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Chanceless: Masala Dosas at Hotel Aakesh

Chennai, India

My 27-year-old human rights lawyer friend Malathi and I sat down in a diner on a bustling road in Chennai one day, like we did almost every day that I spent at her place during my 2007-2008 trip to India. We ordered briyani, a spicy rice dish with chopped vegetables.

The restaurant, called Hotel Aakesh, was a hole in the wall neighborhood haunt that soon became my "Cheers." The waiters, who already knew Malathi, enthusiastically greeted us and sat us in chairs by the front so I could people-watch. As a five-foot ten black woman, I was an oddity in a highly non-touristy part of the city formerly known as Madras. Waiters and customers stared at me almost dumbstruck. They asked if they could take a picture with me on their cell phone so often I jokingly considered charging people per pose.

After a short wait, the server, a 20-something guy who looked much older, brought us banana leaves cut from trees and washed for culinary use. The banana leaves were dotted with a range of sauces and toppings that came with the rice, which was also on top of the banana leaf, served in a metal tin. Then he used his bare hand to plop a fistful of raw red onions onto each of our leaves. No fork, no knife, no serving spoon.

No problem. Malathi poured her rice onto the yellowish-green banana leaf and mixed it into the raw onion. With quick finger movements she balled the rice mixture in her palm and tossed it back into her mouth, uncurving her fingers as they reached her lips to aim the food onto her tongue.

I had eaten with my hands a few times while volunteering in Senegal seven years before, but I had forgotten not only the steps you have to follow to keep rice from rolling from your hands down the front of your shirt, but also how the absence of a fork impacts the whole meal. It's a whole different dining experience, because fingers take on a new, more involved level of intimacy with the food itself. My attitude toward eating with my hands was the same as the attitude I maintained walking around Chennai, a place where I was called "King Kong" (I was at least a head taller than most women), rode a moped through a monsoon, and spent half an afternoon unsuccessfully shopping for toilet paper. While other tourists I met said "India" stood for "I'm never doing it again," my philosophy was: Anything goes. The secret to eating less structured foods like Hotel Aakesh's popular sauces and rices is paying attention to the finger movements, using them in a tentlike way, drawing them in and up until the thumb flicks the food into the mouth. But this is a culinary activity for which there is no science.

It was always a much more self-conscious effort for me to eat with my hands than it was for the locals who showed up all day and evening at the busy restaurant. They leaned over their meals, which usually arrived quickly, and then they quite literally dug in. One time, when eating with another friend at another restaurant, he asked if he could taste what I'd ordered, and as soon as I said yes his fingers were digging through my bowl. At first this took me aback, until I realized there were no alternatives to getting the food into his mouth in the absence of silverware.

I developed a system for eating with my hands at Hotel Aakesh: I usually took a piece of the bread portion of the meal, and spooned on top of it whatever sauce I ordered, then piled on the sambar and chutney. The dazzling combination of tastes and textures was a bite-sized adventure I slid into my mouth like a quesadilla. Malathi, who apparently found my method deviant, laughed when she saw me building up each bite. I offered her a sample, but she said, "Chanceless!" and turned her head away. She'd taken all of her college and law school classes in English, but was unsure of many nuances to the language.

"What?" she said when she heard me laughing. "Chanceless isn't an English word?"

"It is now," I said.

The end of the meal at Hotel Aakesh was just as interesting to me as the beginning. After clearing her plate, Malathi signaled that she was done by folding her banana leaf in two, and turning the seam to face herself. At the end of each meal, our fingers were yellowed and moist, since we always ended up eating our banana leaves dry. But after meals of these sorts, we weren't given napkins. The restaurant had napkins, but it did not provide them as a matter of course, and most other customers did not seem to want or expect them. You had to specifically ask, and then the waiter would consider this, as if perhaps trying to remember where they were, before bringing one or two paper napkins to the table with a slight bow.

After a meal, whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner, Malathi always had coffee and I always had chai. The restaurant didn't have the facilities to prepare tea or coffee, so the servers went next door to buy it by the cup from a chaiwalla (tea vendor). The vendor, who operated a cart stationed next to the restaurant, made each cup of chai to order, using loose tea leaves, whole cardamom pods, water, milk, a pinch of salt and lots of sugar. There was a lot of boiling, straining, and other fine tuning before the tea was served in a tiny metal cup on a saucer—a spicy, creamy, sweet, decadent punctuation mark at the end of the meal.

Tipping at Hotel Akesh was optional, not generally expected, and on our way out we usually took some fennel seeds to chew on to refresh our breath as we returned to the noisy stretch of road, where auto-rickshaws competed for street space with bulls, bikers, pedestrians and motorcyclists, and in the darkness it was hard not to bump into women dressed in saris and children riding on the handlebars of their father's bikes.

Hotel Aakesh is like many restaurants around Chenni: it lacks an impressive interior look, but understands its purpose as a functional and affordable alternative to cooking at home. In Southern India, some homes lack refrigerators and consistent electricity. Malathi, for example, didn't have a sink or refrigerator in the small space designated as the kitchen in her apartment. She owned perhaps two plates and one fork, and had been waiting for weeks for a delivery of oil for her stove so she could start to cook again.

Hotel Aakesh, a humble joint with half a dozen tables, therefore often took the place of dining at home, at a very low cost. A dollar or two was all we usually spent on a range of meals, most of them vegetarian.

Malathi and I dined there so often that the cook, who found a foreigner's repeat visits amusing, let me come inside the kitchen one time with my camera. Most of the meals I'd eaten there were nothing like the meals I'd eaten at Indian restaurants in the United States. And although I knew I would never venture to try cooking any of the meals, I was curious to see how some of them were prepared.

The chef was cooking barefoot one afternoon near counters cluttered with banana leaves on their way to becoming diners' plates, and bowls of chopped onions and other condiments. He was preparing dosa, a crepe-like rice-flour based cylinder that's part of many of meals. He spooned some of the batter onto the stovetop grill, and then he spread it thin with the back of a spoon until it became oblong. It took only minutes for it to turn tasty yellowish-brown like a thin oval pancake—crispy at the edges. Dosa can be served either empty, with onions mixed into the batter, or stuffed with a bright yellow mixture of potatoes, onions and spices—a combination called masala dosa—that became one of my favorite meals to order.

Whether ordered stuffed or unstuffed, it's dipped in sambar—a creamy tomato-based gravy, chutney made of coconut, and another of chickpeas—both of them chunky with peppercorns. The chef folded the dosa into thirds, turning it conical, and placed it on a banana leaf-lined metal plate. Later the plate would need no washing since the sturdy leaf kept liquids from seeping through. Kitchen helpers added ramekins of sambar and chutney to the plate and a barefoot server brought it and other dishes to a table of three—a girl of about five with two older women, possibly her mother and grandmother. They were talking and laughing in the dining area under bright fluorescent lighting, as comfortable and unselfconscious eating with their hands there as they would have been at home. No one who came to Hotel Aakesh was ever looking for fine dining. Usually, the floors looked unmopped and open buckets of table garbage sat in dining room corners.

Another popular dish at Hotel Aakesh was idli. Made of pod-shaped puffs of steamed rice flour about a third the height of a muffin, idli is served with the same spicy, fragrant sauces as dosa. To make it, the Hotel Aakesh cooks load a rice flour-based batter into round metal tins with about nine shallow indentations. They stack four or five tins into a steamer half-filled with water and leave it to soak up the moisture and become springy. Then they serve three or four of the pods on a banana leaf. No need for utensils, since ripped pieces of idli soak up the dipping sauces and chutneys.

Some entrees were served only at certain times, and the menu didn't say which. The system seemed completely random, so whenever I showed up at a time when I couldn't order masala dosa, my favorite, I'd order paratha, another hand-held food available, for some reason, only after 11 a.m. A thick rubbery round bread made of wheat flour, it could be ripped into pieces and dunked into the same range of sauces, or into a creamy reddish-brown sauce with green peas that reminded me more of northern Indian than southern Indian food. The chewy paratha has a sweet undertone that tempers the peppery sambar and blends evenly with the milder pea sauce.

Hotel Aakesh was the only restaurant that Malathi and I ever went to. We dined in, we got take-out, we went together, we went alone. Then one night I convinced her we were missing out by focusing all of our dining energy on that one restaurant. I talked her into walking around her area to see about going someplace different. She said nothing, but her body language said, "We'll just see about this."

After a fifteen minute walk we settled on a snazzier, more expensive restaurant that looked professionally decorated with wooden benches, art on the walls, and a chalkboard with a list of specials. The prices were much more expensive, and who knew what we could be getting into? Sure, the place was much cleaner, the servers very excited and welcoming, but the dining area, however charming, was nearly empty.

Against her protests—Malathi thought it would be rude to up and walk out—I talked her into leaving. I had become so addicted to and dependent upon the familiar sauces, breads and rice dishes at Hotel Aakesh that I didn't want to take any chances on getting something so much more costly that I didn't even know I'd like more. The décor? Well, it was cute and all, but I liked the scrappiness of my more familiar main-stay better.

As soon as we got back outside we walked a few blocks down the street to Hotel Aakesh for some masala dosa, briyani rice and paratha with pea sauce. We wove through the bulls, the construction and pedestrians, and went up the steps. Malathi saw the wisdom in our sudden change of plans. She pulled open the door to our familiar haven and said, "There's really nowhere else to go."

Elaine Tassy

Related articles by Elaine Tassy:
Post-Pick-Pocketing Distress Disorder
The Seven-Fold Path to Waiting for Take-Out
Rewire My Soul

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