CURRYING FAVOR Annapurna’s food cart is a treat in East Bayside
India, like the American university, is mostly in the news these days for its bloated and ineffective administration and an epidemic of underprosecuted sexual assault. But let’s not give up on either—India or college—as a source of wisdom and repository of culture. While the typical young adult hoping to learn something useful trundles off to one college or another, two new food ventures offer insight into the alternative tradition of westerners learning from India. It was with the Maharishi that John Lennon realized Sgt. Pepper was crap and started the White Album. It was in Uttar Pradesh that Jenna Marbles realized that Maxnosleeves was no soul mate. India is where Elizabeth Gilbert learned to pray. Or love. Eat? She did yoga anyway.
There must be lessons for us Portlanders as well, especially in eating. India Bazaar brings an informative taste of India’s compelling chaos here to Maine, while Annapurna Thali offers the fruits (mostly vegetables really) of one young American’s self discovery in India.
The disordered slog down Forest Ave. is the nearest experience in Portland to a Delhi commute. It’s a suitable prelude to the unusual but rewarding experience of getting food from India Bazaar. They have the only counter in the city where you can order both a U-haul truck and lamb karahi—from a man wearing both a hairnet and a beard net, no less. The truck will cost you just $19 and the lamb less than half that. That is if they have the lamb, since what is fun or frustrating about their menu is that it changes every day, and then changes some more—even over the course of one conversation. I think fun.
So order what they’ve got, and browse their shelves of hair dye, gear lube, and diapers, jammed in along with a variety of spices, rices, and beans. Grab a jar of mixed pickle and a bottle of dark green chili-chutney—both cheap and delicious, which also describes the Bazaar’s cuisine. They put on that hairnet with a purpose, and send out dishes aromatic with herbs and more authentic then the typical Maine Indian.
This means that the chicken curry is so tender and deeply saturated with mild spice that you don’t mind pushing past ample oil and a few stray bones. It means your dosa has a crepe both delicate and lentil-dark, stuffed with a spicy-sour mix of more lentils, potato, onions, and diced-up pickled fruits and vegetables. The ground beef of the keema is spotted with the sharp spicy crunch of seeds and infused with herbs. It is dark, rich, and dense with texture. Your butter chicken is creamy and mild.
It’s a much more serene and predictable experience at the Annapurna Thali cart—where the sylph-like proprietor stands prettily under a purple umbrella in a floral dress—a small island of calm amid food trucks and beer sippers. During travels in India she fell for traditional vegetarian thali—a meal of various dishes served on the loculate plate that gives thali its name. You choose two of her three dishes—dal, chana masala, and aloo gobhi, to go with a flatbread and fluffy rice spotted with vegetables.