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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007 08:24 pm

Springfield’s Indian night

Sample the delicacies of India at annual fundraiser

Samosas, crisp potato-stuffed dumplings, will be on the menu at AIWO’s annual India Night, Sept. 22.
Untitled Document It wasn’t love at first bite — it wasn’t even love at second bite — but, when I finally fell in love with Indian food, I fell hard. I’ve always been an adventurous eater, eager to try new things, so it’s strange that I didn’t initially appreciate Indian food, but it was really circumstantial. My first experience with Indian food was at a now-long-defunct restaurant in the Central West End of St. Louis. Both my husband and I were less than impressed. Now I realize that it just wasn’t a very good restaurant, but at the time we had no basis for comparison. My unhappiness with my second encounter with Indian food was totally my own fault. Truthfully, I have no idea whether the food was good or awful: I was in no shape to judge. We were in Chicago. The night before, we’d gone to Blues Etc. to see legendary blues guitarist Lonnie Brooks. Brooks is not only an accomplished musician but also quite a showman, playing his guitar behind his back, over his head, and even with his tongue. It was fun, but the nightclub was stiflingly hot and thick with smoke. The music was overpoweringly loud — so loud that the water in the restroom toilets rippled. The next day my ears were still ringing, and I had a headache and a queasy stomach from the smoke and the beers I’d drunk to combat the heat. It undoubtedly wasn’t the best time to try the (also now-defunct) “Northern Indian Frontier restaurant” Bukhara for lunch. The raita, yogurt with shredded carrot and cucumber, which serves as a cooling counterpoint to spicier dishes, was fine, as were the flatbreads baked in a tandoor oven, but I should have been more cautious about trying the spicy chutneys and powerfully potent mustard pickles — as my abused stomach quickly let me know. Since then I’ve had countless wonderful Indian meals. I’ve explored the Little India neighborhood in Manhattan, with its quirky jewelry shops and Kalustyan’s, which has an astonishingly huge array of exotic foodstuffs in an impossibly small space. My most memorable meal in that neighborhood was at a southern-Indian vegetarian restaurant less than three weeks after 9/11. It was relatively close to Ground Zero, and my husband, daughter, and I were the only customers. We were profusely and repeatedly thanked for coming and showered with a procession of delicious treats above and beyond what we’d ordered. A sultry summer evening in Devon Avenue, on Chicago’s northwest side, can almost make me believe that I’m actually in India. The Midwest seems far away when I’m sitting by restaurant windows watching the crowds stroll by, or browsing through food shops inspecting fresh turmeric roots, green chickpeas in the pod, and the endless varieties of chaat, crispy street snacks that usually contain some form of fried noodles, dough, or puffed rice combined with crunchy nuts and spices. The most important thing I’ve learned about Indian food, whether I’m cooking it or eating it, is that it’s a mistake to lump it into one category. For many Westerners, curry is what comes to mind when they think of Indian food. Although it’s true that curry is important, to Indians the term denotes a varying mixture of spices custom-blended for individual dishes, not the premixed yellow powder adapted by British colonialists. The Indian subcontinent has an almost bewildering diversity of cultures, religions, and influences, all of which have played a part in the food traditions of the 17 states and seven territories. Then there are Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), created when India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. Those countries are primarily Muslim and have Islamic food traditions. Modern-day India is more than 80 percent Hindu, but the cuisines of the multitudes of other faiths and even those of different Hindu sects vary widely: Some groups are strict vegetarians; some eat meat (though usually not beef) and fish. Foods, seasonings, and methods of preparation in the lush tropical areas differ from those in desert or mountain regions. There are areas with a strong Christian/European background, such as Goa, on the west coast, with its strong Portugese heritage; and Pondicherry, on the east coast, with churches, architecture, signs, parks, and foods influenced by French settlers. Every other year, the Asian Indian Women’s Organization provides a unique opportunity to experience some of the culture and cuisine of India right here in Springfield. Founded in 1991, the AIWO began as a small group of working moms, says Daksha Patel, one of the organizers of this year’s event. They saw it as a chance for them to socialize but also, more importantly, as “a way to work together for the good of this community.” The group started with little projects: bake sales and contributions to the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, the Central Illinois Food Bank, and St. John’s Breadline. In 1997, the AIWO embarked on a more ambitious project: India Night, a festive evening of food, fun, and entertainment to benefit the Ronald McDonald House. India Night has been held every other year since and has been a great success. Originally India Nights took place at Temple B’rith Sholom, but by 2005 it had outgrown that space and moved to the Illinois Department of Transportation building. My husband and I, as well as various family members, have attended the last four India Nights and always thoroughly enjoy them. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, and the food has always been delicious and well spiced but deliberately not peppery hot. This year’s dinner will be catered by the Northern Indian restaurant Gaylord, one of Chicago’s oldest. Some of the menu items are samosas (pastries filled with potatoes and peas), kebabs, chicken makhani, chole (chickpeas with cumin and tomatoes), and palak paneer (also known as saag paneer, this spinach dish prepared with herbs, spices, and homemade cheese is one of my absolute favorites in Indian or any other cuisine). Dessert will be gulab jamun, small doughnut balls dipped in syrup. Door prizes and silent and live auctions — always a feature of India Nights — in the past have included such items as beautiful pashmina shawls and specially catered dinners. New this year are booths where women can have mehndi (henna) designs tattooed (temporarily) on their hands or guests can have pictures taken in traditional Indian outfits.
The AIWO’s sixth annual India Night will be held on Saturday, Sept. 22, at the IDOT building on Dirksen Parkway. Wine and appetizers will be served at 6 p.m. Tickets are $40 per person and can be obtained by calling Aruna Mathur at 217-787-6463 or e-mailing rkmathur@sbcglobal.net.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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