by Hari Chathrattil
|Make a meal of it: Indian snacks, breads, curries and flavoured rice, accompanied by sips of chai provide a memorable gastronomic experience. — VNS Photos Calvin Godfrey
Tea time segues seamlessly into dinner time at one unassuming food stall where chefs go out of their way to please discerning palates
If it is tea time, well… it is time for a cup or two of hot chai.
And if you are an Indian in India, or Malaysia or Singapore, roughly between 3.30 and 5.30pm., chances are that you are not far off from some place or many places that serve the hot beverage just the way you like it - strong (less milk) or weak (more milk), sweet or not too sweet, spiced up with ginger and cardamom and cloves or not. And if you feel like it, you can get some snacks to go along with the chai - biscuits, rusks and samosas are the most popular ones. But what if you are in Viet Nam? Let me let you in on a little secret. The best "Indian tea" or "teh tarik" in HCM City is made by a young Vietnamese woman called Thao Long from the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang.
Her face breaks out into a knowing smile as I approach the Indian food stall where she works. All I need to do is lift my hand as I approach and signal with my fingers how many glasses (yes, glasses, not cups) of tea I want, and she disappears from behind the counter into the kitchen. Once Thao Long knows how you like your tea, she doesn't need to be told again. Which, if you think about it, is a luxury. And at VND20,000 (US$1) per glass, an eminently affordable one.
Once she disappears, a constantly smiling Indian chef appears. He comes out of the kitchen and beams at me from behind the counter. Farid Khan, from the Indian State of Orissa, wants to know what I want today with my tea. His vegetarian samosas and onion pakkoras are superb accompaniments (and I usually end up ordering both). But even before I make my choice, I see another smiling face approach, and I know I am in for a treat and a long stay at my table.
Riaz Ali, also from Orissa, came to Viet Nam in 2005 and worked as a chef for a very popular Indian restaurant on Bui Vien Street before striking out on his own. He set up "Flavor of India" on the same street, and built up a regular clientele who liked his personalised, flexible service (serving tasty food and beer and ice well past midnight is bound to make you popular).
Flavor of India moved to its current location about four years ago. As one of the stalls on the third floor of the Parkson Plaza on Le Thanh Tong Street, the post-midnight eating and drinking sessions are ruled out, but Ali's culinary skills and service continues to draw the regulars.
As soon as I spot Ali, I know that as has happened so often, tea time will segue seamlessly into dinner time. I get on the phone and call fellow foodie Calvin, whose facial expressions and exclamations on tasting the first morsel of a new dish are as eloquent and enjoyable as his acerbic, superbly descriptive, witty writing.
While I wait for Calvin and his partner Nhan to arrive, I decide to forgo the usual tea accompaniments and ask Ali for a not-on-the-menu dish - dal pakkora, where coarsely ground dal is mixed in a mildly spiced batter, rolled into small balls and deep-fried. Served with a particularly delicious mint chutney, I am confident I will be treated, not just to delectable food, but to several "Calvin specials".
My confidence is not misplaced. "Oh my God!," goes Calvin as the first of the dal pakkoras (VND60,000), duly dipped into the spicy-sweet mint chutney, hits his palate spots. Nhan nods and smiles her approval as well.
Ali follows this up with a full meal - a dal palak (lentils with spinach) (VND68,000), two Indian-Chinese dishes - chilli gobi (VND70,000) and chilli pannier (VND75,000), a mix-vegetable jalfreizi and a collection of breads including chappathis, garlic naans and methi parathas. Oh, I almost forgot to mention an ad-hoc vegetable biriyani (not cooked with the original "dum" method, which requires fragrant, basmati rice to be cooked with spices and meat or vegetables in a vessel that is sealed with flour on a very low flame.
The texture and flavour of each dish is just right, and they combine well with the breads.
Several of these items, the chilli gobi and chilli pannier, cauliflower and cottage cheese respectively, cooked with onions, capsicum, garlic, tomatoes and chillies, and the methi (fenugreek) parathas are not on the menu, but any customer can feel free to request Ali to make them. One can also ask him for suggestions or let his muse serve you for the day.
The fish and prawn curries at Flavor of India are particularly popular, I know, but that is for someone else to write about.
Although I have been weaned on Indian food since birth, the permutations and combinations of cumin, coriander, chilli and turmeric powders, applied differently to different combinations of vegetables and other stuff, working their magic to a create a kaleidoscope of tastes, have never ceased to amaze me.
I reflect on this miracle in contentment as I sip my third glass of tea, which, having faithfully discharged its duties as an appetiser, has now switched roles and become a dessert of sorts to settle a full (read stuffed) stomach.
It does both jobs well, and Long gives me another smile as I give her tea the thumbs up again. In fact, there are smiles all around. The chefs are satisfied with a good day's work, and so are the gourmets they served. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable evening - good food, good friends, good conversation.
As they say, all's well that ends well. — VNS
Flavor of India
3rd Floor, Parkson Plaza
35/45 Le Thanh Ton,
District 1, HCM City
Open: 9.30am to 9.30pm