Thursday, April 10, 2008

Saravana Bhavan, Mississauga

In some cuisines, dishes are ways of cooking things. A coq au vin indicates how the chicken is cooked and presented. Coq au vin tastes different wherever you get it, reflecting the chicken you use, the wine, the amount of salt, the kind of bacon, and so on. Even with bread making, a name indicates a process, not a product. Brioche is an eggy bread that feels somewhat crisp in the mouth. Can you predict anything else? No: Brioche is made from different flour/egg/milk proportions.

In other cuisines, dishes are quite rigidly prepared and presented, so you know exactly how they are going to look and taste. Italian cuisine is more in this direction than French: German noodles are not recognized as a version of pasta. Pasta can't cooked too soft. It must be made from hard durum flour; it must be al dente. A ragu bolognese must taste of carrots, celery, and onion; the meat must be cooked in milk.

Still, there is room for variation even within these rigid rules.
A pasta carbonara isn't ruined because the combination of cheeses is wrong, or the kind of bacon.

South Indian vegetarian cuisine leans much more to the predictable end of things than does French, or even Italian. A dosa is not merely a crepe made of rice flour: it must taste and look the same wherever you get it; similarly an idli, or sambaar, or rasam. You do not make a coriander chutney out of parsley, or a rasam out of limes. (The great mathematician Ramanujan died of lead poisoning, says David Leavitt in his racy novel The Indian Clerk, because when he was at Trinity College in Cambridge, he cooked rasam in a leaden pot. But his broken heart probably got him first, because he could not get tamarind in England and had to substitute lemon. Ugh!)

Saravana Bhavan (apparently misspelled on the sign outside) is a restaurant at Hurontario and Eglinton in Mississauga. It is tucked away next to the Toys R Us. It has an authentically Tamilian feel, with fluorescent lighting -- which, in India, would have taken the form of naked tube lamps. The waiters have beautiful and authentic Tamilian Brahmin manners: reserved though attentive; nicely spoken but not smarmy.

Tamilian cuisine is unique, even in India. The dosa is its best known product: a thin crepe made from rice and urad dal. Not so famous, but equally deserving of attention, is the idli, a steamed cake made of a similar batter. At Saravana Bhavan, these things are served in the right way -- you don't drink or eat from anything that isn't made of metal -- and they taste just right. The dosas are exactly as you would get them in Madras (or Chennai), and the paper dosa is the especially crisp version. Some small criticisms: the filling in the masala dosa is a little too heavy on onions; the tomato chutney is a little too sweet.

Now, let's speak about sambar. According to Wikipedia: "Sambar is essentially a pea and vegetable stew or chowder based on a broth made with tamarind and toomar dal." True, I am sure, but the important point is that it has to taste (almost) exactly like a sambar, and at Saravana Bhavan, it does.

Finally rasam. This is a spicy lentil and tamarind "soup" -- lots of black pepper that hits you at the back of the throat. At Saravana Bhavan, I am tempted to say: it is divine. This is not high cuisine. Not everything that is truly delicious is. And it tastes very much like what I encountered at my mother's table. (Poor Ramanujan!)

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