried, smiling woman who tolerates endless questions as you point to something on your plate (or at a stranger's), inquire about origins and Indian geography, and ask exactly how you are supposed to eat a dish. The entire staff is likewise congenial and helpful.
Concentrate on the food. The dining room itself is the usual ethnic puzzle. Big brass chandeliers hang in a large boxy room with a closed-off loft and an orange balustrade. It's not very pretty but you won't care. Everyone is totally entranced with the food, which is gorgeous. All around the room you will see huge dosai great conical, glossy, rice crepes that look like cornucopias stuffed with curried potatoes. A football-sized puff of batura bread is breathtaking tear it apart and it somehow retains its shape. It's wonderful dipped in lentils or whatever mysterious soup or curry is at the table.
The easiest thing to do here is order one of the multi-course dinners, like the mysore royal thali $13.95 and enough to disprove any notion that a vegetarian meal means restraint. This, like the south Indian thali ($11.50), is a circle of little dishes served on a platter around rice. This gives you the chance to sample a number of dishes but, honestly, I prefer ordering a la carte.
The mysore thali includes some fried appetizers, also available individually, and I should say the only disappointment in the restaurant's cuisine has been the samosa, too heavily crusted and made too long before serving. Much preferable are the vegetable cutlet and the fluffy, hot lentil dumpling (mysore bonda), rather like an Indian hushpuppy. If you dine on the weekend, you can order rava iddly the popular snow white patties made of steamed lentils and wheat into which carrot shreds and nuts have been worked. All of these are served with spicy lentil soup (sambar), grated coconut chutney or hot mint sauce.
The thali dishes concentrate on curries. I can't begin to describe them all, but I laughed when one of them turned out to be made with black-eyed peas. It was totally delicious southern Indian-southern American soul food. The curries contrast one another. Some are hot, some are creamy and some are broth-based and slightly acidic. There is mango chutney to add bitterness, pachadi (yogurt with cucumbers and coriander) to add coolness. There is rice to temper the chilies and hold the juices, wonderful breads to pick up morsels and to wrap chewy textures around soft ones.
Now, honestly, as much as I love the curries, I really prefer the dosai, all served with a little bowl of sambar and coconut chutney. These rice-flour crepes come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. They are slightly crunchy, slightly chewy. All tend to include potatoes in their filling, plus another vegetable or two and incorporate chilies of varying piquancy.
My favorite for taste (because others are more dramatic looking) is the spring dosai ($6.95). It looks like sections of a burrito. The crepe is cooked to a dark brown and filled with potatoes and minced onions and cauliflower. A hot chutney makes you sweat. You also can order uthappam here. These are thicker crepes, almost like pancakes, with the ingredients worked into the batter. I much prefer dosai because of its slightly crunchy texture.
Honestly, you can eat here for very little money, feel good about not eating flesh and have a beautiful experience of another culture. Happily, the restaurant is large enough that even when it's most busy, I've not had to wait longer than five or 10 minutes.
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