Of Spice and Spicy: Bay Area’s sordid affair with the spicy yogurt rice (thayir sadham).

I have a pile of restaurant review drafts waiting to be completed but this one topic has been bothering me for a while. And a trip this past Sunday to Saravana Bhavan in Sunnyvale sealed the deal. This tale had to be told before everything else.

Growing up in South India, thayir sadham or curd rice or yogurt rice or bagala bath, however you choose to call it was an integral part of my daily menu. It also happened to be in the daily menu for every tamilian I ever knew back home- so much so that some non-Tamilians ( specifically those who could never understand the sheer joy of a good curd rice to wrap up any meal) took to calling the priveleged many as “thayir sadham”. What they construed as a racial epithet to me then represented really a dog barking at a gorgeous full moon. Little did it know or little would it realise.

What thayir sadham also represented was the one dish that could be consumed by one and all without any problems. Lactose intolerance was an unknown entity growing up and until I came to the US, never knew that such a thing existed. Anyways, the curd rice was something you could give to a 3 year old or a 30 year old or a 70 year old- and with the age and palate appropriate accompaniments, the dish always worked. In baseball terms, it was the perfect closer. It finished the meal- anytime and everytime. And better still, with the lack of a good pitcher, this closer could comfortably deliver 9 innings. Beat that, Mo.

And being true desis at heart, we lean on the same tradition of going with the Thayir sadham for our 4 year old when we are unsure of other choices. Most times, spice levels in dishes tend to vary between restaurants and with yogurt rice you can do no wrong. Or so we thought. Until we moved to the Bay Area.

A few months ago, on a cold winter night, two families wandered into Tirupathi Bhimas in Milpitas after a challenging evening with two toddlers in Great Mall. Late as the evening was and cranky as the kids were, the safe choice was made for the two kids and curd rice was ordered. What arrived was straight out of a horror story. Curd rice, liberally and I am understating liberally here, embellished with finely chopped green chillies, of the spicy kind was left on our table. No sooner did the first spoon go into our mouths (yes, we still eat and check before we give something to our toddler) that our lips and tongue were on fire. A good amount of partially cooked kesari had to be consumed before the fire was put out. We were shocked. Who in their sane mind would do this?. Arent Indians supposed to know the cardinal rule of the thayir sadham- one does not abuse or attempt to butcher the Sacred One.  We left with a spicy taste in our mouths and a bitter taste in our psyche.

Fast forward to this past weekend. I was with my family and visiting parents from India at good old Saravana Bhavan where food does not excite but also never falls below one’s expectations of the average. We had just gotten off a flight and wanted to go with the safe option. Good old thayir sadham was ordered for the little guy. The menu claimed that the Bagalabath had cashews, grapes and mustard seeds. Good enough for us. The dish arrived shortly thereafter and what do you know. In addition to grapes, raisins, cashews and mustard seeds there it was- copious amounts of finely chopped green chillis. The chillis had marinated long enough in the rice that the rice was spicy. Even after the removal of all things green, the rice tasted very spicy. Why in the name of God would the venerable HSB do this?

Do we Indians as a culinary group prefer only spicy things?. Have we lost the ability to discern and thus expect food to be good but not necessarily spicy?. Why is it that we start and end our dishes with green and red chillies?. My mom cant really do a dish without chillies- even if it doesnt take its place in the final dish, it is used for the “thalikkara” phase. Yes, the capsaicin is good for us. But at what cost- having kids scream in agony over a curd rice?. Sometimes, spice and spicy get inexplicably confused- people associate Indian food with spicy when it really should be spice. The wonderful flavors of all turmeric and fennel and mustard seeds and all other Indian spices are all I desire. Not the overpowering and sometimes burning sensation of a red/green chilli over-riding every other spice in the dish.

Is it so hard for Indian restaurants to offer two kinds of curd rice- one with the chillies and one without?. As we Indians in the US bring up our kids with American palates and a much lower level of tolerance to spicy food, there needs to be an alternative to the spicy curd rice and anything spicy for that matter in an Indian restaurant. We ask for good food with excellent flavor, not just spice. Is that not a fair thing to ask?