I began conducting walking tours of Devon, or Chicago's Little India, after reading a friend's Facebook post.
She loved the recipes in my cookbooks but was unfamiliar with the spices and some key ingredients. She wanted to cook Indian, but was thoroughly intimidated to drive to Devon herself.
A week later, I was offering personal, walking spice tours of Chicago's culturally diverse but very South Asian neighborhood in West Rogers Park, tucked between Ravenswood and California Avenues. This stretch is SO like India, that my husband (who is Indian-American like myself) refuses to go there on weekends when traffic and congestion are at their worst and most like navigating a Delhi market.
I love conducting these tours not just for amazing 'aha' moments from the folks with me as I walk them through various grocery store aisles, restaurants, sweet shops, and handicraft stores, but also because of the new things I myself continue to discover.
One of my favorite finds is Kumar, the 'juice guy'. Originally from Sri Lanka, he mans the fresh juice bar at Fresh Farms International Market at 2626 W. Devon Ave. - one of THE best places in Chicago for fresh, cheap produce.
Walk in the main door, veer to the left away from the produce, and you'll usually find him manning the booth and the very large, overused juicer. (It has broken down a few times working on my order.)
I've become such a regular, that whenever he's working and I happen to walk by his window, he'll knock to get my attention and give me a thumbs up. It's our super secret signal that when I come by again, he'll have a large 'Kumar's Green Juice' waiting for me.
It's made greener with an Indian twist. He uses everything from celery, cucumbers, carrots, apples, a touch of orange juice, and..a vegetable I guarantee you've never had: Karela. If you're unfamiliar with the last one, you're not alone. In the West, bitter gourd (it looks like a severely wrinkled cucumber and tastes just like its name suggests) is rarely used. But in India, especially the state of Punjab, it's cooked up regularly and considered a vegetarian delicacy. It has severe bitter undertones that make it an acquired taste, but also make it an amazing blood cleanser.
Bitter gourd is known to be high in vitamin C and have elements that reduce blood sugar levels among a variety of other health benefits. Most people have no idea how to add this vegetable to their diet, but juicing is one easy and delicious way.
So the next time you visit Devon, don't just leave with a bag of groceries. Leave with a juice in hand. A large will only set you back about $4, and it's totally worth it. If you chat Kumar up a bit - he may even give you the recipe on a photocopied sheet that he produces at his own whim.
And, do as I do. Beg. Beg. Beg him to add a little 'extra' karela. Maybe - just maybe - it'll offset all the other treats you'll munch on along the way on your own Devon tour.
For more information on scheduling a Spice Tour with Anupy pop onto: www.indianasapplepie.com.