Raajeev's Corner - 2022


Monkey and Ginger

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

We tried a new Indian restaurant in Los Angeles. I was really mad after taking a bite to discover that they had served meat samosas instead of vegetarian samosas. The server offered to bring a replacement but my son, Vicktor, was afraid because I had already lost my temper. “Dad, they are going to spit in your food." How can you argue with that? So, we got up and were ready to leave. The manager kept saying, “Please sit down, Sir." I didn't want to say anything, but he was persistent, so I told him, “My son is afraid you'll spit in our food." He said, “No, Sir. We will never do that." Vicktor chimed in, “What if we don't leave a tip?" He replied, “But we will find out afterwards so that will be on your next visit, right?" It is hard to argue with Vicktor. He continued, “So, you'll spit on our next visit." We all knew there was no use arguing. A doubt had been created and there was no way to bring back the trust, so we left!

A few years back during our visit to DC, my wife wanted to try a new Indian restaurant for lunch that she had heard great things about, especially their famous palak chaat. I had a business meeting so I told her to go ahead on her own and I would join her a little later. When I went there after an hour, she told me that the restaurant staff had been giving her a royal treatment. They answered all her questions patiently while she ordered a variety of hors d'oeuvre. They even escorted her to the rest room. She was happy but also confused at that time. Later she realized that after seeing her eagerness to try new dishes, her dress and her mannerisms, they assumed that she was a food critic who was there to write a review about their restaurant.

I am usually not that fortunate to have a great experience at Indian restaurants, especially when I travel alone on business. When I am dressed in a suit, other people think I am the server. A couple left me a tip in my hand as they were leaving. When I looked down, it was a ten dollar bill. I took it and told them, “Thank you for coming. Come again. Try the chicken tikka masala next time." This confusion based on a stereotype continues beyond restaurants. I rented a black Cadillac and pulled into the hotel entrance in DC. An old lady got into the back seat and said, “Airport please." Boy I was mad! She only tipped me 4 bucks and only 2 stars on Yelp!

I read somewhere that restaurants seat beautiful, well-dressed people next to the windows because it attracts more customers. Now we are not exactly the model customers. The fancier the restaurant, the worse seat we get. First time we went to a fancy Italian restaurant, they stuck us by the bathroom. Another fancy restaurant seated us by the kitchen. The third time, at a really fancy restaurant, they didn't even bother seating us. They just gave us our food to go!

Once when traveling to Maryland, my flight had got delayed so by the time I reached the hotel, it was past 11 pm and all the restaurants near my hotel were closed. I found one restaurant which was open for takeout, and it happened to be Indian. When I started eating the food in my hotel room, I almost spit it out. It was the worst palak paneer I had ever eaten with no flavor. It was like somebody had just put spinach, cream and cheese in a microwave and served it. If they had served frozen palak paneer from Trader Joe's, it would have been ten times better. I have never done this before, but I actually called the restaurant back to complain. I am glad they didn't answer otherwise I would have felt guilty and would not have been able to sleep. The next day, when I carefully read the Yelp review, I saw that somebody mentioned that the chef was Nepalese and then it all made sense. I decided that in the future I'd be more careful. Most people will not eat sushi made by an Italian chef.

With this new wisdom, when my family and I went to a new Indian restaurant in Los Angeles, I tried to figure out where the chef was from. After exchanging pleasantries our conversation went like this: “How long have you been open?" “Are you the owner?" I still couldn't get a clue, so I directly asked them, “Where is the chef from?" He replied, “Indian sub-continent." The restaurant was fairly empty so I knew I could dwell deeper. “Is he from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka?" “It doesn't matter, Sir. We are all neighbors." “Does he specialize in North Indian or South Indian?" “They are all the same. You should not discriminate against caste or regions."

“No, I am not discriminating. Does he make Mughlai dishes well or things like dosa or uthappam?" “Everything, Sir. He makes it really good. You can order anything and it will be good." At this point, I could not ask any more questions. I didn't want to irritate him and more importantly I didn't want to create a doubt in my son's mind that he might spit in our food, so we just ordered a bunch of curry dishes.

The food was okay. It wasn't as bad as the Nepalese-Indian restaurant in DC but the critic in me still felt that microwaved Indian dishes from Trader Joe's would be on par or slightly better. Later I found out from a friend that this restaurant was owned by Bangladeshi people and the chef was from Bangladesh. I don't have anything against Bangla or Bangladeshi people but the problem is I don't eat fish, a delicacy that is their specialty. I like palak paneer or chole bhature Punjabi style and I can tell the difference if the food is prepared by a chef who grew up in Punjab.

Eating out in India is a whole different experience than eating at Indian restaurants in Los Angeles. Over there, they are jam packed at lunch time. My wife and I went to a restaurant in New Delhi with a couple of our friends. My friend ordered snacks. After the snacks came, he ordered more snacks. Then he ordered a drink for me. After it came, he ordered one for himself. After that he ordered an entrée for me. After the dish came, he ordered another one. I asked why we couldn't order all the food at once. He said this is the only way they will let you sit there for about half an hour and have a conversation. Otherwise, they throw you out in fifteen minutes!

Over there, the dining experience may not be pleasant but I don't have to worry about the authentic Indian taste. Most restaurants, including street-side dhabas, serve delicious food that is authentic to the region. In the US, the trick is to maintain that balance between authenticity and dining experience. I can read the reviews on Yelp about the dining experience, but I cannot rely on them about the authenticity when they are written by American patrons. One of my friends advised me of a simple solution. Call the restaurant and ask them in Bengali how late they are open. If they answer in coherent sentences, there is a strong possibility it may not be an Indian restaurant. I have a better solution. If I want a Punjabi taste, I'll call them and ask in Punjabi. If I feel like having an authentic dosa, I'll get on Google Translator and ask in Tamil or Telugu. My dad's favorite Hindi idiom was, “ Bandar kya jaaney adrak ka swad. What would a monkey know of the taste of ginger?"

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Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series. See his videos at www.youtube.com/channel/UCG8qILCj3j3DOqisy2zfUDA