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015 Culinary adventures of a broke Indian student in Philly

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

During my four years at the suburban liberal arts college, Haverford, in the early 2000’s, the city of Philadelphia was a saviour. The eateries in Philly were a quick 20 minute train ride ($3 on the R5, and $1.70 on the R100) from college. Fed up with the inedible food at the dining centre, the daily rotation of potatoes - fried, boiled, roasted, mashed, and the tasteless fruits and vegetables, I headed to Philly. Each of the city’s walkable and distinct neighbourhoods offered delicious food, that my hungry self eagerly sought out.

Although the area around U. Penn’s campus was dotted with “Indian” restaurants, their generic orange-yellow gravies, mango lassis, and dimly lit interiors never appealed to me. The dishes they served were a version of the lowest common denominator of what was considered ‘typical’ food from the Indian sub-continent. The naan and butter chicken altered to suit American palettes bore absolutely no resemblance to the food I craved from home. Eating at those joints was akin to taking a student from Italy to Dominoes Pizza!

So what did I do? I unconsciously sought out ‘flavours’ and ‘textures’ that reminded me of home. A typical meal at a restaurant in the ‘posh’ areas of Rittenhouse Square and Olde City would be a minimum of $25, way above my limited student budget. So I hunted out culinary treasures from the fringes of the city, in its ‘ethnic’ neighbourhoods, teeming with food from diverse immigrant communities.

My default stop would be the Malaysian restaurant Penang in Philadelphia’s ChinaTown. I would get off at the Market Street Station and walk over to the crowded streets of ChinaTown which reminded me of the bustle of home. As a student you tend to see the RHS of the menu first - the right hand side :). And one of the first dishes that popped up was ‘roti-canai’, only $5. The name intrigued me - would I be served freshly puffed rotis with ghee? I ordered, and was pleasantly surprised to find something which was a combination of a lachedaar paratha and a Kerala parotha - layered, fluffy, soft and delicious. This was served with a potato gravy which was plenty for my solo lunch. I would swing by the local Chinese bakery next door - K.C. 's Pastries, and get a mind blowing, sweet red-bean stuffed bun and a tapioca bubble tea to round off my meal. Before I was even out of the door, I would pop the platic lid of the bubble-tea cup with my thick straw and happily slurp up the gooey tapioca balls as I hurried back to the Septa train station.

After I graduated, I was awarded a scholarship to live and work in West Philadelphia for a year. This is when I took the deep dive into West Philly’s offerings. My favourite place to relax on a weekend was Kaffa Krossing - a quaint coffee shop that sold fair trade coffee from Ethiopia. But I didn’t go there for the coffee, and instead always ordered the vegetarian ful and injeera. The Ethiopian bread injeera had the same chewy, fluffy texture and slight sourness of a thick dosa from home. And the ful made of fava beans reminded me of my mother’s rajma, made of kidney beans. I was a happy camper devouring injeera and ful.

Other than Ethiopian immigrants, West Philly had a sizable Vietnamese population as well. And my goto order was the “Tofu Hoagie” at the Fu-Wah Vietnamese convenience store. What I loved about this sandwich, a take on the traditional banh mi, was the freshly cut cilantro leaves that were generously sprinkled over the deep-fried, homemade tofu. Just thinking of the squishiness of the bread, the combination of the sour and spicy sauces, and the freshness of the cilantro (coriander leaves), still makes me drool. I would pick up the sandwich, parcelled in white paper, tear it open and walk over to the ‘Green Line’ on my way to the city. These three meals - Roti Canai, Injeera and Ful, and the Tofu Hoagie defined my time as a student in Philadelphia.

What are your ‘student’ food memories, and most favourite eating places from college?

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