I totally love the Olympics. Whether it is summer or winter, I am glued to the TV as much as possible to witness the competition between nations. However, this year’s Olympics got me thinking a bit about London, and what is perhaps the most lasting impression London made on me 15 years ago.
Back in the fall of 1997, I participated in a semester of study at Oak Hill College in London. A few things about this: First, I was 19 at the time, and Oak Hill was basically a graduate school/seminary for the Anglican church. (I didn’t know that when I signed up) So when I got there, I was the youngest kid at a school populated with students who had graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, and I was TOTALLY in over my head.
Second, I scheduled all my classes that semester on Monday with one seminar course on Tuesday…which I often skipped. So it was week after week of glorious six day weekends, which I used to explore London, the British Isles, and Continental Europe as well. Good times.
Third, the drinking age in Great Britain is 18, and I was a dumb, young kid away from home for the first time. I took ample advantage of that. Good times! (Except with hard cider…A lasting life lesson I learned in England was STAY AWAY FROM HARD CIDER!)
Fourth, I was exposed to a whole new world of food in London, and most of all my favorite ethnic cuisine, Indian Food.
My first visit to an Indian Restaurant was in the East London, probably somewhere close to where the Olympic Village is today. One of the wealthier British students convinced a large group of us Americans to try some great Indian food, and in his words, “The best food is in the doggiest neighborhoods.” By the way, I promise I will refrain from using any other British adjectives in my colour commentary.
Anyway, East London WAS a rough area. Somewhat unsafe at night, but as we went into this hole-in-the-wall restaurant that October, I was awakened to a world of new smells, flavors, colors, and textures in my food. I still remember having onion bhaji, various lamb and vegetarian curries, all served with delicate basmanti rice and various naan breads. While many of the other Americans who were there that night were not impressed (one Nebraskan refused to eat anything hot), I was in LOVE!
For the next two months, I went out for Indian whenever I could. Dinners were served family style at Oak Hill, and for me, they often didn’t hold too much promise. Why you ask? Because of mad cows and my unfortunate allergy…poultry.
I am allergic to poultry. I can’t eat bird. So if you are looking for clever chicken recipes or my feelings about foie gras (or that hornet’s nest of controversy Chick-fil-A) you’ve come to the wrong place.
Anyway, this was during the Mad Cow disease scare and NO ONE was eating beef. No one would dare do it, for you risked looking like one of those crazy cows trying to walk down a ramp with it’s legs going every direction. No one wants to see that. So, every night the entire school would gather together for a meal of…chicken. This meant every night I was relegated to the vegetarian table. Not just any vegetarian table, an ENGLISH vegetarian table.
With that said, I ate a lot of Indian food during my time in London. I explored the savory sauces, the mellow heat of it’s many dishes as I familiarized myself with madras, vindaloo, kormas, and chutneys.
When I came back to St. Louis back in 1997, I was sad to see my subcontinental cravings go unfulfilled. However, times have certainly changed!
Today, there are many enjoyable Indian restaurants around the St. Louis area. I have enjoyed Priyaa, House of India, Mayuri, Tandoori King in O’Fallon, and the wonderful new Copper Chimney in St. Peters. But, in my opinion, India Palace near the airport literally and figuratively stand above the rest.
One of the many things I really like about India Palace is that you go into a very humdrum lobby, and press the button for a very plain and slow elevator. Go up to the 11th floor, the doors open, and you are in a rooftop oasis, looking down on busy commuters on the highways and those taking to the skies at Lambert. You, meanwhile get to settle in for a delicious, savory meal.
Today, my wife and kids had the lunch buffet at the Palace. One of the things I’ve found is that exposing kids to a variety of foods at a young age makes them less picky and is a good way to let them know there is a larger world out there waiting for them. Cultural diversity can be hard to come by where I live, so it’s a good experience for our kiddos.*
*My five year old son Brendan, on noticing our Sikh waiter’s turban, promptly told him, “I LOVE YOUR HAT!” last year. He’s been all smiles to Brendan ever since.
So, today we munched on savory saag (spinach), paneer (farmer’s cheese), beef kofta (not exactly a Hindu-friendly but DELICIOUS), and wonderfully refreshing kheer (Indian rice pudding). I also LOVE their gulab jamun, which are like giant, sugar-soaked doughnut holes. I’ve never had any better than those at India Palace.
So, if you are inspired by the Olympics to try a taste of London, I would encourage you to head out to the airport, rise above the crowd and try India Palace.
Finally, what do you all think? What Indian restaurant do you enjoy in the St. Louis area? Or, are there any (non-chicken) dishes I should try at a local Indian restaurant?