My name is LaLa, and I’m a foodaholic, or, as I like to think of it, someone with hyperactive taste buds. The twisted part is that, as a human, I have to eat in order to survive (I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time believing breatharians are for real… Unicorns and gremlins, though? No problem).
I mean, it’s kind of like telling an alcoholic that they shouldn’t drink too much, but then serving them up three cocktails a day, or optimally, five small shooters, because we all know that’s healthier for your liver, and then giving them the keys to the liquor cabinet. Self-control is constantly at odds with over-indulgence. So, I try not to judge others in hopes that they will return the favour (as I write this, I’m snarfing down the entire bag of maple nuts I bought the other day at the Total Health Show. A quarter cup serving? Please. That’s like a handful).
All that to try and explain how today’s new thing came into being. Essentially, I was browsing through some on-line food porn, looking for an Indian cooking class, when I came across Arvinda’s. This is a remarkable woman who started her homestyle Indian cooking school in her Oakville kitchen in 1993. Since then, her talented and dynamic daughter Preena has joined forces with her not only in the cooking classes and tours, but also in bringing their proprietary spice blends to the gourmet market, with the help of her brother. It truly is a family affair.
Unfortunately, the upcoming sessions were all sold out, but lo and behold, what did I spy with my little eye smack dab in the middle of the page? A walking tour of Little India, which happens to be the second largest such community outside of Asia. I was immediately intrigued. For someone who lives less than half an hour’s stroll from Gerrard Street East, I knew precious little about the neighbourhood. I mean, I’d eaten in a few of its restaurants over the years, but I’d always felt like a bit of an outsider there, as though I’d arrived on a magic carpet ride.
I was delighted when we started the tour with a cooking demonstration in the kitchen at Udupi Palace. They made the most incredible Southern Indian specialties right before our eyes, including a paper masa dosala, which is similar to a razor thin crepe, that was positively translucent, crispy and delicious. We were then treated to a sit down multi-course vegetarian meal that was simply spectacular, served with the best mango lassi I have ever tasted!
The appetizer platter was superseded by a zesty potato stuffed dosa, followed by three dishes served with perfectly cooked basmati rice that we devoured so quickly, that I forgot to take pictures of them. Whoops!
At this point, we waddled out of there to begin our much needed walking portion of the tour. Throughout the afternoon, Preena and Arvinda peppered the discussion with interesting tidbits about the history of the neighbourhood, Indian ingredients, kitchen tools and cooking techniques, that left the ten of us feeling both dazzled and culturally enriched.
Our first stop was at a deceptively large sari store that was literally right next door, which was nice, since the weather outside was a bit chilly (or maybe that was because all of the blood had drained from my extremities to help my stomach digest the sizeable amount of food I had just ingested – hard to say).
Next, we followed Preena and Arvinda past an outdoor vendor offering small bites and freshly pressed sugar cane juice to a neighbourhood vegetable stand and grocery shop, where we learned about the staples that every good Indian kitchen should have. I liked the bottle-shaped gourd and the vast selection of lentils available.
Did you know that poppadoms are actually flexible before they are cooked (usually deep-fried), and that turmeric looks like finger-sized ginger? And that if your rice isn’t properly cooked, don’t even bother, because that alone is a serious enough offence for your guests to brand you as a poor cook, no matter what else comes out of your kitchen.
From there, we sauntered down to another restaurant that does a lot of take-out business, in addition to supplying Indian sweets to the neighbourhood.
While Arvinda picked out some tasty treats for us, we proceeded across the street to what looked like a local variety store. In addition to carrying all the latest Bollywood blockbusters, it also specialized in making fresh paan, which is something that has been chewed by East Indians for a very long time. It can be spit out or swallowed, and typically contains an addictive tobacco, which is optional.
The most popular variety is sweet paan, which many of us buy to try, as it is also known to freshen your breath and aid digestion – sign me up! I can honestly say I have never tasted anything quite like it. The bowl of colourful seeds and candy looking sprinkles available at the end of your meal at some Indian restaurants does not even come close. While I don’t hate it, I can’t say I will be rushing back to buy more anytime soon.
Finally, we made our way into a couple of housewares and general kitsch stores that really do sell just about everything. Preena pointed out the various stainless steel kitchen utensils and dishes that are commonly found in Indian kitchens for ladling curries, spooning out rice, and storing ghee and masala spices. Afterwards, we returned to Udupi Palace for some hot chai tea, to accompany the desserts Arvinda procured for us earlier. Needless to say, the sugar coma that ensued helped me to levitate all the way home in what felt like an instant. Pure bliss. I am already looking forward to my next delicious dosa dining experience in my newly re-discovered ‘hood.