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The First Time I Ate Indian Food

22 Feb
Indian Food.jpg

Growing up, my access to interesting foods was pretty limited. My parents made good food, but it was mainly American. Despite the diversity of ethnicities in my household, when it comes down to it, a Stoffer’s Lasagna always came in handy during the week.

Looking back on my college years, I wasn’t as adventurous as I thought I was at the time. I had a lot going on, but I still thought I was “cultured”. I really wasn’t. I don’t remember many food experiences from back then, but I do remember the first time I had Indian food. It’s not too off the mark to say, that that day changed my life.

I was never good with dates, but I think it was 2004 or early 2005, I was visiting my college roommate at her home in Chicago. We spent some time catching up, but then we got hungry. The time had come to figure out what to eat. Now if you know me, you know I’m never a good person to go to in this situation. I can never make up my mind. I’m happy to just be eating. But this time, Noemi knew exactly where she wanted to go – the famed Hema’s Kitchen off of Devon Street.

I had never had Indian food before because it never really was an option. To be honest it was so foreign to me I was a little scared of it. However, I figured now was as good of a time as any to try it out. I was happy I didn’t have to think of a place to go eat and was excited to go to some where I had never been. So hopped in the car.

Devon Street in Chicago is the heart of the Indian neighborhood. Driving through, I saw signs in grocery store windows with ingredients I had never heard of before. There were stores with brightly colored fabrics in the window. The street was full of people out and about – walking from store to store and catching up with neighbors. Even though it was overcast, everything seemed a little more vibrant. I was so glad that Noemi was driving because it gave a chance to look out the window like a three year old child seeing a new world for the first time.

What’s that? Look over there – did you see that? Oh, I want to go there! (This is a trait I am proud to say, I still have not outgrown.)

After being amazed by the proper parallel parking skills of a true Chicagoan, we stepped into a tiny restaurant. The windows by the doors had copies of newspaper articles written about the place and it was Zaggat rated. If I was going to try Indian food, this seemed like the place to do it.

We sat down at our table and honestly, I was a little nervous. The air was full of aromas I had never encountered before. I remember getting the menus and being overwhelmed because I had no idea what anything was.

Was I going to like this? Do they have grilled cheese on the menu just in case I chicken out?

Luckily Noemi had been here many times and gave me the lay of the land. It didn’t stop questions from popping up in my head.

How can so many things be “masala”? What is “aloo”? What’s “paneer”? What does it mean to be “tika” and “masala”? Samosa! Oh I know that one! Let’s get some of those.

After I became more familiar with what my options were and I had reminded myself that Noemi brought me here and she thinks its good, so it was probably good – we placed our order. We split vegetable samosas and I ordered something with mushrooms and peas in a creamy sauce (I still don’t remember the name of it), rice and naan. The waiter took the menus and headed off to the kitchen. There was no turning back.

Everything came to the table at once. (In retrospect, I totally wish I had my camera with me. The photo above is not of this meal.) There was no space for anything else.

I remember trying the mushroom and peas dish first. I scooped some up with my fork and in it went.

It is hard to describe the feeling I had as my taste buds were exposed to this new cuisine. However, it was a moment that is bookmarked enough for me to want to write a blog post about it almost six years later.

The first thing I remember thinking was, “This is comforting. How can this be so familiar when I’ve never had it before? This makes me happy.” I ate and ate and ate. I used the naan like a tortilla, gathering up rice and veggies into one scrumptious bite. I dipped samosas in the various chutneys. I ate until I was just past full.

It was so delicious. Indian food was no longer unknown. I took this thought away with me: If something this unknown tasted like it was something I had eaten my entire life, I couldn’t wait to go taste what else the world had to offer.

Luckily, there were leftovers.

I remember going home to my family and talking about my experience at Hema’s Kitchen non-stop. After listening to me go on and on, they admitted that they probably wouldn’t eat at Hema’s even though it has been featured on their favorite Channel 11 show, Check Please! I tried to convey to them the feeling I had while I ate Indian food. It was the same feeling I have when I eat at grandma’s, it was that comforting. I didn’t comprehend why they didn’t want to try it after listening to my enthusiastic review.

I am convinced that this day in the timeline of my life was the day I made a decision to give myself opportunities to learn about and experience other cultures. I could not shake the feeling I had when I first tasted my lunch that day. There was a whole world out there. Fear no longer was going to keep those doors closed. I wanted to go out there and taste and see everything. At the time, I had no idea where this was going to take me or if it was going to take me anywhere at all. But, I can tie many decisions I made in my life since then, to this single experience. After all, almost three years later I was asked, “Would you like to go to India?”

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