No meat is allowed in Udupi Palace, a Hindu restaurant on Devon Avenue. But forget about a sense of abstinence or self-denial–Udupi Palace offers food up as a celebration. There are simmering curries, giant rice crepes filled with sumptuous vegetables, and puffy fried bread accompanied by jubilant chickpeas. Clearly something joyous of the culinary kind is transpiring amid the long rows of tables, the unobtrusive opulence of the marble wall tiles, and the shimmering yet discreet chandeliers.
Named after a south Indian town famous for its Hindu priests’ cooking, Udupi is the brainchild of Jagdish Khatwani, who knew nothing about the restaurant business when he started. He still leaves the kitchen to his three south Indian chefs, who guard the mysteries of their spice mixtures with a vigilance that amuses even their employer. Khatwani is poised to open another Udupi in Schaumburg in January, and he also runs India Sari Palace and the restaurant Tiffin, both a stone’s throw from Udupi. Khatwani can switch from Indian fashion to Indian food in a flash, but he’s a quiet force whose ability to hopscotch through business landscapes is a lesson in the power of his Sindhi background.
The Sindhis–a Hindu people who value vegetarianism, hospitality, and community–lost their homeland to Pakistan with the 1947 partition of India. They migrated across the subcontinent and around the globe. As far back as he can remember, Khatwani’s relatives were in business. “You will find Sindhi people all over the world, in every kind of business. Wherever business is, they will follow.”
Khatwani was born in Jaipur (the “Pink City”) in 1947. By age 18 he had moved to Hong Kong to work as a clothing designer for his uncle’s company, India Emporium, Ltd. From there he traveled around the world as a custom designer, measuring men and women in hotel rooms, showing them designs and fabrics from France, India, and Japan, and sending orders back to Hong Kong, where they were turned into garments. Khatwani has worked his craft in Yokohama, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and London.
In 1985, after a stint in New York, he came to Chicago to manage the India Sari Palace, which his uncle started in Hong Kong before the Second World War; the Chicago branch opened in 1972. Khatwani opened Udupi in 1993, studied restaurant administration at DePaul for a year, then opened Tiffin in 1995. “If you really work hard and have the heart for it, I think success is there,” he says. “From fabric, I went into restaurants. I don’t know where I am going next.”
Udupi was profitable after the first year, and the restaurant’s interior sports statues of Ganesha, lord of prosperity and business, and Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, along with a likeness of Lord Krishna cavorting with his playmate Radha. But for all his business acumen, Khatwani exhibits concern about the propagation of Sindhi culture. “The grandchildren don’t know anything about the culture until they read it,” he says. Khatwani’s children are assimilated Americans who work in computers and are not vegetarians.
In most Hindu practice, forgoing meat, fish, or eggs is a way of bringing no harm to living things and is good for one’s karma. One eats no more than is necessary with the blessings of Krishna, who absolves one from the guilt of eating vegetables–also living things.
Udupi Palace provides a unique glimpse into the old ways, offering dishes from three or four south Indian provinces, including Tamil Nadu, home to the city of Chennai (formerly Madras). Perhaps it is the dosai, or thin rice crepes, that are most memorable on first visit; “paper masala dosai” come to the table rolled up like gigantic pieces of parchment, filled with potatoes and onions. Channa batura are large rounds of fried bread served with chickpeas cooked in chilies and spices. Appetizers run the gamut from steamed white-rice-and-lentil patties known as kancheepuram iddly–cooked in large steamers 100 at a time and garnished with cashews, carrots, and coriander–to fried lentil doughnuts called vada and vegetables fried in chickpea flour (pakoras). The Mysore Royal Thali sampler encompasses the six tastes of the Ayurvedic tradition: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent, and bitter. It includes avial, a vegetable coconut curry, rasam, a traditional south Indian sour and spicy soup, curd (yogurt), lemon pickle, and orange pappadam, crispy wafers made from lentil and rice flour.
Many of the dishes have been toned down for the American palate, Khatwani confides. “Back home everything is spicy. Over here you have to do some mild and some spicy.” While the venerated cow is not consumed, its products figure heavily in the abundance of cooling yogurt and clarified butter (ghee) and in south Indian specialities such as malai kofta (fresh cottage cheese croquettes in a tangy tomato and cream sauce). Meals finish with joyous desserts like carrot halwa, grated carrots cooked in honey and butter, or the equally exotic badam halwa, featuring ground almonds.
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it,” reads a line from the Bhagavad Gita. In these difficult times, every act of nourishment is a gift.
Udupi Palace is at 2543 W. Devon, 773-338-2152.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.