Image: Writing and Reading Tools Volume 14 Deborah Forteza
 

Monsoon: Winds of Culture

By Jennifer Cha

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My favorite Indian eatery, Monsoon, is more of a hidden shack than the Taj Mahal, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Tucked away in the corner of a typical suburban strip mall in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, its neon sign first caught my eye years ago in my sophomore year of high school. I'd been frantically rushing to get to the town library before it closed and intended to grab a few samosas to munch on the way there. My hair still dripping from the shower I had taken minutes before, I charged through the front door but stopped suddenly mid-stride. I admired the venue in astonishment, mesmerized and a little disoriented. Had I run into a wormhole in space and landed in India? I might as well have. Monsoon is infinitely more than a means to fill the stomach, but rather a complete (and utterly sublime) immersion into the Indian culture via atmosphere, cuisine, and service—a culinary experience in the true sense of the phrase.

When I stumbled across Monsoon that first night, I'd been expecting the plastic counter and linoleum floors of the usual Indian takeout joint, but I couldn't have been greeted with a more dissimilar sight. The tables appeared as floating islands, each illumed with an effusive, mysterious glow by a cerulean glass lamp. The tablecloths, stitched from swatches of vibrantly colored linen, draped off the square tables stiffly, resembling a woman's crinolined skirt from a bygone era. A web of tiny tea lights cast across the ceiling like a canopy of stars delivered a gentle radiance to the dimly lit room. Exquisite wall tapestries canvassed the walls with the audacity to steal attention from the arresting aroma of coriander and exotic spices, which teased the nose and rattled the stomach. The tapestries' intricate designs, meticulously woven in classical geometric style, sung stories that seemed to have neither beginning nor end. Atop of a ledge by the kitchen sat a brushed silver statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of success, gazing with his enigmatic stare upon this microcosm of India. All this I took in with the wide eyes of a tourist in a new land, having forgotten all my mundane worries about getting to the library in time. Monsoon's remarkable attention to detail creates an atmosphere both whimsical and genuine, immersing its patrons into culture. Even now, after having eaten there many times, I feel like I've been transported thousands of miles to India every time I go.

On any given night, Monsoon hires various live instrumentalists versed in Indian classical music to complement its stunning visual decor. In my opinion, Monsoon's live music truly sets it apart from other restaurants, which may look aesthetically pleasing but offer no further cultural dimension. Live music adds another facet to Monsoon's overarching goal of cultural immersion. Something about the timbre of a plucked sitar string or the multi-pitched constant rhythm of the tabla (upright, tri-surface drums endemic to Northern India) ignites a spark of joie de vivre. In between the notes of a playful ditty, Ganesha's enigmatic eyes seem to crinkle a bit at the corners. The musicians play mostly Indian classical music, but sometimes improvise renditions of Bollywood or modern songs as well. In one instance, an alum of the University of Pennsylvania's all-male Indian a capella group Penn Masala broke out into a Bengali version of Jay Sean's "Down," accompanied by a backup singer beatboxing and a sitarist ad-libbing chords, to great applause from the patrons that night.

Though music may be food for the soul, it is no replacement for actual sustenance. Luckily, Monsoon excels in providing both. Their traditional Indian fare, both delicious and authentic, stuns the palette. (Though with the average entree priced at about $15, sometimes I have to be careful that the bill doesn't stun my wallet, as well.) One of my favorite dishes is also one of the most common in Indian cuisine: the humble samosa. A crispy fried turnover with spicy potato and pea filling, the samosa may one of the most simple recipes, but it is also one of the most abused. Because of the samosa's popularity, there are many frozen varieties available, which Indian restaurants sometimes heat up and try to pass off as the freshly made "real thing," served with store-bought chutney (dipping sauce). In contrast, Monsoon's samosas are made every day from scratch, as well as their complementary chutneys. The chefs make sure to grind the coriander and other spices fresh, as dictated by traditional recipes. The difference, upon first crunchy bite, is in the release of flavor like a cannonball exploding from its unassuming metal shell. Another one of my favorite dishes, the House Tandoori Chicken, is braised in a yogurt masala base with garlic and curry leaves and roots in ghee (pure golden fat), dusted with paprika and powdered mem jolokia pepper (one of the hottest peppers in the world), and baked in a tandoor oven (traditional cylindrical clay oven). Characterized by its bright red-orange hue (induced by chili powder), when cooked correctly, the resulting tandoori chicken falls apart in the mouth with a perfectly harmonizing flavor trio of coriander, garlic and cayenne sinking into the meat without it being overwhelmed by the mem jolokia's spiciness. Though Americanized versions of the Tandoori Chicken dish tend to substitute the ghee and yogurt for more Western additives such as butter and cream, Monsoon prides itself on maintaining the use of fully Indian recipes. By staying faithful to Indian preparation techniques despite the lure of convenient shortcuts, chefs at Monsoon create exquisitely delicious dishes while preserving the dishes' authenticity.

I know these details not because I am an expert on Indian cuisine, but because the servers often inform me so of their own volition when I ask about items on the menu. I can tell that they genuinely want patrons to have a cultural experience. Dressed in traditional Indian costume, they often give the back story on the dishes ordered, or on any aspect of Indian culture they are knowledgeable about. Paulomi, my favorite server, is always happy to answer questions I have about the food and the servers' dress. She and the female servers usually wear their hair in a long braid, sometimes with ribbon or flowers weaved in, and don either a sari or the more informal salwar kameez, a two-piece outfit consisting of a long tunic and loose trousers with tapered legs. According to Paulomi, the saris they wear as servers do not strictly resemble the magnificent, ornately embroidered saris often seen in Bollywood movies, as one might expect. Though the servers' saris are often in bright, jewel-toned hues, the cotton material (rather than silk) allows for a more utilitarian wearing of the regal vestment. Both male and female servers wear the salwar kameez, which was popularized by the modern Indian generation which preferred to retain their Indian dress while gaining the mobility inherent in Western clothing. In fact, I remember Paulomi once mentioning her cousin Parvati back home in India, who struggles with her ultra-conservative parents about donning Western clothing instead of the traditional Indian dress. In the midst of what feels like Little India, all at once I feel almost a part of the Indian youths' cultural movement.

When I cannot bring myself to eat another bite of Tandoori chicken, I pay the bill and walk out into the real world, feeling like I'm flying back home after a trip to India. I notice that a Chinese takeout place occupies the lot next door to Monsoon and almost laugh, amused at that ironic juxtaposition. The American, or the "Fast Food Way," is to demand of everything "more, now, and dirt cheap." In seeking quantity and speed over quality, we've lost sight of the value of the process, of the journey rather than the destination. In eating at Monsoon, I've taken an alternative route to the "Fast Food Way," a path of eating intelligently and open-mindedly, and I've learned that food is but a petal on the proverbial flower of culture. I look back at Monsoon from outside. Though the small storefront display seems plain at first, the neon blue letters that comprise the title sign glow with a soft, enticing radiance. The legs of the perfectly kerned "m" and "n" letters stretch out indulgently, as if saying "goodbye, we'll see you soon."

My favorite Indian eatery, Monsoon, is more of a hidden shack than the Taj Mahal, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Tucked away in the corner of a typical suburban strip mall in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, its neon sign first caught my eye years ago in my sophomore year of high school. I'd been frantically rushing to get to the town library before it closed and intended to grab a few samosas to munch on the way there. My hair still dripping from the shower I had taken minutes before, I charged through the front door but stopped suddenly mid-stride. I admired the venue in astonishment, mesmerized and a little disoriented. Had I run into a wormhole in space and landed in India? I might as well have. Monsoon is infinitely more than a means to fill the stomach, but rather a complete (and utterly sublime) immersion into the Indian culture via atmosphere, cuisine, and service—a culinary experience in the true sense of the phrase.

When I stumbled across Monsoon that first night, I'd been expecting the plastic counter and linoleum floors of the usual Indian takeout joint, but I couldn't have been greeted with a more dissimilar sight. The tables appeared as floating islands, each illumed with an effusive, mysterious glow by a cerulean glass lamp. The tablecloths, stitched from swatches of vibrantly colored linen, draped off the square tables stiffly, resembling a woman's crinolined skirt from a bygone era. A web of tiny tea lights cast across the ceiling like a canopy of stars delivered a gentle radiance to the dimly lit room. Exquisite wall tapestries canvassed the walls with the audacity to steal attention from the arresting aroma of coriander and exotic spices, which teased the nose and rattled the stomach. The tapestries' intricate designs, meticulously woven in classical geometric style, sung stories that seemed to have neither beginning nor end. Atop of a ledge by the kitchen sat a brushed silver statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of success, gazing with his enigmatic stare upon this microcosm of India. All this I took in with the wide eyes of a tourist in a new land, having forgotten all my mundane worries about getting to the library in time. Monsoon's remarkable attention to detail creates an atmosphere both whimsical and genuine, immersing its patrons into culture. Even now, after having eaten there many times, I feel like I've been transported thousands of miles to India every time I go.

On any given night, Monsoon hires various live instrumentalists versed in Indian classical music to complement its stunning visual decor. In my opinion, Monsoon's live music truly sets it apart from other restaurants, which may look aesthetically pleasing but offer no further cultural dimension. Live music adds another facet to Monsoon's overarching goal of cultural immersion. Something about the timbre of a plucked sitar string or the multi-pitched constant rhythm of the tabla (upright, tri-surface drums endemic to Northern India) ignites a spark of joie de vivre. In between the notes of a playful ditty, Ganesha's enigmatic eyes seem to crinkle a bit at the corners. The musicians play mostly Indian classical music, but sometimes improvise renditions of Bollywood or modern songs as well. In one instance, an alum of the University of Pennsylvania's all-male Indian a capella group Penn Masala broke out into a Bengali version of Jay Sean's "Down," accompanied by a backup singer beatboxing and a sitarist ad-libbing chords, to great applause from the patrons that night.

Though music may be food for the soul, it is no replacement for actual sustenance. Luckily, Monsoon excels in providing both. Their traditional Indian fare, both delicious and authentic, stuns the palette. (Though with the average entree priced at about $15, sometimes I have to be careful that the bill doesn't stun my wallet, as well.) One of my favorite dishes is also one of the most common in Indian cuisine: the humble samosa. A crispy fried turnover with spicy potato and pea filling, the samosa may one of the most simple recipes, but it is also one of the most abused. Because of the samosa's popularity, there are many frozen varieties available, which Indian restaurants sometimes heat up and try to pass off as the freshly made "real thing," served with store-bought chutney (dipping sauce). In contrast, Monsoon's samosas are made every day from scratch, as well as their complementary chutneys. The chefs make sure to grind the coriander and other spices fresh, as dictated by traditional recipes. The difference, upon first crunchy bite, is in the release of flavor like a cannonball exploding from its unassuming metal shell. Another one of my favorite dishes, the House Tandoori Chicken, is braised in a yogurt masala base with garlic and curry leaves and roots in ghee (pure golden fat), dusted with paprika and powdered mem jolokia pepper (one of the hottest peppers in the world), and baked in a tandoor oven (traditional cylindrical clay oven). Characterized by its bright red-orange hue (induced by chili powder), when cooked correctly, the resulting tandoori chicken falls apart in the mouth with a perfectly harmonizing flavor trio of coriander, garlic and cayenne sinking into the meat without it being overwhelmed by the mem jolokia's spiciness. Though Americanized versions of the Tandoori Chicken dish tend to substitute the ghee and yogurt for more Western additives such as butter and cream, Monsoon prides itself on maintaining the use of fully Indian recipes. By staying faithful to Indian preparation techniques despite the lure of convenient shortcuts, chefs at Monsoon create exquisitely delicious dishes while preserving the dishes' authenticity.

I know these details not because I am an expert on Indian cuisine, but because the servers often inform me so of their own volition when I ask about items on the menu. I can tell that they genuinely want patrons to have a cultural experience. Dressed in traditional Indian costume, they often give the back story on the dishes ordered, or on any aspect of Indian culture they are knowledgeable about. Paulomi, my favorite server, is always happy to answer questions I have about the food and the servers' dress. She and the female servers usually wear their hair in a long braid, sometimes with ribbon or flowers weaved in, and don either a sari or the more informal salwar kameez, a two-piece outfit consisting of a long tunic and loose trousers with tapered legs. According to Paulomi, the saris they wear as servers do not strictly resemble the magnificent, ornately embroidered saris often seen in Bollywood movies, as one might expect. Though the servers' saris are often in bright, jewel-toned hues, the cotton material (rather than silk) allows for a more utilitarian wearing of the regal vestment. Both male and female servers wear the salwar kameez, which was popularized by the modern Indian generation which preferred to retain their Indian dress while gaining the mobility inherent in Western clothing. In fact, I remember Paulomi once mentioning her cousin Parvati back home in India, who struggles with her ultra-conservative parents about donning Western clothing instead of the traditional Indian dress. In the midst of what feels like Little India, all at once I feel almost a part of the Indian youths' cultural movement.

When I cannot bring myself to eat another bite of Tandoori chicken, I pay the bill and walk out into the real world, feeling like I'm flying back home after a trip to India. I notice that a Chinese takeout place occupies the lot next door to Monsoon and almost laugh, amused at that ironic juxtaposition. The American, or the "Fast Food Way," is to demand of everything "more, now, and dirt cheap." In seeking quantity and speed over quality, we've lost sight of the value of the process, of the journey rather than the destination. In eating at Monsoon, I've taken an alternative route to the "Fast Food Way," a path of eating intelligently and open-mindedly, and I've learned that food is but a petal on the proverbial flower of culture. I look back at Monsoon from outside. Though the small storefront display seems plain at first, the neon blue letters that comprise the title sign glow with a soft, enticing radiance. The legs of the perfectly kerned "m" and "n" letters stretch out indulgently, as if saying "goodbye, we'll see you soon."