I made a slightly more fussy chicken dish for Sunday lunch today. I liked the chicken the first time I tasted it cooked this way at a little corner street dinner run by an Indian Muslim of few words but with quiet, watchful eyes.
Compared to the other eateries that line both sides of that busy shopping street, his was understated, clean, the clientele more likely to be busy office workers out for a quick lunch, heads barely raised over their plates, than teenage kids who place a higher premium on ambience and address, and who, thus, rarely made a beeline for this man’s restaurant.
This quiet man had two or three equally quiet workers, all South Indians, I suspect. They didn’t speak the local language, knew little English but they knew the currency well so there were no problems. The restaurant owner only cooked up a few dishes and a soup each lunch time. Simple food cooked from the heart but they were hearty fare.
And one of those dishes was his South Indian peppery chicken dish which made up our Sunday lunch. The first time I ate it was after a tiring day of shopping, and in a mood not improved by hunger, worsened by the crowds that took up every seat in every other restaurant.
But this little eatery beckoned. Simple seats, small tables, clean floors. Quiet waiters. An even more quiet chef who stood afar and watched us discreetly as he washed up his pots and pans. With the busy street just a few feet away, the quiet of the restaurant was a stark contrast to the rushing and honking all around us. It felt almost like a hidden world that lived alongside busyness and mayhem.
And that day, this man’s chicken touched something deep within me. I’ve never been much of a cook but with a house full of small children with huge appetites, I have little choice but to learn to cook decent meals and to cook them fast. I had the usual go-to chicken recipes but I was on the lookout for something new and the chicken this man made that day was different. I knew he had made it right there in a massive wok in a cubicle just off the seating area but it tasted like it had been cooked in aging stoves in old kitchens with big windows, surrounded by huge trees that waved the sunny breezes inside. The hearty meal took the rough edges off the day, and quietened me enough to savor the peace of the little diner.
The following week, staring at the freshly cut chicken in front of me, I decided to recreate the chicken dish I could barely get out of my head. It turned out well, and it has, each time I’ve cooked it.
Some years later, hankering for some more from him, I made my way back to the eatery but he was gone. I stared dumbly at the restaurant in its place, its new waiters meeting my eyes sullenly.
More than his chicken, I missed the island of quiet he had created, the gentle comfort of good and reasonably priced food, the way he helped me realize I didn’t need to follow the crowd in its frazzled rush. In that little space off the crazy street, he offered respite that rested tired feet and hearts. Quiet and unassuming, he did the work of angels.