Saturday, January 5, 2008

A trip down memory lane…erm…Devon Avenue

In the six years that I’ve lived in America, I’ve been to Chicago dozens and dozens of times. Well, when you live in a small Midwestern town surrounded by cornfields galore and Chicago is the largest city two hours away, let’s just say, you visit Chicago every opportunity you can get. But even so, I had never heard of Devon Avenue until a few weeks ago, when I got disgustingly, unbearably homesick.

“Maybe we should just go walk down Devon Avenue”, Joe suggested when I finished my marathon session of watching every hindi movie ever uploaded on youtube and emerged out of my post-diwali, pre-new year’s mithai ka dibba bought from the only Punjabi store in miles around here. “Devon Avenue?” I looked at him perplexed, “Where’s that?”. “In Chicago” he replies ever so casually, like this is a nugget of information he has shared with me a million times before. But I digress. Turns out, Devon Avenue is the heartland of ethnic diversity within Chicago - a single stretch of road that consists of an orthodox-Jewish neighborhood, Russian-American neighborhood, and an Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi neighborhood. Did anybody say “Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi neighborhood?!” Where have I been all this time?!

I knew we were on Devon Avenue even before I had had a chance to read the road sign. I knew when I saw the festive store signs, in everything from Arabic to Gujrati lettering, advertising everything from halal meat to electronics to luggage to fish. I knew when I saw the colorful stores with hot pink sarees, neon yellow salwaars and bright purple skirts. I knew when I saw the familiar throng of people in pyjamas and prayer hats strolling down the street. I knew when I saw the paan shop and little groups of people idling around outside the store on a weekday. I knew right then I was in Mera Hindustan. Ahem. That is, Little India. Or Litte Pakistan. Or Little Bangladesh. Or the closest it comes to home, anyway.

If I ignore the heaps of snow along the sidewalks, and zone out the icy winter wind stinging my cheeks, and focus only on the street ahead of me, bustling with crowds of people going into and coming out of the dozens of Indian/Pakistani stores lining the street, then the street ahead of me looks exactly like it belongs somewhere in Mumbai. It’s hard to believe I’m still in the Midwest.

We’ve arrived on Devon Avenue smack in the middle of lunch hour. And first thing’s first – we’ve got to eat. Driving up and down the street, one thing is clear. It’s not going to be an easy choice to make. Devon Avenue is lined with dozens and dozens of eating options – Gujrati, Mumbaiya, South Indian, Bengali, Pakistani, Indo-Chinese restaurants all lure customers in, each advertising the special cuisine of the region. A delicious smell of kabobs intermingled with sambhar, vegetarian manchurian and chaat wafts through our nostrils. I haven’t eaten Pakistani food in the longest time and so we decide on the Sabri Nehari Restaurant for lunch.

Everybody comes to the Sabri Nehari for its famous sabri nehari – a tender meat curry that the restaurant is named for. From what I have read on the internet, Sabri Nehari has the best nehari in all of America, and it’s time for us to test that out for ourselves. So undoubtedly, we order the nehari. I order the Frontier Chicken – a grilled boneless chicken dish with onions and tomatoes that is highly recommended on the menu. If the picture on the menu is anything to go by, then I’m sold already. Assuming that the size of the naans is the same size of the naans at our local eatery within our Midwestern town, we order three naans and one paratha.

The naans and paratha arrive first, and they are humongous in size! Had we known how big the naan would be, we’d have ordered fewer pieces. A complimentary salad arrived next, along with sweet chutney and a coriander based green chutney to dip the slices of cucumber, onions and tomatoes in. Then the nehari and the chicken arrived…after which I blanked out over the next half an hour, because I was lost in a happy daze of good smells, finger-licking good food, and the soft instrumental background music of “Ajab si” from Om Shanti Om. The food was excellent and quite possibly the best Pakistani food I had eaten in a really long time. The restaurant itself too is quite clean and has a charming ambience. Ironically, the walls were graced with paintings and decors reminiscent of Italy rather than India or Pakistan, but the attempts at creating a romantic atmosphere within the restaurant clearly didn’t go unnoticed.

After leaving the restaurant with bellies full and boxes with leftovers to carry back home, we decided a walk down Devon Avenue was in order. All around me are immigrants bustling down the street armed with plastic bags filled with the unique groceries and knick knacks available only along Devon Avenue. We join the army of immigrants and proceed into Patel Brothers – the biggest Indian grocery store along the avenue. The store inside has aisle after aisle filled with every imaginable variety of paratha, all types of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi spices, bottles upon bottles of all kinds of pickles, bags of different species of rice, ingredients for the most remote recipes, and snacks that I remember seeing only in India. I shop my heart out…enough food to stock up my Midwestern pantry against a blizzard of nostalgia.

After dropping the grocery bags in the car, and adding some more quarters to the parking meter, we continue our stroll down the street. We do what everyone else on this street does. Enter random stores, check out their interesting wares and walk out of the store and enter the next store. Music stores selling Bollywood’s top hits, book stores with their displays of Movie and Stardust magazines and gift shops with interesting trinkets – we cover them all.

Joe has never eaten kulfi in his life. I decide this is something no individual should ever have to go through in their life. So I take it upon myself to introduce him to the glorious taste of kulfi. We enter King Sweets, a cafĂ©/shop that sells all sorts of barfis, mithais, sweets and savory snacks. I wasn’t even sure that they would sell kulfi, and I skim through the food items in the display window. Not seeing any fridge around or any kulfi eating customers, I hesitantly ask the store owner whether they sell kulfi. “Aaah. Kulfi. Yes.”, he answers smiling broadly at me. He seems rather pleased that I’ve asked for an item that isn’t even on his menu. He disappears into a back room and reemerges with a stick of plain kulfi and another of mango kulfi.

Kulfi is India’s answer to ice-cream. Like ice-cream, it is made by boiling milk, flavoring it and then freezing it. I am not sure what the recipe differences between kulfi and ice-cream are, except that kulfi tastes phenomenally better than ice-cream and is extremely decadent. If Joe’s slurps are anything to go by, he clearly agrees.

Business taken care of, we continue our pilgrimage down Devon Avenue. Everywhere around us are people buying stuff, people selling stuff. Within the everyday transactions however, I notice an exchange of more than just cash and commodities. “Sarlaben, haven’t seen you here in a while” “When is Mansoor’s sister’s nikaah?” “Are you going back to India for good?” “Archana, don’t forget to buy the aachar for dadi amma”. A burst of laughter amidst old friends. A wailing child sobbing for a candy. An old man and his cane inching along the sidewalk, stopping to spit out paan. Young girls giggling as they pass a group of desi boys. It’s not just cash and commodities on Devon Avenue.

Soon it’s dinner time and we’re on the search for yet another exciting place to eat.

Back in India, we have these small roadside restaurants known as dhabas. They are nothing too fancy. If anything, their ambience (if at all any) consists of crude sitting arrangements and is designed out of sheer practicality rather than aesthetics. They are just small, simple shacks designed to serve travelers along the road and are largely frequented by truck drivers and rickshaw drivers. Yet ask any local driver to direct you to their favorite restaurant in the area, and they’ll tell you to go to the dhabas – that’s where they have the real food. Ghareeb Nawaz reminds me of those dhabas in India where I’ve enjoyed some of my best meals.

From the outside, Ghareeb Nawaz is hardly anything fancy. If you are on a date and are looking for romantic ambience, go to the Sabri Nehari, or go to the dozen other Indian/Pakistani restaurants a little further down the street…but if you’re looking for good food, REAL good food then keep walking right on in through the doors of Ghareeb Nawaz.

Ghareeb Nawaz loosely translated means “Place for the poor” or so I’m told (my hindi is pretty pathetic and my urdu barely exists). And if the prices on the handwritten menu at the lone counter inside are anything to go by, then “place for the poor” it is, indeed! Meat thali for $4.50?! Veggie samosa at 50 cents a piece?! Khorma for $3.50?! Ethnic food doesn’t get any cheaper than this in America! The skeptical me would have rationalized that at those low, low, prices, the food cant be any good, and that the only reason the prices were so low was because the quality of the food wasn’t any good and the low prices were the only way the restaurant could attract any customers at all. But the skeptical me wasn’t rationalizing. The skeptical me was too busy sniffing, drooling, and ogling at all the delicious food floating past the counter into the hands of heavily salivating customers.

“Biryani!” I’ll get chicken biryani, I decided after soul searching through the menu that was full of so many food items that it was literally spilling all over the place. Yup, literally. Be sure to look left, right and center when searching for an item on the “menu”, because the menu isn’t just contained on a board behind the counter, there are additional items on scraps of paper along the side of the counter, as well as scribbling on a chalkboard next to the counter. There are just so many food items available that if you’re anything like the indecisive me, it will take you a while before you commit to just one. Joe selected the lamb biryani and sheikh kabab.

As we waited for our order, we looked around. There isn’t much to look at, other than a few posters on the walls of Mecca, and a donation stand on the side, accepting donations for the renovation of some masjid. At the back is what looks like a prayer room. The seating arrangement consists of bright yellow, plastic seats. Some people have described the interior as dingy and depressing, but I actually thought the bright yellow gave the place some cheer, and while it might not exactly be as fancy as is expected from a restaurant in Chicago, it is what it is – a restaurant with the spirit of a dhaba. Inside I see friendly cabbies stopping for a lunch break, two Somalis huddled around a biryani, a Punjabi family equally confused over what to order, and a few Pakistani men dressed in pyjamas scraping out the last bits of their curries with naan. Everywhere around me is animated conversation in all different dialects and the jolly banter that can only be found surrounding a well enjoyed meal. Dingy and depressing? I hardly think so.

“Holy crap!” I exclaim, when I taste my chicken biryani. For one thing, with the tricolored rice dotted with pieces of chicken, it looks so good. For another, it smells divine…of cloves and elaichi and fragrant rice and spicy chicken. And the taste is like no other biryani I have ever tasted out of India. I think I’m in love. The biryani is spicy but just spicy enough. Not spicy to a point where all you’re tasting is just red pepper and all you can feel is the the throbbing of your tongue as it pulsates to the hot chillies…but just spicy enough.

Joe is equally exuberant over his lamb biryani. I’ve never been a fan of lamb or mutton…they all have a distinct sheep-y smell as far as I’m concerned, but Joe insists I try the sheikh kabab. In the end, I’m glad I did because it changed my definition of the words “mutton” and “kabab” forever. The kabab is so richly seasoned that I wouldn’t even know I was eating lamb were it not for the very succulent, soft texture of the kabab.

“Deeelicious!” is what I’ve got to say. And here’s the best part – for the meager $10 we spent on the meal, the portions are so huge that we have plenty of leftovers for dinner.

As we head back to the car, ready to return back to our small Midwestern town, I feel lighter at heart. After a day bustling in and out of the little stores along Devon Avenue, I’ve realized that for immigrants like me, Devon Avenue isn’t just about the interesting merchandise or the exotic restaurants lining the street…for immigrants like me, Devon Avenue offers a glimpse of home. And I can leave knowing that whenever I get nostalgic for home again, there is a street around my Midwestern corner where I can transport myself home.

~vagabond~ © 2008