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Spice of Life

A Plate of Chicken Korma and an Intoxicating Artesia Afternoon Launch a Writer's Love Affair With Curry

May 11, 2003|ADAM TSCHORN

My foray into international journalism started with a plate of chicken korma. A singular work of art, the dish--a fragrant mix of chicken, brown curry gravy and spices ladled over rice--was served in a Back Bay, Mass., brownstone in the late spring of 1994. I remember this meal so well because I ate plate after plate until I could barely stand.

The creator of this heavenly dish was Dr. Anees Syed, the mother of my journalism school classmate Asif. She had come to the States from Bombay, India, to visit her son and make a home-cooked meal for his friends. What she got was me running laps in the kitchen past her cooking pots, a sight she wouldn't soon forget. Asif later confided, "To this day, whenever she remembers you, it is almost always in connection with your appetite."

Following a move to L.A. a year later, Asif called to ask if I'd write a humor column as an American correspondent for his father's now-defunct, Bombay-based newspaper, the Current. I reasoned it would be the perfect way to rehabilitate my gluttonous reputation and make peace with his parents.

As the first deadline approached, I realized my pride had been bigger than my stomach. I didn't know much about my intended audience or their culture. How would I possibly connect with a world I knew so little about?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong county -- The article "Spice of Life" in the May 11 Los Angeles Times Magazine incorrectly stated that Artesia is in Orange County. It is in Los Angeles County.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 08, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 8 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
The story "Spice of Life" (Entertaining, May 11) incorrectly stated that Artesia is in Orange County. It is in Los Angeles County.

I needed to immerse myself in Indian culture, to soak it up firsthand--sort of a columnist's version of method acting. Not having the financial means to grab the next Air India flight, I did the next best thing. I hopped on the 5 Freeway and headed for Artesia.

With its unassuming four-block stretch of Pioneer Boulevard unofficially known as "Little India," this sun-baked part of Orange County is packed with Indian restaurants and stores selling everything from chapati flour to saris to the latest Bollywood musical on DVD. If I could catch the Indian vibe anywhere, I figured this was the place.

Moments after parking in front of a dusty mini-mall, I disappeared into another world. One step into the Patel Brothers market and I felt like John Cusack finding the secret portal into John Malkovich's brain in "Being John Malkovich." My own portal dumped me squarely in the middle of a Bombay market.

Indian music warbled from somewhere deep in the interior of the store, and the scent of incense wafted over the register. Two Indian women in saris murmured about mangos and priced papdi, or broad beans, among the 20-pound sacks of chapati flour, kilos of sunflower oil and bricks of jaggery--the coarse Indian unrefined sugar--I felt the fog of writer's block start to lift.

After marveling at cans of mango pulp, bags of Ready-to-Puff roti bread and cricket bats, I bought a bag of Hot Mix (sort of an Indian version of Chex mix containing rice flakes, lentils, nuts and chickpea dough) and decamped to the India Entertainment Center across the street. For the next 25 minutes, I snacked contentedly and watched an Indian movie on the big-screen TV in the window.

As I headed back to my car, I was blindsided by the fragrant aroma of curry. Despite all the Hot Mix, I suddenly felt hungry. I followed the scent through the front door of Ashoka the Great restaurant, where an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet was in full swing. Tables were piled with steaming pans of simmering chicken curry, goat curry, aloo gobi stew made with potato and cauliflower, the spinach-and-cheese sag paneer stew and basmati rice.

Three plates later, back on the street, I managed to walk a few blocks before I was lured into Standard Sweets & Snacks. There glass cases displayed tray after tray of Indian desserts such as pudding-like carrot halva, and rasmalai--fresh cheese balls simmered in sweet cream and topped with pistachio nuts and rose water. The line stretched out the door, everyone smiling and patiently waiting their turn. I was witnessing a universal truth--everyone loves dessert.

One afternoon in Little India didn't suddenly give me great insight into Indian culture, but it was a great place to take my first steps. And if my experiences in Artesia were any indication, we'd have a lot more in common than I'd first thought.

Eating my way along Pioneer Boulevard with Olympian determination that afternoon kicked off an unlikely two-year stint as an international correspondent writing for the Current and then the Bombay-based Sunday Observer on everything from the Oscars to American opinions on Indian parliamentary elections. And all because I couldn't say "no" to a plate of chicken korma.


Feerni Rice Pudding

Serves 8-10 as a dessert

5 plain unsalted almonds

10 unsalted whole pistachios

3 cups water

20 green cardamom seeds

1/4 cup rice ground into a fine powder

1/2 gallon milk

3/4 cup sugar

A pinch of saffron

1 tablespoon rose water

Soak almonds and pistachios in a cup of hot water for 30 minutes, then drain. Peel skins and cut into thin, long slices. Set aside. Grind cardamom seeds into a fine powder. Set aside.

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