By Nivedita Nambrath ’23 for Fall 2020 Issue
Wellesley College often feels like a youthful oasis isolated in a desert of bland, upper-class suburban Massachusetts. Between the campus and Boston, it can seem like there are no exciting or accessible places for students to eat at, except perhaps Lemon Thai. Within my first few months at Wellesley, however, I have indulged in such a surfeit of Lemon Thai takeout at various campus events that I have been sapped of all desire to actually go to the restaurant itself. The only other restaurant in the area that piqued my interest was Singh’s Cafe – a supposedly authentic Indian joint located some two miles out of Wellesley College. Singh’s Cafe has lingered in the back of my mind for the past few months, a tantalizing and elusive possibility of soft butter naans and piquant chicken curries that became all the more tempting when dining hall food went through its occasional bad spells. I didn’t get the opportunity to visit Singh’s Cafe until very recently, however. United by mutual cravings for naan, my friend and I decided to make the journey to Singh’s Cafe on foot. I ventured further out into the Ville than I had ever gone before, and returned with a full belly and a full heart with a sense of triumph from having completed a well-rewarded adventure.
Upon first entering Singh’s Cafe, I certainly felt like I was in an authentic Indian restaurant. A Buddha head in the entryway smiled at me reassuringly as I entered, and the bowls of jeera and peppermints by the front desk indicated right off the bat that Mr. Singh was an Indian restaurateur worth his salt. Looking around the restaurant, the decor reminded me of some kitschy Indian household I had visited as a child – a mix of thrift store paintings and painted Indian statues. The walls were a pale yellow that did little to complement the gold-paint friezes on the walls. It was perhaps a bit tacky, but it was unpretentious and familiar, and it felt like home.
The restaurant offered a buffet as well as a menu option. The buffet had a fairly broad selection of Indian restaurant food staples – some chicken curries, dal, vegetable kormas, and steaming rice pilafs. We chose to order off the menu, where we could get slightly more speciality items. We ended up ordering a fish vindaloo, tandoori tikka chicken, butter naan, and basmati rice, which came with the orders as a side. For beverages, we both ordered mango juice.
The service was excellent, as we didn’t have to wait long for our orders to arrive. The mango juice arrived first. The mango juice was, simply put, delicious. It tasted fresh, tropical, and fruity. The consistency was perfect – not too thick and not too watery. I could tell that it had been lightly enhanced by some sugar syrup. The quantity of added sugar was just right – it gave the juice some extra sparkle without making it too sweet, which is often where mango juices go wrong.
The main food items came soon after. First was the tandoori tikka chicken. The chicken was boneless and cooked to perfection. It was served with a mint chutney, which complemented the hot and spicy flavors of the chicken perfectly. It was a classic recipe executed excellently and ended up being my favorite of the dishes that we ordered.
Next came the naan. Just by looking at them, we could tell that they were going to be disappointing. Well-cooked naans are soft, glistening with ghee or butter. These naans looked dry and perhaps even a little burnt in some places. The naans could certainly have been better, but they did the job. They went well with the tandoori chicken and mint chutney.
The fish vindaloo came next, with the basmati rice.
The basmati rice was perfectly cooked – it was light, fluffy, and a little dewy. It was lightly seasoned with cumin, but not overdone. The light seasoning reminded me of how my mom would add a few spices into basmati rice whenever we were cooking for a special occasion. Because the seasoning wasn’t over the top, the rice reminded me of home-cooked food.
The fish vindaloo was delicious, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really a vindaloo. Vindaloo is a traditional curry that is popular in Goa, Kerala, and other nearby regions along India’s south-west coast. I have had many Kerala fish curries over the years, so I had rather high standards for this vindaloo. Although it was undoubtedly tasty – it was tangy and had a perfect level of spiciness – I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t very authentic. Perhaps it was the overwhelming tomato taste, but something about the flavors and seasoning was not sufficiently balanced for my liking. That said, if someone else who wasn’t so familiar with Southwest-Indian coastal cuisine were to try this fish vindaloo, I am sure that they would have loved it.
The food was scrumptious and very filling, and I packed my leftovers to eat for dinner. As we exited the restaurant and began the walk back home, I savored the sensation of having experienced something that felt so close to home. Indian restaurant food is very different from Indian home cooking, but something about the way Singh’s Cafe was set up made me feel less like I was in a restaurant, and more like I was at a family friend’s house. Although I am so far away from the Indian-American community that I was raised in, eating at Singh’s made me remember the warm feelings of eating a good meal in the company of my community. Passing by the colonial buildings and Tudor facades, I felt warm knowing that not far away, in a cafe down the road, there was a place that held a little piece of home.