Passage to India

(Credit: Rajan Manickavasagam via Flickr)

The number of Indian immigrants eager to work at Indian restaurants has dropped sharply, and I am fretting about it. My husband looks at me like I have joined The John Birch Society. Why does it matter what someone’s ethnicity is?

Well, normally, it does not. What he does not realize is my capacity for make-believe. When I go to a restaurant that specializes in another culture’s cuisine, I pretend I am in that country. With luck, the décor and food feel authentic, with no American kitsch or neon to jar me out of my reverie. On our budget, this is as close to cultural immersion as I am likely to get. I imagine the round tandoor oven, naan clinging to its hot clay wall. The grinding of the black or green cardamom pods—cardamom is the world’s third most expensive spice—to make the garam masala. The heat outside, the crowded marketplace, the temples and shrines….

It has always seemed to me that if we share each other’s food, we will somehow understand each other better.

In the lull after the lunch crowd at House of India departs, I ask its owner, Satish Kumar, what he thinks, expecting an impassioned rationale that will bolster my conviction.

He just shrugs. “I like Mexican. I like certain burgers. I go for Italian. I go for Thai. They are all tasty.”

I had hoped for something a little more profound from the man who has run what I think is the best Indian restaurant in St. Louis for a quarter-century. But he is offering me chai, so I stay. Maybe he will tell me how they make it?

About this, he is voluble: “For one cup, boil a cup and a half of water, and while it is boiling, you can put green or black cardamom, a little bit of ginger, a little clove or cinnamon stick, whatever combination you want that day. Boil for a few minutes, then add tea and let it boil for a minute or two, then add some milk and let it boil for a few minutes.” I am scribbling furiously. “It’s the time,” he warns. “Cook on the slow speed rather than the high. We don’t have time; we want to rush rush rush. But it is the boiling that makes it taste good.

“When we were kids in India,” he says, leaning back, “we used to eat together. Now, everybody rushes. Me also. We go out for lunch or dinner, we rush. Food should be eaten slowly, quietly, and with no thinking in your mind. One should really enjoy it. If I am eating the food with anger, what’s going to happen inside my body?”

I agree and confide my pet peeve: Servers asking, “Are you still workin’ on that?” Food should not be work.

Kumar looks stricken. “I have said that. But it is because they are on the phone, their plate is half-eaten, and I cannot tell if they are finished. If people are undistracted, there is a clean beginning and end. But if they are reading and not paying attention to eating …” He frowns. “We are making more money just to end up in the hospital. If we just slow down our life a little bit, we will be living healthier. Phones have become, I would say, a disease. Listen to the news once a day for fifteen minutes exactly. If you listen twenty times a day, it will scare you and not help you in any way.”

This never occurred to me, but I see right away what he means. Because we are distracted, we keep wanting our information repeated, clicking on news alerts, checking feeds, until the day’s events become a low and ominous background chant. “Even just looking at the weather again and again,” he adds. “It’s going to be cold. If you read that twenty times, you change nothing, but you feel colder.”

I ask what he thinks is the secret of moderation—and why it is so hard for us.

“It’s a discipline. We don’t work at it. We do everything for our jobs, but for ourselves, we don’t do as much as we need to do. If we eat in moderation, we won’t end up in the hospital. If you want three pieces of naan, eat two. It’s the taste on the tongue that matters. If we can eat a little less than our appetite, we will always be happy. We need to control our senses.”

People groan to him that they have overeaten at the restaurant’s buffet, all that steaming chicken tandoori and the chicken ginger kabobs and the bharta (eggplant) and aloo ghobi and palak paneer …

“Go home and have fruit or a glass of milk but don’t eat dinner,” he tells them sternly. “Just think, you had lunch and dinner for the price of lunch! People here eat on clock time—‘Oh, it’s time for dinner’—even if they’re not hungry.”

Kumar’s voice stays quiet, unhurried even when there is a burst of activity around him or several people asking his attention at once. He says he came to this country thirty-two years ago from Jalandhar, in the northern state of Punjab. “I worked in Indian and Italian restaurants in Chicago, drove some cabs, sold some insurance. Then I got an opportunity to open a restaurant with partners.”

Though his father and grandfather had owned restaurants, he had not ever worked with them. “There was no discussion. They wanted you to be a doctor or an engineer. But I was twenty-five, just being adventurous. I had no plans to open a restaurant, but it just came. Sometimes things don’t come in your life what you want, but other things come, and they are as beautiful and much better than what you can think.”

Twenty-five years ago, there were only two Indian restaurants in St. Louis, and he was not sure enough people would want Indian food. Today, there are more than a dozen Indian restaurants, and House of India is the patriarch.

“Most are from the north,” he says. “I think people from the north left India first, and all these people used to work in restaurants. The south Indians were either doctors or engineers. But it’s a different ball game today. There are not as many people coming in. People used to apply for sponsorship through the restaurant.” Kumar is not playing my pretend game; he knows very well that he is in St. Louis, not Jalandhar, and he does not insist that his employees be Indian. “You can hire Mexicans or another people who work really hard in the kitchen and learn very quick. Whatever they get, they do it, and nothing stops them. The vision is much higher than it is with people who were born here and take it for a guarantee. Even my own children—they will be successful, but they do not have that same drive.”

I ask his philosophy about cooking. “The thing is to cook with love,” he says. “To have patience. It’s not just cooking and selling. It’s like talking: I can talk with passion or just”—he gestures a flat line. “Whatever we make, people eat that, so if we cook it with positive energy, that energy flows through. The eight spices in the garam masala? They were all here before we came. Whosoever created this beautiful planet, they have given us all we need to live. They belong to everybody.”

I try to picture bringing my own favorite food—York mints smeared with peanut butter, if you want honesty—to people who would find it strange. (Okay, anybody.) Did he Americanize the recipes at all, soften the flavors somehow? He shakes his head. “We do not use red and green chiles, that is the only difference. Half of Americans think spicy means hot. Spices, in exactly the right amount, don’t make the food hot. Peppers do.” About spice, his tone is reverent. “What Americans do with cauliflower is just boil it and sprinkle on some salt. It’s boring. We put in the exact amount of spices to give flavor: cumin powder, coriander, garam masala, turmeric.”

I go home, assemble my own spices, and try making some chai. I force myself to let it boil, using patience instead of a timer, imagining the flavors slowly infusing. Sitting down to drink it, I reach for my phone, then push it away.

This is why I like to enter other people’s worlds. You never come back the same.