High school was mostly terrible, with a big exception: an epic field trip. It was a fancy private school. A small group of us met to make puffy poori and meditate before we boarded our Air India flight to Delhi. Our eastern religion and philosophy class would see the cultures we’d been learning about in action.
The sensory onslaught still feels fresh, poignant: a monkey snatching my bag of Magic Masala potato chips at the train station, a tall man peeing in a wide arc off the side of the train, bright bangles, sparkly saris, the perfume of chai spices, rickshaws whizzing, everything saturated, bright, heady commotion.
We wrapped our heads in scarves to climb to the top of the Jama Masjid, the rooftops of Delhi splattered in sun before us. In Dharamsala (an endless, hot, and puke-y bus ride away), we watched the hilly streets fill with crimson-robed Tibetan monks on the way to be blessed by the Dalai Lama, ate fat momo dumplings in dark cafes on squishy cushions.
Then to Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, where the Beatles hung out with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ‘60s. We stayed at a sparse ashram, with statues of Hindu gods at every turn, and a dense quiet. We meditated, and yoga-ed, and sat cross-legged to wait for the Swami, whose whispery proverbs filled the big-skied night.
We ate our meals in the ashram dining hall, with low benches and white walls. They abided by a spartan culinary philosophy — “fiery” spices, garlic, and any ingredients with flavor were stimulants that could interfere with our spiritual experience, and thus strictly avoided. We served ourselves unadorned, unseasoned rice and lentils, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which we ate in thick silence.
Outside the ashram walls, the gravel streets were boisterous, dense with vendors selling dangly earrings, flowing skirts, and fragrant street food: pakoras sizzled, golden samosas fried, chai steamed plumes of sweetness.
“Don’t eat from the street,” our teachers warned us. They told us horrid stories of food poisoning, days spent by the toilet, guts turning inside out. “You’ll ruin the trip for yourself and everyone else.”
I didn’t want a marathon of horrid puking. And yet, after the third day of austere rice and lentils, the gorgeous street food beckoned.
“Screw it,” my friend Bruce and I said, our stomachs rumbly and the food smells rapturous. Perched on low stools on the swarming street, we pointed at aloo poori – spicy, tender potatoes served with puffy whole-wheat bread. The symphonic heat and depth of the sauce indeed felt like a drug, a wonderful drug, and we ate in happy silence, scooping the last of the rich goodness up with our pliant bread.
Fast forward to today.
“There’s no good Indian food on the Upper West Side,” my dad, an Upper West Sider and Indian food lover, likes to complain.
Until recently, I didn’t argue. Occasionally, I take the 7 Train to Jackson Heights for feasts of chicken tandoori, lush curries, and lamb kebabs. And there’s nothing like a midnight roti roll from Bombay Frankie, the hot, just-greasy-enough bread full of spicy scrambled eggs and sweet peas, or tender shrimp, nutty with fenugreek.
Two things have happened to silence my father.
One: Awadh opened on 97th Street and Broadway, where the star of the show is artful Dum Pukht, the 200-year-old technique of cooking over a slow, low fire in a sealed heavy bottomed pot or handi, which allows meats to cook in their own juices and become obscenely tender and flavorful. Sometimes, they get finished with a char.
Two: Savoury arrived on Columbus, a quiet restaurant from Lala Sharma, chef/owner of the West Village spot Surya. Now my dad and his Upper West Side neighbors can dig into baby lamb chops with tamarind-coconut-fennel sauce. I’m the one gnawing on the bone.
In the depths of my closet, my sunshine-colored sari hangs, silky, neglected. The tandoori chicken at Savoury is just what tandoori chicken aspires to — unrestrainedly flavorful and totally juicy. But it’s the Aloo Gobi Mutter — cauliflower, potatoes and peas in a gingery, cuminy sauce — that brings me back to Rishikesh. I scoop up the final drops with my naan, wanting the last of the sauce in my mouth.
Oh, and Bruce and I got lucky, our stomachs unharmed by the goodness from the streets. And so we had some more the next day, and the next. I don’t know if our meditation was compromised, but our bellies were happy, and our hearts, too.