By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
"Well, there is a dried herb in Sri Lanka called the curry leaf. That's also called gari. But there isn't any curry leaf in curry powder. In English, 'curry' has come to mean just about any Indian dish that has a sauce, or any dish that includes curry powder."
"Then what is curry powder?" he inquired.
"A mess," I said. "It was created mainly for the Brits, because they got to like Indian food and wanted to buy a single spice mixture to take home to England. Like, India-in-a-Jar. But in Hindi, masala -- not curry -- is the word for a spice mixture, and it's not just a single spice blend, it's a whole range of them. Women used to grind their own masalas and some still do, but even now that you can buy them packaged, there are still just zillions, all with different flavors. Some are hot, some are bland, some are for meat, there are even specific blends for potato salad or fruit salad. And most cooks don't stop with a masala, they'll add other seasonings. So when the British went to the spice merchants asking for 'curry powder,' the merchants just sniggered and gave them the sweepings from the warehouse floor. Nowadays they do sell bottled curry powder in India, so obviously some people there use it, but compared to most masalas it's still got only a few spices, and mainly the cheaper ones -- like that turmeric that turns everything saffron-colored but doesn't taste like saffron. You don't see any orange food on the table here, do you?"
775 Frederick St.
San Francisco, CA 94117-2755
Region: Sunset (Inner)
With the entrees came very thick, souplike dal centering on yellow split peas, and ultralong grain but dryish basmati rice. Since the rice has to serve vegans as well as lacto-vegetarians, it's cooked without butter, a palpable lack that led us into a discussion of other orthodox Hindu food-taboos. "Very religious Brahmins don't even eat garlic and onions," Danny said. "Is that because they're not satvik -- they're too 'exciting' to the body?" I asked him. The owner, overhearing, swooped over. "It's because they grow underground, and are in contact with dirt," he explained. "Potatoes as well. It is unsanitary, the soil is contaminated," he noted. It took me a few minutes to realize he was alluding to organic fertilizer.
Most Indian desserts are devastatingly sweet, but we enjoyed the day's special, ras malai, which had tender homemade cheese in sweetened cream with cardamom. Payas was a rice pudding with raisins, more cardamom, and very firm basmati. TJ, who loves rice pudding, disliked it, I was indifferent, Danny approved it. Kulfi (available in three flavors here) is spiced ice-milk. At its best it's chilled velvet, but this version crunched with ice crystals, and the flavors (almonds, pistachios, a hint of saffron, and another load of cardamom) were nearly mute until it began to melt.
A few weeks later, TJ and I went back on a Friday night, when there's live music. In the interim, a positive review had appeared in the daily paper, and the place was packed with the typical Cole Valley/Irving Street mix of old hippies, young yogis, and assorted UC med students. We were about to settle for dinner to go, but another couple left and we were seated after all. On a small stage in the front window, a couple of blond guys were noodling on electric sitar and tabla drums, to a scale apparently based on the musical phrase "Yankee Doodle, keep it up." After just 45 minutes their Maple Leaf Raga feebly expired and they, too, sat down to eat.
We got some appetizers to go and some to eat on the spot. The hits were pakoras (vegetable fritters, each different and delicious) and a unique samosa, a large triangular turnover with a sweet, fiery filling of coconut, raisins, and mixed chopped vegetables. The standout starter was kelana bhajia, banana pakodas, their fruit flavor subtle in the filling, intense in the coating. The dud was bateta vada, Indian knishes made with old-tasting mashed potato, cilantro, lemon juice, and enough hot pepper seeds to extinguish our taste buds for half the meal. The vegetable of the day was a tasty stew of eggplant and potatoes. The interesting stuffed zucchini entree came in a slightly spicy red sauce with shredded coconut and a subtle undertone of ground peanuts. An entree special, of Japanese eggplant, was bland mush. "Reminds me of poi," said TJ, "and I hate poi." This time, though, the lentils were amazing. "Oh, you beautiful dal!" I gasped at the first arresting sip of the thin porridge of masoor dal and vibrant chopped cilantro.
Again we finished with kulfi, this time in the mango version, which once more developed flavor only after the ice crystals melted. We also tried firni, a rice-flour pudding only rarely found in restaurants. While hot, it bore a pleasant resemblance to oversweetened cream of wheat, but as it cooled it thickened into another version of poi -- poi overdosed on sugar and cardamom. But we did chance upon an excellent dessert in the beverage list: Chai (Indian tea), with honey, foamy hot milk, and a waft of (I'd guess) nutmeg, was invigorating enough to restore our energy after the giant meal. At the Ganges, with its hovering staff, you feel like you're eating dinner with someone else's family and you don't dare leave much over.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city