Sunday, March 23, 2008

I taste home.

It needs to be established upfront that I'm Chinese. I'm not exactly sure what I mean by this though. I was born and raised in Toronto. I've never visited China and I don't have any close relatives who live there. My parents and their siblings were born in Calcutta, India. They were part of a Chinese diaspora who speak a different dialect, Hakka. But my father never calls himself "Indian" the way I call myself "Canadian." It doesn't matter that he lived there till he was 21, the age I am now. It doesn't matter that he can understand and speak Hindi. It doesn't matter that he half-seriously claims he's going to retire there. It doesn't matter that some of the best dishes he cooks are distinctly Indian. He's Chinese, and that's final.

My father is the indisputable cook of our household. I grew up on his food. He came home from nine hours of manual labour at a nails and screws factory, and made dinner for his wife and four kids for what felt like every day of my childhood, and for most of my adolescence. As far as I was concerned, he could cook everything from seafood stir-fries to yan-yan (meatball) soup to spaghetti to stewed beef. But above and beyond everything else, he could cook Indian food. Curries, homemade bahnas (a thicker, doughier and greasier version of a tortilla), biryani, tandoori, masala ahloo (potato in Hindi). He did it all and I loved every last bite. So when it comes to food, what resonates the most for me is not the clean, delicate tastes of Chinese cooking. Bold, aromatic Indian flavours bring me home.

Last Sunday, one of my closest girlfriends from high school said she wanted to take me out to eat for my 21st birthday. Coincidentally, Toronto Life came out with its "Best New Restaurants" issue the same week. And an even luckier coincidence, Amaya, a new Indian restaurant at Bayview and Eglinton, was listed as one of the top ten. I read James Chatto's review on the place a few months earlier and this was a reminder that I still needed to try it out. Stephanie never really had Indian food before. I felt Amaya was going to be the best place to start.

I instantly like the place as soon as I walk through the door. It's a small, casual space that comfortably fits about 40 people. The tones of the decor remind me of the warmth of beef curry--golden yellows and chestnut browns, accented with clean white linen tablecloths and hints of red lighting. On the walls are huge, framed photographs of India, astonishing in its cultural quietness of two men pushing a boat in Goa, women harvesting food, children scattered in streets. A tall, brown-skinned gentleman dressed in black kindly hangs our coats and shows us to a table. His voice is as smooth as almond butter, without any smugness. Steph and I are easily the youngest patrons.

To start, instead of bread, we are served pappadums--a thin, crisp, Indian-spiced flat bread. It comes with a mango mint sauce. As soon as I bite into it, everything inside wakes up yet I dreamily close my eyes.
"Oh my god," I drawl. "This is pure nostalgia." Steph, on the other hand, doesn't have the exact same enthusiasm.
"It won't feel the same for you, I know," I rush to explain. I hate getting people's expectations up and then they get disappointed. "But for me, this is my childhood."
She laughs. "It's OK. When Brian asked me why an Indian place, I told him it's because you're Hakka and he was surprised," she says in reference to her boyfriend.
"Really? Why?"
"Because he says you don't look Hakka. But I don't know what that's supposed to mean." And quite frankly, neither do I.

Our waiter comes by to explain Amaya also serves a tasting menu for $50 each, along with its a la carte. I am giddy at the thought. As soon as the waiter walks away, Steph says, "Order whatever you want. It doesn't matter to me."
"Are you serious? Because if you're serious, I'm going to go crazy and insist we both do the tasting menu." (I'm practically foaming at the mouth because I'm so deliriously happy.)
So we order the tasting menu. In the meantime, Steph orders a mango mint mojito that actually disappoints me. I can't really taste mango or that much mint. But it's OK, because I'm here for the food.

For anyone who doesn't know, a "classic" tasting menu is often five to seven small experimental courses where the chef showcases ingredients and plays with different flavour ideas. I'm surprised to hear Amaya offers one because Indian fare is a communal experience. It lends itself to cooking in large quantities. I shouldn't have been surprised when the food turned out to be just that.

A large appetizer course is set down. It looks like a tower of rice, almost risotto-like in its sauce mixture, jewelled with pomegranate seeds. The first bite reveals that the "rice" actually has a texture similar to rice krispies--airy, light and crackly. It's sweet, salty and has a kick of spice to it. Something that quickly becomes a theme for the rest of the meal.

The second appetizer is chicken liver paté served with toasted pita. I fell in love with liver after my first experience with foie gras and milk-fed veal liver at Thuet two winters ago. This paté is sensational. It's dense but spreadable, and the Indian spices tickle my senses. It's making my heart, my soul, my body say, "More, more, more!" And sometimes you get exactly what you wish for. The appetizers are already fairly big. When the mains come, there's hardly any room left on the table.

We first try venison served on a bed of steamed julienned carrots, green string beans, and roasted potatoes in a dark, biryani-like sauce. I eat it with saffron-tinged basmati rice but take the first bite of meat separately. Cooked at perfect medium-rare, it practically melts in my mouth. Steph, who doesn't even know what venison is, relishes in it. I can tell she is starting to fall in love with Indian cooking. Next I try cauliflower curry with naan. Normally I dislike cauliflower so I'm taken aback when I eat it. There is definitely a hot spiciness but it's beautifully juxtaposed with a honey-like sweetness that elevates everything to a flavour dimension I've never experienced before. Even the little bursts of fresh, diced tomatoes add a subtle but distinct cooling feeling. Our final main course is shrimps and scallops in a butter sauce. These too are perfectly cooked. Both are big, plump, tender, moist and juicy. The sauce is velvety but light, and I am more than impressed that this is by far the best Indian food I've ever had. Stephanie is happily surprised as well with how delicious the meal is, but I suspect for reasons different than mine. Equally pleased with the experience, she genuinely oo's, aw's, and yum's at everything. And we have enough food to doggy-bag for a hearty lunch the next day.

Our meal ends with a dessert sampler of a white chocolate shortbread cookie, a dark chocolate truffle with Indian spices, and a caramel brittle with cashews, pistachios and cardamom. I love them all for their varying textures and tastes but the brittle stands out as my favourite. Normally I am a chocolate-fiend but combining nuts and cardamom? That is signature Indian with a spectacular modern twist.

As we head home, I cannot thank Stephanie enough for treating me to such an amazing dinner. The food may have been more original, inventive and even cooked better than anything my dad has ever made, but in its essence, it is the food of my father. The food of my family. Yet at the same time, while the meal was definitely a pleasure, it was the experience of sharing something so close to my heart with someone who is so close to my heart. I consider Steph to be like a sister. Introducing Indian food to her at a place like Amaya... It transforms what it means for me to return home.

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