It's no secret that I'm a devout omnivore. The "omni" includes vegetables, even if I usually prefer them as supporting players to, say, squids or snails or crawdaddy's tails. But when plants do take the starring dinner role, I usually prefer them in East Indian costume -- you don't miss the meat when the spicing's so rich. So once I learned that Danny's guru was Gujarati, I decided to go to the Ganges.
Danny, a local musician, spent a year studying Indian vocal music in Varanasi (formerly called Benares) with a teacher from Gujarat, a state on India's west coast just north of Bombay. He's spoken glowingly of meals served at his teacher's house, and since the Ganges features vegetarian dishes from that very region, this obviously was reason to match the friend to the food. "Well -- I ate there a few years ago and wasn't very impressed," he allowed, "but I'll try it again."
Situated in the uppermost Upper Haight (at Arguello, borderline of the innermost Inner Sunset), the Ganges is roomier inside than I'd guessed from its exterior, and handsome with rich burgundy banquettes, blond-wood tables (slightly too small to hold all the food they serve you), and Indian fabric-art in several styles on the walls. One short step up, at the back, is a room with floor cushions, low tables, and Hindu sculptures radiating good vibes from a shoulder-high shelf.
The owner, a man of certain years, briefed us on the clever menu code: The dishes currently available are those with little burgundy stick-on dots next to the names. The menu also divides pure vegan dishes from those made with dairy products. The combination dinner, including chutneys, relishes, dal (lentils), rice, the veg curry du jour, and a choice of appetizer, main dish, and dessert, goes for $14.50. As we squinted at the menu under the very subdued lighting, a waitress in an embroidered dress brought us room-temperature pappadums (deep-fried cracker bread, more typically served still hot), along with tiny cups of scintillating house-made fruit chutneys, pickles, and relishes, including raita, an indispensable mixture of yogurt and shredded cucumber. "Tastes like the same old thin yogurt," my companion, TJ, muttered. "Save it," I told him. "With luck, you'll need it later."
Danny asked the waitress in Hindi whether any menu items were Gujarati specialties. "Well, it's a Gujarati restaurant," she shrugged. Overhearing, the owner returned to chat with this phenomenon, a blue-eyed Hindi-speaker. A Gujarati reared in Africa, he'd lived in London and then Bombay before emigrating to escape the latter's overcrowding, he divulged. Responding to his questions, Danny summarized his Indian travels, and I mentioned the month or so I'd spent in Sri Lanka and Southern India some years ago. Taking our drink orders, of the three Indian beers in stock the owner recommended Flying Horse. One sip (flat, malty-flavored water) was enough for each of us and we switched to zesty Kingfisher.
"I need something spicy tonight," said Danny, ordering the chile pakoda appetizer. "That is the spiciest dish on the menu," the owner cautioned, in vain. The pakodas proved to be small, semihot chiles, coated in garbanzo-flour batter, stuffed, and deep-fried. As I masticated peacefully, I watched both men explode -- turning bug-eyed, gulping whole glasses of water and beer, TJ guzzling raita straight from the cup. "They often put little surprises in," gasped Danny. Purely by chance, I'd picked the one pakoda lacking the scorching surprise. We also tried a special, a medium-hot fritter of spinach, onion, and fenugreek leaf called goti. Dhokla, our third appetizer, was a weighty cube of chewy chickpea-pone.
Of the main courses, we enjoyed the "vegetable of the day," a thin, savory stew of potatoes and zucchini. "This is basically what I ate every day in India," Danny said. "Substitute greens for zucchini, and it's what I had, too," I said. The best entree consisted of baked bananas with a brilliant stuffing of coconut, cilantro, and vivid spices. But the saag paneer was the worst version we'd ever tasted, a bitter green spinach puree dotted with browned, hardened cheese cubes resembling overcooked tofu. More palatable was asparagus in a garbanzo-thickened yogurt sauce, which overwhelmed the vegetable but proved an agreeable dip for the chapatis (sauteed flatbreads).
"This sauce, specifically, is what Hindi-speakers call 'curry' -- gari," said Danny. "It's a very specific dish, based on yogurt and these specific seasonings. There are four R's in Hindi, each pronounced differently. The closest the British could come to it was 'curry.' Whereas in Hindi, each of the dishes that we lump together as 'curry' has its own name, describing what's in it -- dopiaza for onions, tamatar for tomatoes, ghosht masala for meat with a mixture of spices."
"Hold on -- I thought curry was a specific spice," said poor TJ, whose head was spinning, this being the third or fourth Indian meal of his life.
"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?"
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.
"The food is not as wonderful as what I had at my guru's house," Danny had reflected as the first meal ended. "But those were 'company meals' -- and they had access to foodstuffs you can't get here. And it's still really nice to eat plainer food than what you usually have at local Indian restaurants," he added. "What they serve is so rich -- they call it 'Mughlai cuisine,' the food of the Moghul emperors. A normal Punjabi wouldn't get a meal like that in his whole life. But this food -- good or bad, this is what people in India really eat.