Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Good Ramen in Westchester


(914) 592-2220

1 E Main St, Elmsford, NY 10523

I fell in love with Ramen noodles twice. The first time was as a graduate student, when Ramen meant the cheap, boiled instant noodles that I bought in packs from the 32nd Street market in L.A. circa the mid-eighties. The second time was last year, during trips to Japan, exposed to the real Ramen noodles in noodles shops in and around Tokyo. It is the latter kind that has captivated me the past year, and the subject of this note (though by no means am I any kind of expert on this subject).

Ramen noodles lead a dual existence of snobbish discrimination and hearty fare. Available in dinky, around the corner noodle shops in Japan, they are frequented mostly by men looking for a no-nonsense meal. Food (and beer) is ordered by paying into a machine and then handing the cook the printed receipt. You then pick up the steaming bowl of noodles at the cook's counter, and sit down at communal, bar-like tables. The room is punctuated by slurping sounds, you drink your water from little faucets attached tableside and, when you are done, you vacate to the next guy who might be waiting, particularly during peak lunch hours. People swear by their Ramen--“it is not easy to make good Ramen”, many a Japanese friend has told me. Besides the freshness of the curly noodles, the magic lies in the ingredients in the soup, and recipes that are often held as tightly kept secrets. This only adds a dose of mystique to the hot, wholesome, feeling in the mouth, and over the weekends families will often hunt around the web looking for, and then heading towards, the place that makes good Ramen.

A Ramen fan has many places to go to in New York City. There is the upscale Momofuku Noodle Bar (named after Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant noodles in 1958?), that I have never been to, scared off by worries about long wait times. Then there is Menchanko Tei, at two locations in Manhattan, where I have never been disappointed. But these, and a host of other places, are an hour’s drive from where I stay, and I was looking for a location that would be as simple to get to, as the wholesome nature of the dish itself. So it was that I came upon Ichi Riki, at the corner of Rt. 9A and 119, in Tarrytown, NY. Ichi Riki is not a specialized noodle shop, it is a regular Japanese restaurant in America with a sushi bar and the usual assortment of Japanese dishes. But it has three Ramen dishes on the menu (referred to as “Larmen”), and those are the only ones that I have had eyes for—Shoyu, Miso, and Gomoku. Shoyu Ramen, made at Ichi Riki with plenty of soy sauce, slices of pork, vegetables, and half of a hard boiled egg, is one of the older types of soy based Ramen. Miso Ramen--true to its name--is miso based, and came out of Hokkaido. Ramen noodles themselves are said to have originated in China--note the similarity with Lo Mein--and popularized in Japan after the second world war. The Ramen at Ichi-Riki is exactly what I expect—a quick, tasteful, light, noodle meal in the afternoons when I can get in and out within a half hour. Wash it down with a beer if you can. The dish will not propel you to ecstacy, but it will not kill you either. The choices and the complexity are short of what you might expect at the Manhattan places, but there is a consistent taste to the food for the times that you need comfort in familiarity. And it is the only place in Westchester—so far—that has a Ramen dish in its everyday menu.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A short trip to Dallas

Nov 10, 2008:

This is the first trip that I am making since the stock market crash and I hope that the traffic at the airport might be a bit lighter. The Fall colors have been gorgeous this season and I drove down the Parkway in an autumn afternoon when the sun streaked through woods in the process of being shorn from their leaves. It is a golden glow in the air that Autumn disburses to us, with the light that has turned with the winter sun bouncing around a tapestry of warm browns, reds and yellows of the leaves. I am headed to Dallas for a quick trip and will be back tomorrow night. Heading south towards the city on the Sprain Parkway feels like a river headed to the ocean. The initial traffic up north near Yorktown is lighter but as we dart southward, the convoy of cars thicken, and the flow of traffic becomes viscous. The sky is bright blue after days of drizzly weather and in this pretty setting I do not mind the drive. These are starkly different environs from where I grew up-in a crowded suburb in Kolkata—ten thousand miles distant, but we view this distance today as just a curtain pull away. I am now used to these Fall colors and the impending snow--for the past seventeen years--though the idea of this place remains a construct borne out of adult experience and adaptation that is yet foreign to my natural sensibilities.

We like to think that time has shortened distances and the mingling of people, and it has, as a quick look at immigrants in every walk of life around in Westchester tells us. We like to think that this is a recent development and that the men and women who walked these maple and oak forests were firewalled from the world of India a century or two ago. As I drive I think about the book M returned home with last weekend, about an American who settled in rural India in the earl 20th. century and was responsible for triggering the apple industry in India under a seed license for the American Delicious variety from a nursery in Louisiana. This gentleman, Mr. Stokes, went to the Mohegan Military Academy, the remains of which are minutes from where we we used to stay. Or even earlier, to Colonel James Gardner in the 18th. century, who grew up in the Hudson valley in a family of British sympathizers and then went on to settle in India and sire a clan whose descendants are still extant around Lucknow. These are people who knew these worlds, of what the snow, the autumn leaves, the stone fences dotting the woods felt like, and then on to what it felt like to sit still on a breezeless evening in stifling humidity, by a muddy river with a dusty sky beyond it.

Nov. 11:

Dallas airport is sparse this evening and a cavernous space of cold tiles and big passages. After a short bus ride to the rental car center I walk into a waiting Ford Explorer SUV with country music piping through the loudspeakers. This is an apt entry into Texas, and my first visit to Dallas. The George Bush Highway is as American as it gets. Sweeping flyovers across expansive plains bank and merge playing games with the horizon. Big vehicles pause past toll booths manned by African immigrants. A thunderstorm threatens the air, it hangs heavy with the smell of wetness. Later at night the storm hits with the accumulated strength of the clouds gathered across the plains. In the rainy night a creek gurgles beside the house of a friend where I am staying. I strain my ears for the night sounds through an open window and hear no frogs.

Dallas in the daytime is flat, large, and crowded with storefronts and I pass numerous used car dealerships and pawnshops. The roads are wide, wide enough for a big SUV to make a smooth U-turn at a traffic light with lots of room to spare. There is a crystallization of an American cityscape here and it is the kind of image one has of America before arrival. It is also surprisingly cosmopolitan. I have lunch with some colleagues at a restaurant called Ali Baba. The buffet is surprisingly good with kebabs, chicken, rice with saffron and nuts. The hummus is smooth, and the tabouleh is fresh tasting. I have been having a stellar time with the food in Dallas. The night before my friend’s mother cooked us a pefect south Indian meal and then in the morning she made me a trio of dosas.

Dallas, Houston, and Austin have been spots of blue in an otherwise red background, in the recently concluded presidential elections. Not quite as liberal as Austin, it is still squarely to the left of Texas. The state is flush with oil money and its universities fast growing. Founded in the early 1840’s and intended as a trading post with Indians, Dallas had its share of a rich frontier history and colorful residents of that time such as Doc Holliday. The discovery of oil in 1930 kept the city less affected by the Depression, and today it stands a sprawling metropolis, and clearly a rich city. It is too short a trip to try to sense a unique pulse to the city and I do not try. I move within the vanilla conveniences and assembly line motions of routine travel.

Cliches aside, everything is indeed larger in Texas. And of these, it was the enormous Texas thunderstorm and the memory of the rain laden skies that I bring back with me as I fly home.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Travelogue, trip to India Aug 19-31

Aug 19-21:

This is the first time that I am taking the new Air India non-stop to Mumbai, following in the footsteps of M and the boys who left on Saturday and are now in Kolkata. I am looking forward to this trip. Fourteen hours non-stop to Mumbai. Spend the night at a hotel near the airport, where I have a business meeting to take care of, followed by an early morning flight to Kolkata. I hear there have been heavy rains in Kolkata and that the city has been immobilized by a bandh. The non-stop directs are smaller, Boeing 777 aircraft, brand new, and the Air India service is courteous and well meaning, though not the most effective. I ask whether I need to pick up my checked in bags at Mumbai or whether they will be transited directly to Kolkata. I get three different answers—covering all possibilities—one of the respondents tells me he is 101% sure of his answer. I have two books with me, Amitav Ghosh’s Glass Palace, and “Confessions of a Mafia Hit Man”, something I pick up at the airport bookstore.

Flight was uneventful. I learn a bit about a famous mafia hitman who loved to leave his victims to the mercy of feeding rats, and from the Hindustan Times I learn that Priyanka Chopra felt overdressed in shorts and something called “tank tops” while she was in Miami. Such are the concerns of the day. Headed to an airport hotel and found out that India will get at least two more Olympic medals. Gave me goosebumps. The country will be on fire tomorrow. A new Bollywood movie starring one of Nepotism Kumar’s grandsons will come out with a movie, “Ek Sona Do Bronze”. “Plastic” Chatterjee will play the female lead and the stars will be feted at Dhamakas across New Jersey. Noted on the Columbia University website (where I teach), that two or their alumni have won medals as well. Two for Columbia, three for India. This looks like a turning point for Indian sport. I read a compelling article pointing out that activities with a comprehensive coaching program have done well. The boxers have their own dedicated coaches and extensively competed abroad, the rifle shooter—financially solvent himself—has a dedicated coach, physio, and trainer.

It takes a few days to get used to the pace and flavor every time I visit. There are little scenes that tug you towards the continuum that one was part of before leaving. A brief glimpse of a man emerging from a narrow lane, backlit by a single sodium lamp through the rising smog, the milky elaichi laced tea from a stall, the smell of disinfectant coming off of marble public spaces. I am waiting at the gate of “Chatrapati Shivaji Airport” for my Indian Airlines flight to Kolkata. Gad Ala, pun Singha Gela”, Shivaji was reputed to have said—“We got the fort but lost the lion”—when he captured a fort (Sinhagad) near Pune, but lost his trusted general.

As I had imagined, the morning papers have gone hysterical with national pride at the 3 medal performance of India at the Olympics. There is a sense today, riding India’s economic success, that this is a new generation who perceive themselves as the equal of anybody, anywhere. That this feeling extends into the sporting world as well, seems implied in many of the articles that I read.

Service personnel permeate the hotel and the airport. All kinds of customer assistance booths line the domestic airport. The staff are courteous, and quick to give assurances that do not seem to carry far. Everybody is winging it. The ground staff at the gate scratches my printed seat number and scrawls another number in by hand. Inside the aircraft, a second crew member scratches that out, and restores my original seat number back. Passengers are upset because seat numbers have been switched around. But, things settle back in the aircraft, we leave around the expected departure time and soon I am sitting with a south Indian breakfast served by the matronly Air India air-hostess. Which brings me to an interesting point about sexism in the Indian airline industry. The government run Air India flights had seasoned, extremely nice attendants who seem like they were middle class housewives. Looking around Mumbai airport, however, it did feel that the requisite for an attendant’s job in some of the other private airlines required being able to slip into a size 4 dress, and carry it off.

Aug. 22 –25

Kolkata is my favorite city to watch from the air while the aircraft prepares for landing. Part of it is the anticipation for the city where I spent a dozen of my formative years. Part of it is because it still looks like a cluster of villages stitched together in green. Circular patterned brick making kilns dot the approach to the airport. The land is a jumble of shapeless mofussil style brick constructions, palm trees and ponds. I get a SIM card for my cell phone and sign up for a prepaid taxi at the airport. The main road from the airport to the city, VIP Road, once a laid back tree lined avenue has beed swallowed up by the crowds of the congested city. After a drive full of stops and starts, I walk into the house to a drenching rainfall.

The next morning we prepare to head to Guwahati. Kolkata, for a certain section of society, continues its upmarket march. I seamlessly pick up a Wi-Fi connection at Salt Lake, I message with my colleagues across the world to take care of some business. The young men and women I see walking around the upscale mall share a single currency in dress and demeanour with their counterparts across the globe. Guwahati, I expect would be a world apart. We take the new 4 lane high way through New Town to the airport. The highway cuts through swathes of vast greenery and palm trees--beyond, the green merges with a darkened, rain laden, moody Bengali sky. Cows graze by the sides of the roads, groups of people in twos and threes walk or cycle by the roadside, there is the smell of wet earth in the air. Amidst this, is an explosion of construction. Clusters of highrises sprout across the landscape with telltale cranes hovering over rooftops. Finished buildings sport marquee corporate names. I have no doubt this time that New Town will be the Gurgaon of Kolkata. Slowly, but surely, the center of gravity of this city is moving Eastward.

Borjhar airport, Guwahati, is my third airport in three days, and the first one not named after a warrior. Due to security concerns, this leafy suburban airport teems with heavily armed soldiers and their presence has a quietening effect on the people milling outside. The road back to the city runs along the great Brahmaputra river, magnificent in its scope, bordering this haphazard city where cars, two wheelers, trucks, roads and lanes are jumbled up and shoved in like a suitcase full of dirty clothes on a return trip. Guwahati has one of the most spectacular locations that I have seen. Nestled in a valley, ringed by hills, the expanse of a wide river as companion, this is the largest city of the north-east, the region a step-child of the central government that historically never did receive the attention that northern India did.

The morning’s papers bring news about unrest in West Bengal. Tata’s Nano factory, set up in West Bengal, uses land appropriated from farmers by the government. The farmers led by a particularly stubborn and maverick politician have caused unrest and the Tatas in return, have bluntly suggested that they will pull out of their Rs. 1500 crore investment if things do not improve. The state government, with its current policy of promoting heavy industrial investment, and a history of supporting labor unrest in the past, cannot afford such a high profile investment falling through. It is difficult to take sides here.

This morning a cousin of mine, a tea company executive, came by to. Wild elephants roam his compound, rhinos are seen across the road from his house, and tigers are not too far away. Blessed with striking natural beauty, resources, and wildlife, Assam can feel remote and long ignored by the rest of the country. This is the place that my parents call home, and even though I have never lived here for any extended period of time, I strongly feel myself to be a part of. There has been a multi-country agreement to revive the old Stilwell Road named after an American general and which American--mostly black--soldiers built through Assam and into Burma during the second World War to move supplies from the railhead at Margharita. The aim today is to create a south-eastern commercial hub that links all the way to Kunming province in China. The administration envisions Assam as India’s link to the emerging vitality of South East Asia and land trade with China. Assam had settlements by the Ahoms, who migrated from Thailand more than a thousand year ago. Assamese food has the tanginess of Thai soups, the silks and embroideries are strikingly similar to what I have seen in Thai restaurants. Thai accented English has lilts and inflections that sound like an Assamese speaking English.

Manmohan Singh is due in Assam today to inaugurate a medical facility and college. Several years ago a new Indian Institute of Technology was created in Guwahati. I can seen the permeating effects of a world class institution on local education today. Most undergraduates at the IIT here are not from Assam. However, the post-graduate and Ph.D. programs have an opportunity to be fed by students from small local colleges around the state. The brighter ones among them then go on educational institutions abroad, thereby plugging Assam into the international scientific farm system.

There is much construction in Guwahati since the last time that I was here a year and a half ago. The Mall madness appears to have arrived here as well. The main avenue called the GS Road is lined with Pantaloons, Mainland China, and Reebok. A mall named “Big Bazaar” gives away 5 kilos of sugar if you buy more that a thousand rupees in merchandise. This, we learn from the driver of our rental car—a young kid who was there to buy some jeans rand gave away the supply of sugar that he received. This is not something that would have been common twenty five years ago, and I see first hand the effects of trickle down economics.

Aug 26-27:

Back in Kolkata. The Tata Nano factory episode has captivated the media. Mysterious has been the appearance of a politician from Uttar Pradesh, Amar Singh, who, in supporting the strikes, appears to have his own axe to grind. Rumors abound—perhaps he wants to lure Nano to UP; perhaps he is aligned with one of Tata’s rivals. In an address to industrialists, the West Bengal chief minister announces with refreshing candour that he unfortunately comes from a political party that supports the notion of strikes. As in other places, this is turning into a battle of egos with the true interests of the affected on hold. I have not seen any Indian car get the kind of attention as the Nano has in the international automotive press. Over the years the Hindustan Ambassador has received occasional attention, as a quirky, throwback vehicle. The Nano has been called a technical masterpiece, the biggest innovation in automobiles since the Ford’s turn of the century mass production concept. Anyone can build a great car for a hundred thousand dollars, one article noted. But to engineer one for less than 2500 dollars requires skills. They draw attention to the single windshield wiper of the Nano. True, the Mercedes E class had such a wiper at one time. But that required a symphony of motors and a component cost that probably equalled that of the entire Nano, they point out. If the factory at Singur can survive this political onslaught, it could be the beginnings of a great display of engineering. This is not just an assembly of knocked down parts like the Maruti, nor the ho-hum re-engineering of an economy car like the Indica, but a blue print for something that has not been done before.

Yesterday was a full day of business meetings. Between meetings I sat with a colleague at the Grand hotel bar with a pint of Kingfisher draught beer. An older jazz guitarist—the live music for the evening—was fingering through the scales on his acoustic guitar, waiting for his colleague to show up. He had a wizened face, with crows feet by his eyes, and I thought that he was Anglo-Indian though age made it one of those hard to place faces. As I got up I caught his attention and with the slightest nod of his head he acknowledged my departure. He had noticed that I was enjoying his music. I was sorry to get up and leave but I had a meeting that had been arranged that evening.

With the business and the pleasant surprise of meeting a fellow alumni behind me, I headed back in my hired car listening to “Radio Mirchi”. The night traffic along the eastern bypass was lighter, like the Kolkata traffic of the mid nineties. It is a pleasant surprise that I could recognize most of the songs -- they were from the seventies and early eighties—and I conclude that the current generation cares for this kind of music. Watching TV at home, I see an ad where a white woman chases a white man ostensibly wearing “Charagh Din” shirts. Mannequins and posters in the department stores are of European, or as they like to say—“international”, models. We view this fascination and discuss it. Are these vestiges of a sense of inferiority from the colonial days? Or are these simply an embrace of things considered glamorous for some other, innocent reason? I recall observing this phenomena in Singapore in the late eighties and being mildly amused by it—this was a rarely observed sight in India 20-25 years ago.

I am sitting on a sofa at FabIndia in Kakurgachi, reflecting on the furniture displayed for sale, waiting while M finishes picking out some fabrics. We, in India, never learned to make decent wood furniture. The collection at FabIndia might well have been called “Sacrilege in Sheesham”. Crooked, disjointed, poorly finished—each piece creaking with agony at its own ugliness. Earlier, during the British times there was some skill and technique and I have seen gorgeous turn of the century pieces. Those briefly acquired skills seem to have long gone.

The upscale stores and the mall are full of employees—young kids in store uniforms, a cell phone in their pockets--they seem insistent about responding in English. They are eager to help, three of them at a time attempting the task of one with intermittent success, and some of them are very bright and clearly destined for bigger and better things. They answer with confidence, though not necessarily with accuracy, but have a disarming innocence and approach their jobs with energy. Their biceps grow stronger by the day swinging open large thick solid glass doors for their customers, and you tend not to get excessively ticked off for their occasional pointless responses. You leave it to their youthful enthusiasm. These kids are filling jobs that were not there two decades back. Without these jobs they would be sitting in lungis by the para more, wolf whistling the girls who go by.

Aug 28-30

I am in Delhi now, in a speeding vehicle on a 4 lane highway, heading into Noida, across the Jamuna river. The earth is flat on both sides, with dry scrub and undergrowth in parts, and occasional wheat fields with farmers huddled around irrigation channels. A new expresslane under construction heads off on the right towards Agra. As I approach the business district, there are the ubiquitous signs of construction. I see housing complexes, spiking out of what were once wheat fields or forests, replete with planned shopping and golf courses, with names like “Grand Woods”. I pass a police vehicle with flashers on the roof marked ‘Noida Highway Petrol Car”, the north Indian accented “Paetrol” urging the dropping of the “a” altogether. Noida is hot, busy, dusty, and expensive. Localities within the city have names such as alpha, beta, gamma, and pi. I explain to the driver the origin of these letters, and using the circular steering wheel as an example, we go over the meaning of pi in my broken, and his heavily north Indian accented, hindi. The creation of special economic zones across the country has created a boon for industry and Noida is but one example. For a country that almost went bankrupt in the early nineties, it is regions such as these that offer ratification for the creative deregulatory policies that the government initiated then. The rapid industrialization has in turn spawned the local education industry—there are in all about seventy colleges within Noida, with roughly half of them offering a technical degree, diploma, or certificate.

At night I go to Hauz Khas, to pick up M and the boys who were spending the day with one her close friends from school. Her friend’s husband is recovering from a serious automobile accident he had in Madhya Pradesh and recounted to us the absolute horror of the lack of healthcare in rural areas. Struck by a tractor trailer in the middle of nowhere, he had to be driven 6 hours and 200 kms to Bhopal, local doctors doing bare bones triage on the way till they could find a hospital.

The siege of Singur is now a subject of national interest. The Tatas will decide soon whether to uproot and move. Their adversary, Mamata Banerjee, who had pledged a peaceful demonstration, saw it broken within twenty four hours, and now wishes not to be perceived as a guarantor of non-violence. She is no Gandhi. The national media more or less views this as an act of self-destruction, where West Bengal is set to shoot itself in the foot. As this drama unfolds on the plains of Bengal, yet another spectacle plays out on cable television as the US presidential nominees work the masses at their conventions, these events so apart, yet similar in that they revolve around the fundamental emotional component of a relentless assault to garner the confidence of a naive public with shallow, blustery melodrama.

We head to the airport late tonight and after checking out of the hotel, we have driven to Gurgaon, to M’s brother’s house, through the clean, wide avenues of Delhi near Janpath and the diplomatic district. Gurgaon and Noida are the two satellite cities of Delhi, and Gurgaon is now the more developed, congested one. Sweepy, glass and steel sky scrapers with sculpted looks populate the business district. The residential neighborhood we are in is full of individual houses, obviously affluent. Immediately outside these toney buildings, the road is unkempt, there is a cluttered look with signs of disrepair. I go to a market in sector 14 to pick up some food on a Saturday afternoon, and the place looks like an international auto show for compact cars. Tiny cars spring out from every corner and every angle through the rising dust—Indian cars, Korean cars, Japanese cars, European cars. Two wheelers thread through the momentary openings between vehicles, women riding pillion, look like bandits with kerchiefs drawn across their faces. Big Boleros muscle in, threatening to scatter everything in their paths.

It is almost ten o’clock at night now and neither the heat, nor the humidity has let up. The car to the airport arrives within the next half an hour and we will head to the airport, ending what has been a short, hectic, trip. It has been a pleasure writing this journal, sometimes to while away the time on an airplane, sometimes to have something to do jetlagged in the dead of the night, and sometimes just to unwind after a long day.

After a relatively smooth transit through Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi—I am still debating whether this qualifies as an airport named after a warrior—we wait at the gate for the Air India non-stop flight to New York JFK. Security is tight and there are multiple checkpoints. In the final one, just before stepping onto the aircraft, a tall man looks at our boarding cards. He hands me my ticket back: I prepare to tuck it away, when he says “Rakhun Rakhun, shamney lagbey” (Keep it keep it, you will need to show it ahead). “Bangali?” I query, as I walk past his smiling acknowledgement.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Silver Tips Tea

Silver Tips Tea
3 North Broadway
Tarrytown, NY 10591

Telephone: 914 332 8515

Tarrytown, the past decade, has undergone a downtown revival of sorts. It began with the arrival of a few gourmet stores, like the Korean grocery store in the mid nineties, and now is actually a wonderful place to spend a bit of time. Right around the crossing of North Broadway (Rt. 9) and Main Street are two of my favorite shops—Coffee Labs which belts out some of the best coffee in Westchester, and Silver Tips Tea.

Silver Tips Tea is a teahouse and restaurant that serves light refreshments. However, there is one and only one reason to rhapsodize about Silver Tips: its vast selection of teas that you can buy to take home, or drink cups and cups of, right at the tea house. Of course, there is an assortment of scones, salads, and sandwiches that you can nibble at, amidst settings that can be described as fussy and pretty. But the first thing that you should do when you get there is to take a look at their exhaustive menu of teas on offering.

I come from a family of fastidious tea drinkers, and from a state—Assam—that makes some of the best tea in the world. And after 23 years in this country I have not been able to warm up to the way that this country takes their tea. As you buy some loose leaf tea at Silver Tips, they hand it to you in a small metallized bag with a label that identifies the tea and suggests the amount of steeping time you need. This latter fact is key. For the only way to make good tea is to forgo the tea bag, migrate to leaves, and start the soaking only when the water has started boiling. Or, if you want to make tea the way it is in roadside stalls in India, you can get some “CTC” tea, boil it in milk and water, and add some cinnamon and ginger for bit of exotic flavor.

The selection at Silver Tips contains Assam, Darjeeling and Sri Lankan black teas among others, and an impressive array of green, yellow, and white teas that I am less familiar with. Looking through the Assam selections I find teas from gardens with names that bring me back to long past times. It feels oddly familiar, these comforting names hat resound with my past now peacefully extant in neat metal tins in a smart Tarrytown teashop. It is tempting to reflect upon these connections, of a tea house in Tarrytown displaying the names of gardens in far flung Assam, the smart font bearing the name but not the fullness that I know is associated with it, the tea garden laborers from Bihar, the songs written after them, the life of the tea garden manager with his golf sticks and bottles of whiskey, and his bearer, immersed in a loneliness within the green wildness of Assam.

Silver Tips is where we get most of our tea from. Try the black teas out, the Darjeelings that give a lighter brew (in Kolkata they were known as having less “liquor”) to the Assam teas that are best had with a bit of milk. Feel free to experiment—put in a piece of cinnamon, or cardamom, or ginger as it steeps.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Saravanaas Restaurant
81 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 10016.
(Corner of 26th street and Lexington)
Tel: 212-679-0204, 212-684-7755
A few years ago I ate at the Saravanaas Bhavan in Connaught Place, New Delhi and one of my hosts—a transplanted Tamilian in Delhi—explained to me the significance of this restaurant, that it was the Dehi outpost of a famed restaurant in Chennai called the Hotel Saravanaas Bhavan. I enjoyed the food there, topped it out with some South Indian filter coffee, and after a few days of conferencing headed back to New York. Then a few months later I became aware of the opening of the New York branch of Saravanaas Bhavan—right at the intersection of 26th. and Lex, in the middle of the Indian strip of stores. I have been going there a few times a year since. I had been looking for a South Indian restaurant in NYC that could match the quality of casual SI food that I could get in India, or in San Jose on my trips out west and initially, at least, Saravanaas did not disappoint. The dosas were not oily, the potato stuffing inside tasted lively and not dulled by excessive spices. The thalis were fresh tasting, and the South Indian filter coffee, or Kaapi, served in the traditional tumbler-davarra was great.

Never leave a south Indian restaurant without tasting its coffee. While tea is king in most parts of India, and people from Eastern India can be obsessive about the flavor and “liquor” of their leaves, the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in South India are primarily coffee drinking. South Indian coffee is a bit different. The writer R.K. Narayan when asked in the US whether he wanted his coffee black or white, commented that he wanted it, “neither black nor white, but brown, as any good coffee should be.” The dark roasted coffee beans have a bit of chicory mixed in, and the concoction is filtered through the coffee powder for an extended time. It is served in a cup that is placed in an empty tumbler, and the idea is to swish the liquid, pouring it back and forth from ever extending heights between the two utensils until the aeration leaves a thin, frothy head on the liquid.

Saravanaas has an extensive South Indian menu, and having grown up primarily in Pune and Kolkata, on the idli-dosa-vadaa-sambar-thali school of SI cafes, I claim no expertise in the extended offerings of vegetarian south Indian cuisine. However, I was disappointed in my last trip to this place. The place was crowded, the service was uncoordinated, and the food tasted like the south Indian food you would expect when the cook is a Bengali. This was stuff that I could have had at my local Indian restaurant in Westchester. This is a pity and I sincerely hope an anomaly, since on more than one occasion I have seen the demise of a good Indian restaurant due to sliding quality control over the years.
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