by Elissa Karg
"I love to cook," declares Thilagam Pandian. The statement explains why Pandian gave up a job in medical records and opened a restaurant two years ago.
The simplicity of Pandian’s words contrasts with both the complexity of Indian cooking and the difficulty of running a successful restaurant. Udipi reflects the cooking of Pandian’s native state of Madras in southern India.
Located along a stretch of Orchard Lake Road that is home to several Indian restaurants, Udipi is the only vegetarian one. We began dinner with an appetizer of vada, a savory donut made of lentil flour and dotted with bright green cilantro. Two soups are offered. Rasam, a tamarind broth, is very spicy; we pulled a half-dozen red chili peppers out of the bowl. The tomato soup is less adventurous but tasty.
When we got to the entrées, I did not miss the meat, but my carnivorous co-diner grumbled as he ordered a vegetable curry cooked in coconut and yogurt. We also had uppuma, which was cream of wheat with a confetti of peas, lentils and cashews cooked into it. Unusual and delicious.
My next meal at Udipi was in the company of a vegetarian who enjoyed having free rein of the menu. We ordered dosa, a crêpe made of rice flour, which was filled to overflowing with tomatoes, potatoes and onions.
One afternoon I stopped by Udipi and Pandian described the tandoori oven in which they bake naan, a papery thin bread. "It bakes on the side of the oven," she said.
This I had to see. Pandian took me into the kitchen. The tandoori oven is lined with clay and heated with charcoal. The cook (who spelled his name carefully for me Nasarden) took a baseball-sized lump of dough and pressed it with his fingertips into a circle bigger than a dinner plate. Then he dipped his fingers into a bowl of water and tapped them onto the bread. It was just enough moisture to make the loaf adhere to the side of the oven. Immediately, it puffed and blistered. A moment later, it was done.
At the next station, dosai are cooked on a well-seasoned griddle. The grill is prepped with water and then painted with batter applied with a wide brush. After the crêpe is flipped, it is brushed lightly with oil, which gives it a rich taste without excessive use of fat.
At the next stovetop a wok full of hot oil is used to cook the vada we had enjoyed as an appetizer. A bubbling cauldron was at the end of this row.
"What’s this?" I asked, peering into the milky liquid. A cheese is made with milk and vinegar then boiled in a sugar syrup and served as dessert, Pandian explained.
Indian cooking is labor intensive and full of esoteric ingredients that can overwhelm American cooks, so I am content to let Thilagam Pandian do what she loves to do. If you are a more adventurous cook than I am, Pandian has written a privately published cookbook, for sale at the restaurant for $12.