Masala Dosa at Sri Balaji in Pineville. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)
“You can’t overestimate the healing powers of a damn good Dosa.”
This line is an example of how I start sketching a review.
I try to put my first impression of a restaurant into a few simple words that will take me through to the end. Later visits may reinforce these words or cause me to change them entirely, but my goal is to capture the feeling and connection I had about the restaurant and its food in one concise sentence.
When a friend invited me over for brunch at Sri Balaji in Pineville a few months ago, something shimmered in the back of my mind that I hoped might lead to a connection. I was desperate for one.
Even though I was physically here in Charlotte, my mind had been elsewhere: 10,000 kilometers away in Singapore, where I lived for almost seven years. Almost every weekend I walked (or took the bus or MRT, or definitely made my way) to a small restaurant on the outskirts of Little India and ordered one for breakfast: Masala Dosa.
The massive, wafer-thin slice of fermented lentils and rice does not pay attention to the borders of the plate – rolled sideways into a cylinder, filled with coarse mashed potatoes and served with sauces full of color and spices. It was a solid and dependable breakfast, not to mention the sparing of your wallet, but to me it was also new, invigorating, and something that just felt right in my life. And like anything and everyone I knew in Singapore, I miss it terribly.
On this first visit to Sri Balaji, I saw “Masala Dosa” hidden in a menu full of South Indian home cooking – a list of incantations that inevitably evoke delicious food every time, whether or not you recognize the words you are reading – my order was as quick as obvious. I tore off an edge (why use a knife and fork when you have hands?), Used it to cut off a bit of potato, dipped it in a shiny, steaming sambar, closed my eyes, and ate.
That tear my friends saw me shed was real. Homesickness and reverse culture shock are real, tangible monsters, and that one bite kept them in check as much as it got me back through space and time to this Singapore neighborhood cafe. Or better yet, bring all of this to Pineville, to my table, with my new friends, about now.
And that’s because you can’t overestimate the healing powers of a damn good dosa.
The food – always vegetarian and sometimes vegan – is so wonderful at Sri Balaji that I really want to sing. It makes me cry. On certain days, and when my thoughts get caught in regrets for what could have been if I had never left Singapore, I want to slap someone in the face.
The point is, the food here makes me feel something, and I have to feel something first before I decide whether to write about it or not. After that first bite of dosa, I knew immediately that I had to write about Sri Balaji.
Has that failed? Absolutely. I find that anything worth writing about, and more generally anything worth doing, is best done in a deranged mindset, detached from the comfort and safety of the Convention. What you might call “the likely reason you’re still single, Tim,” I prefer to call “passion.”
But how do I translate the passion I feel for a restaurant and its food into prose that can be read outside of my head? We writers actually spend many hours each day consulting dictionaries and thesauri because we care about the choice of words. I shouldn’t and won’t just assume that any of you know what a dosa is, but if I do my job right I can reach those of you who don’t know most of the way.
I myself hesitated between “paper-thin pancakes” and “crunchy crepe” before deciding on a description that did no disservice to the traditional dish itself and celebrated the beautiful version that came from Sri’s kitchen. came Balaj.
But what do I do with the chilli parotta?
Is it enough for me to say, “This is the best dish I’ve eaten all year?” Or maybe, “I haven’t had better South Indian food since I returned to the States?” Probably for me. Probably not for you. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have no way of knowing what I’ve been eating outside of the country, and you have no idea what I think is “good” or even “better”.
Chilli Parotta (Photo by @telephonesmoothie)
My motivation as a food writer is to find a sentence that connects to something within your own frame of reference that then allows you to join me.
Do I then describe the dish? The texture: “Flatbread here is sliced and diced and diced and then fried into something that feels both soft and crispy at the same time. Imagine the food equivalent of a stress ball, if you will, and then marvel at how the standard parotta at Sri Balaji transforms into something even more soothing than billions of people around the world have known. “
Or the flavor: “There is of course the spiciness of the chilli, but also something cheeky, like tomato and vinegar – may I call it ketchup? When cooked along with red onions and bell peppers, your thoughts may turn to Chinese while the rest of you stay solidly in South India or even Sri Lanka if you have particularly traveled extensively. You may not realize until after your departure – when you get back home and lick your lips, close your eyes and chase the memory of those phenomenal flavors – that you stumbled upon and knew the great tradition of Indo-Chinese food not even. “
Or is it better to go with something simple instead? An answer to a question. When I returned to Sri Balaji a second time and a third time, all with different groups of friends, I pointed out chili parotta on the list of incantations and said we had to order it. “Is it really good, Tim?” every friend had asked. And every time I replied: “The chilli parotta is the reason why I fell in love with this restaurant.”
By the way, being out and about with groups of friends is another trick in the pocket of the restaurant critic, if only to try out as many different things as possible. It’s what it takes to get through the endless list of Utthapam – those fluffy, generously-crowned relatives of the Dosa – at Sri Balaji.
But I keep silent and try not to influence their decisions. There is still something to be said, something new to experience at the same time as others, as rare as it may be these days.
Onion podi utthapam at Sri Balaji. (Photo by @telephonesmoothie)
On one visit, a friend bit into onion podi utthapam and said it reminded her of Korean pajeon, food cousins maybe, and I can understand what she meant, but I focused more on the chili powder and the intoxicating onion flavors. As an author, how do I bridge these two different points of view in a way that can do more than just say in general: “This Utthapam is good?”
On another visit, cheese Utthapam, which some of us associate with pizza in our minds, but could better be branded as a “healthy hangover cure”.
And that not to mention the “SBC Special Utthapam” on another visit, which we ordered because none of us knew what “SBC Special” actually meant (an assumption: “Sri Balaji Caffe Special”). But the beads of sweat that formed on my bald forehead after I didn’t even swallow my first bite created a new meaning, and that is, “Chili, chili and more chili, and when it’s all out, more chili from that secret supply behind the counter. “When the laughter stopped, a friend said it was so good that she took the leftovers to her boyfriend’s house.
That’s my secret reason for writing why I bring friends to the restaurants I review: the reactions. No experience or imagination that I have can replace the real, unique reactions people have when they eat something new and delicious. If anything, it serves as a control sample against which I can measure my own reactions to see how far away I am.
The lunch menu at Sri Balaji in Pineville. (Photo by @scallionpancake)
If I’m lucky – like that afternoon when a friend innocently ordered the lunch special and was presented with a metal tray that was bigger than her, on which lay a whole series of sambars, chutneys and everything in between, like a patchwork quilt made over generations were designed – I see amazement with wide eyes.
Which actually leaves me with only two things to say.
First of all, I love food. I love restaurants. Sri Balaji is one reason I write about both.
And second, I read your comments, including the letters you send to my editor asking that I be fired. I do not respond to them individually. However, consider this my group response – a look into my troubled mind – to make me say things like, “Sri Balaji is a blessing, a great temple for South Indian soul food, right here in our own backyard.” You will get a feel for it now what I went through to arrive at this assessment.
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