Sunday, March 14, 2010

Devon Avenue – A Short Trip To A Rich Cultural Experience

I love Monsoon Wedding. Monsoon Wedding was a 2001 film directed by Mira Nair and written by Sabrina Dhawan, which depicts romantic entanglements during a traditional Punjabi wedding in Delhi. It inspired me to position India high on my list of places to go to photograph…and to eat.
Speaking of India, one of the terrific things about living in Chicago is that it’s a short trip to any place in the world and India was no exception. I took a 40 minute trip by train and a 30 minute walk to Devon Avenue.

Here is a place where I did not understand the language at all (but I must learn some before I go back) but the culture was implicit and by the end of the day I embraced it.

I have been the foreigner before and I think that once that you are one, you totally understand. The difference between you and the residents is a smile. That’s often all it takes to be accepted into the crease of a new culture.

I have heard that Devon Avenue does not quite transfer the memory of the bustling bazaars of Delhi but it comes pretty close., a leading India based web authority, has said that “the marked difference between Devon and India is the lack of roadside hawkers and peddlers with their cacophonic calls, the stray cow or dog pottering around. Maybe even a snake charmer as is the western but mythical view of India.” I laughed when I read this but it also made me long to see that stray cow promenading down Devon.

The restaurants have an abundance of curries, spicy vegetables, red-tinted tandoori chicken and thick doughy naan at any place along the avenue that you want to settle in. And there are many.

You can also get into the shopping (and there is lots of it) and then devour some “street food” by ordering chai and split samosas, chickpeas, yogurt, mint chutney and sev.

In fact, this is a place where you can get lost in the culture and suddenly wake up and remember it’s Friday afternoon, you actually do live in Lake Bluff and have to go home.

Devon Avenue has been settled by many immigrant groups, which is perhaps most apparent between Kedzie and Ridge Avenues in West Ridge, Chicago. If you travel east, you will encounter, in succession, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, a Russian American neighborhood, an Indian American neighborhood, a Pakistani American neighborhood, and a Bangladeshi American neighborhood. One could explore this section of Chicago for months and still only scratch the surface. This is an area rich in culture and diversity.

Devon Avenue's “Desi Corridor” is one of the most renowned and principal communities of its kind in North America. The Corridor is between Ravenswood Avenue and California. You can walk down the street and you will find more than 30 small neighborhood grocers. Every grocery store I went in today had something I had not seen at the last one. It is quite an education in the Devon markets where it could take a few days just to get through the produce section and identify all of the vegetables and spices. I quite frankly have never seen so many in my life.
I stopped in at World Fresh Market (2434 West Devon Avenue) , Patel Brothers (2610 West Devon Avenue) and Fresh Farms (2626 West Devon). I had high expectations of all three and frankly, one was as good as the next. Each had their own style and the managers of all three markets were accommodating and really enjoyable.
In particular, the female manager of the World Fresh Market was clearly having a challenging day because of a particular male vendor but she pretty much declared her ground. Lesson One: Never mess with a female when she is clearly in charge!

I wandered into several stores to admire at all of the stunning clothing and jewelry. How did Indian women get so lucky anyway? Why wasn’t I born into a culture that totally understands the value of women dressing up?

My final stop was for a quick lunch at Sabri Nehari (2502 West Devon Avenue). Before I came down, I Google searched for a restaurant that the locals loved and this place got great reviews. It is Pakistani and although I have never been a huge fan of the food, this lunch was simply to die for.

A big part of the Pakistani culture has Afghan-Turkic-Iranian roots, a heritage of centuries of Muslim rule in South Asia. The content of spices in the food can range from very spicy/hot to mild, although spicy/hot seems more popular.
I had the Chicken Makhani – a dish that was slowly cooked in a curry butter sauce. One mention of butter and I had to pull a Julia Child and try it. It was delicious.
At this point, the owner started sending over all of his other favorite dishes for me to try including the Frontier Chicken… a dish that is slow cooked in their clay oven with ginger, onion and green chili sauce. Did someone mention green chili sauce? I thought for a moment I was back on the streets of Tonola. Nothing about this dish was overly spicy but it does sneaks up on you. The flavors were just amazing and I would order this again…and again…and again!

I also loved the Naan, the traditional Pakistani bread that is also cooked in the ever so guarded clay oven. I definitely have to check that oven out the next time I am here because Naan could be my new favorite bread.

The Basmati Rice was also really good, characteristically free flowing rather than sticky. I am a “Botan Calrose” kind of girl so this was all new to me. I asked the owner what it was they put in the rice that made it so pleasing to look it. He never really answered me and just said it was a “little of this and that.”

Cayenne pepper, cumin, mustard seed, crushed garlic with fresh cut mint, onion slivers and coriander leaves…these are just some the flavors you’ll find in a Pakistani kitchen. This is food that I can definitely experiment with and see where it goes. That is what cooking is all about. Trial and error – experimentation.

The next time I do India, I’ll pack my bags and take that 16 hour flight. In the mean time, this was an amazing way to get a taste for what is to come next.

Bonus: This day was so much fun and only cost $11.00. Get your walking shoes out and you can find a lot of neighborhoods in Chicago to explore and enjoy on the cheap.

P.S. Next week, I’ll take a left on Devon instead of a right and see where it leads me…Stay tuned!

Bon Appetit!