Today I had a lot of errands to run in the Valley, and as it turned out, I chased a lot of dead ends. So I was driving around aimlessly, and I finally got hungry. Where to go? The usual fast food joints tempted, but I remembered my new motto - Take a Chance.
Sherman Way at Topanga Canyon Boulevard is eclectic, multi-ethnic, and interesting. On Sherman just west of TCB is a block of small retail establishments, including a branch of the local Indian chain, India Sweets & Spices.
It doesn't have much street appeal. The expandable window gate was still drawn across the windows on one side of the entry door, and there was some litter on the sidewalk - maybe because of the high winds today - but from the sidewalk, you could smell the spices in the air - cardamom, maybe, garum masala, and asefetida.
When you enter, the grocery is on the left, and straight ahead is a big sign that says FOOD. There's a big glass-fronted display case that holds Indian sweets -cut in squares or round and fried - multicolored in orange, yellow, pink, frosted, decorated.
Beyond this was a counter, a cashier, and then a steam table with perhaps 10 pans of different food items. A long line of people stood waiting to place their orders.
The items behind the glass were unlabeled, and the menu was equally unhelpful to a non-Indian customer. The names of selections were clearly written in western letters, but with no translation.
I knew enough to know that the Lunch Special offered a choice of rice, vegetable, raita and dal, with a samosa on the side, a pakora and pickles. It was $5.40. I told the cashier I wanted that, and after he made my change, he motioned me toward an older gentleman wearing a turban.
"Hi," I said, "What do you recommend?" The store was loud, and I couldn't hear his answer. So I pointed at random at a pan of food. "What's that?"
"Chick peas," he said.
"Okay. And...." I saw another server stir another pan, and recognized an ingredient. "Does that one have paneer?" I asked. He dipped his head. "I'll have that."
He scooped up the two dishes, poised his spoon over yellow rice until I nodded, and then handed me a laden tray.
The dining space was furnished with formica benches and tables like you'd find in a cheap fast food joint. Forks and knives were offered at a station, along with small styrofoam cups. I noticed that all the diners had a small cup in front of them, and that on several tables were two pitchers - one clear and plastic, and the other metal. Cold water, and tea, I think. I filled my styro cup with cold water, and sat down to eat.
The wall next to me had a huge, impressionist mural of two Bollywood performers dancing together. The opposite wall had a mural of a cricket player in action.
I wish I knew what the dishes I was eating were named. The chick pea dish had a wonderful flavor of spice - allspice, maybe, or cardamom. Its heat built up on you, and I dunked my fork into the cool sour raita for a bit of a break. The yellow rice, with bits of nuts and pepper, was tasty, even though every once in a while I encountered a chunk of chile. The dish with the paneer - or fresh cheese - included green peas in a thick orangey curry. I loved the sweetness of the peas, and the taste of the curry, but it, too, had a hidden chile heat that built up on me. In about ten minutes, my tongue was burning. More raita! More water!
The samosa was stuffed with potato, and although it was good, it was more starch than I wanted. The pakora - or fritter - was delicious as all fried things are delicious. And do you know - I have no idea what it was. Perhaps a chunk of yam? A cauliflower? Potato? I have no idea, all I know is it was fried and delicious, and I ate all of it!
At the table in front of me, two laborers ate, chatting softly and laughing. Beyond, a table of four older ladies shared their food. One lady wore a velour sweat-suit, one jeans and a smart top, and the other two, older, wore salwar kameez. Behind me were two ladies, and one of them held forth at great length and volume in Hindi - I am not sure she ever stopped talking enough to eat, but her companion must have enjoyed her lunch, because all she ever said was "Um."
There were raw slices of sweet onion accompanying my lunch, and bits of sour-hot mango pickle. I recognized a whole pickled serrano chile at the last minute, and avoided it. Still, the other bits of pickle were puckery and bitter and sour and wonderful.
My mouth was on fire. I was happy, but could take no more. I downed another cupful of cold water, and bused my tray. Still a little hungry, I approached the counter again. I pointed to one of the sweets behind the glass. "What is that one?" I asked.
I couldn't understand what the server said in response, and I smiled, embarrassed. "Cashew," he offered.
I pointed to the menu posted above his head, which helpfully numbered all the items. "What number?" I asked.
"Habshi halwa," I read. "Can I have some? Thank you."
It was a dense, textured, sweet block of ground nuts, milk, starch, and spices like saffron and cardamom. It was the perfect thing to bank the fiery chiles still blazing in my mouth. I walked through the grocery store looking at all the unfamiliar items, and nibbled this delicious sweet. I had no idea what I was eating, but it was good.
It was an interesting experience. I love trying new food, and I'm pretty adventurous. But I like to know the name of what I'm eating, and what it means! Is it enough to know a dish is delicious even when you don't know its name and what it is made of? Can you still enjoy it fully?
When I go to Mexican and Central American places, I have enough elementary Spanish vocabulary to recognize basic foods. But my language ability in an Indian grocery is non-existent. The clerks and servers were not very helpful - they weren't unfriendly, but they expected me to know what I wanted, and seemed impatient with my lack of knowledge. Perhaps the best way to learn the menu is to go back again and again, trying something new each time, just expanding my knowledge.
I think it would be well worth it.
Indian Sweets & Spices has stores in several locations in Southern California. I highly recommend it - you should always be prepared to take a chance!