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Back in New York, where I'm from -- sort of -- there's a street in the East Village (Sixth Street, to be exact) that is widely referred to as Little India. Both sides of it are lined with traditional Indian restaurants, one after another after another. They all offer effectively the same menu of extraordinary Indian cuisine, in the same general atmosphere, at the same great prices. The local joke goes that if you were to walk through the back door of any of the adjacent restaurant dining rooms, you'd find that all the food was coming from one long, communal kitchen.
San Francisco, alas, has no Little India. And at the not-so-scary risk of being invited to sample the creations of every irate Indian chef in town, I'd say we don't really have any standout options either. Sure, there's a sea of lunch buffets, and a few decent upscale joints. Perhaps most notable is Berkeley's unusual Vik's, which splits its warehouse location in half, selling Indian spices and supplies on one side, while churning out rock-bottom, fry-your-tongue, cafeteria-style delicacies on the other.
But still, no Sixth Street.
All this is to say that I love Indian food. The curries, the chutneys, the rices, the naan. (Oh-ho-ho, the naan.) I've even dabbled, with varying success, in cooking the stuff myself. So you can imagine my utter delight at being invited to join a full-fledged extended family for an honest-to-goodness, home-cooked Indian meal.
This particular group is actually a Group: the Ali Khan Band, whose fusion of classical Indian and Pakistani music with elements of modern pop has made it one of the Bay Area's pre-eminent purveyors of world music. Dinner was at the Outer Sunset apartment of core band members Sukhawat Ali Khan, his sister Riffat Salamat, and her husband, Richard Michos. Ali Khan met me at the door. "Welcome, my friend," he said, greeting me with an exuberant hug. "Hello, Mr. Barry."
"This is your place?" I asked.
"Yes," said Ali Khan, "all of us." He clearly meant it in the larger, spiritual sense: Not everyone present lived there. In his black cowboy hat and green-sequined Indian shirt, Ali Khan was exceedingly likable.
Walking through to the kitchen I met Richard and Riffat, a vocalist, who had done all the cooking for our meal. Also joining us was Rami Ziadeh, the band's percussionist, and his girlfriend, Jody. Everyone immediately made me feel like part of the Ali Khan family. The kitchen doubled as a living room,
making for a very communal feeling of good food and friends. I installed myself on the wicker love seat while Richard passed around glasses of red wine.
On the walls hung all sorts of Indian photos and artifacts, along with various posters from the band's previous gigs. As Riffat put the finishing touches on our meal, I asked about the origins of the Ali Khan band. Richard put the debut album, Taswir, on the CD player while Ali Khan told me the wonderfully rich story of his family's musical history. "The music is very old," he explained. "The music of the gods. We learn it from our ancestors. My grandfathers, to his son, to his son. From my father to me. Four brothers." In the background the haunting sounds of Ali Khan's melodies helped to conjure an almost physical sense of the history.
Suddenly Richard was standing next to the kitchen table laden with dishes and bowls and packages of Indian food. An anxious smile on his face was my clue that it was the guest's duty to start. "If you're ready, we're ready," he said. And everyone grabbed a plate.
Where do I begin? There was tandoori chicken -- on the bone -- with the telltale tomato-yogurt coloring and crisscross scorings, a casserole filled with a spicy chickpea stew, and a spinach and potato dish (aloo palak) in two different bowls. "This one is spicy," explained Rami. "And this one is spicier." There was also a large dish of yellow dal (puréed lentils), along with a variety of chutneys and sauces -- and a seemingly bottomless basket of naan, which Rami consistently replenished with warm, crispy sheets of bread from the oven.
My silent exuberance must have been clear to everyone, and Richard suggested, "Well, if you like that, maybe you should try this." As he attempted to pass me a very innocent-looking jar the rest of the group shifted uncertainly in protest.
"No, don't," cautioned Riffat.
"You like spice, right?" asked Richard.
"Oh, yeah," I said, spooning the mixture onto a piece of naan. "What is it?"
"It's a pickle chutney mango kind of thing," explained Richard.
As I ate, Ali Khan explained that for 500 years -- a full five hundred years -- everymember of his family had carried on the tradition of learning and practicing their heritage as vocalists. In fact his father, I learned, is Salamat Ali Khan, legendary worldwide as a classical Pakistani singer.
My plate miraculously cleaned itself. And my mouth burned.
"More? Please," insisted Rami. "We have so much."
"Oh, I'm just resting," I assured him. "It's all so good."
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