A taste of Chicago’s Little India with Spice of Life Tours

Even though I’ve lived in Chicago my entire life, and I proudly make every attempt to get to know as much of the city as possible, there still are certain neighborhoods that remain a mystery to me. One such spot is “Little India”, on the far north side of the city, the heart of which is busy Devon Avenue. I’d been there two or three times before but much of it remained unfamiliar and, I must admit, a bit intimidating.

That is until I was invited to join a walking tour of Devon Avenue by Spice of Life Tours. I thought, Perfect opportunity to explore one of the more vibrant Chicago neighborhoods and get to know it better. And I’d get to spend a good part of the day with some of my friends (Pola of Jetting Around and Traveling Ted), eating delicious food, and learning about different cultures and customs. That’s a winning combo, right there.

Spice of Life Tours is owned and operated by Mohammad Ali, who was born in Pakistan and grew up right there on Devon Avenue. Mohammad’s day job is high school history teacher in suburban Chicago, and his enthusiasm for history and culture is evident in his tour and presentation. Mohammad started Spice of Life to “inspire” visitors and locals “to enjoy delicious ethnic foods of South Asia and diverse cultural experiences”. I was inspired, that’s for sure!

Our group met at India Book House (2551 W. Devon Ave.) for an introduction and “appetizers”. Mohammad talked to us about the history and evolution of Devon Avenue, and why many Chicagoans (like myself) are not very familiar with the neighborhood. One reason is that it is not too convenient to reach via public transportation. There is no L stop nearby, though it is accessible by CTA bus, and there is metered street parking and a public parking garage. Mohammad also said exactly what I’d felt, about why I hadn’t ventured into Little India more often on my own: the cultural etiquette and the neighborhood itself can be intimidating. It’s another reason Mohammad began the walking food tour; as he said, the “best thing to bring people together is food.”

And food there was! Mohammad set out a collection of delicacies from Devon Avenue restaurants at India Book House for us to try before we got to walking. Not only did we get to taste each item but we also learned where in India it originated. As Mohammad said, just as the language dialects in India change every fifty miles, so does the food (that still blows my mind). Here’s what we sampled at India Book House:

  • Samosas: the very popular North Indian flaky pastry, eaten with mint and tamarind chutneys.
  • Aalo tikki: a potato cutlet from the West India state of Gujarat. [Sidebar, and my favorite factoid of the day: Mohammad told us that the third most-spoken language in Canada, after English and French, is Punjabi. We know the stereotype, that Canadians love their hockey, so oftentimes hockey games in Canada are broadcast in Punjabi. As you can imagine, there are hockey-related words that don’t have literal Punjabi translations, one being hockey puck. So someone (I can only imagine it was a creative Punjabi-speaking, hockey-loving Canadian) decided that the Punjabi word for hockey puck shall be aalo tikki. You can see why in the picture below.]
Samosas and hockey pucks - er, aalo tikki

Samosas and hockey pucks – er, aalo tikki

  • Paani puri: fried puffed dough that most likely originated in South/Southwest India and is a popular street food. One does not just pop these little, puffy saucers into his/her mouth – oh, no. There is a whole system and even a specific stance that must be employed when enjoying paani puri. See for yourself as the illustrious Traveling Ted demonstrated.
  • Gulab jamun: traditional Indian dessert that would remind most Americans of doughnut holes, or Munchkins. These sweet, spongy balls of goodness are fried and then soaked in rosewater, and served with sugar, honey, and shaved coconut. To.Die.For.
  • Burfi: another traditional dessert that can be compared to carrot cake. I have to say that I was not a fan of the burfi. The taste was manageable but I could not handle the texture. It’s rather mushy as it consists of solidified condensed milk and sugar. In that department, it reminded me of tres leches cake, which is another dessert that I regularly take a pass on.
Pola & I

Pola & I

After stuffing our brains with interesting information and our faces with (mostly) delicious goodies, it was time to start walking. Our first stop down Devon Avenue was Sahil, a colorful boutique offering the latest, traditional Indian fashion for women and men. The colors and materials of the clothing are a delight to the senses. We learned from Mohammad that “Indian culture is all about identity,” and one way Indians can express their identity is through their clothing. The different styles and ornamentation on the garments indicate where in India a person is from. We in the tour group were made to feel like royalty, as we were allowed to try on and model traditional wedding attire. The gorgeous red sari I was draped in was elegant and flowing and I was too scared to move while wearing it; I feared I would trip on the delicate garment and ruin it! Thankfully nothing (and no one) was damaged and the outfits made for some fun pictures!

Next stop was Roopkala Beauty Salon (2611 W. Devon Ave.), where we were made even prettier with traditional henna tattoos. Our henna artist moved quickly and with amazing detail. My tattoo lasted for well over a week!

My & Pola's henna tattoos

My & Pola’s henna tattoos

The pampering came to an end and it was time to start eating again. We made our way to Tiffin which offers mostly North Indian cuisine. We were treated to a feast of biryani (rice pilaf); palak paneer (spinach and cheese in a thick curry sauce and OH SO DELICIOUS!); raita (yogurt sauce/condiment, which I wanted to drink straight from the bowl); dal (a lentil-based dish); chicken makhani (aka butter chicken – yes, it’s as wonderful as the name implies); korma (creamy and flavorful vegetarian offering); and, of course, naan and chapati (read: BREAD). And because all of that wasn’t delicious and filling enough, we ended it with a creamy, orange-flavored ice cream kind of treat, served in a frozen, hollowed out orange and topped with whipped cream. Writing about this dining experience makes me want to drop everything and drive up to Tiffin right now. Yes, it was that incredible.

So much yum at Tiffin

So much yum at Tiffin

Properly stuffed, we made a few stops that involved walking a bit and no food. We visited a Sikh temple, the only one in Chicago, where we had to take off our shoes and cover our heads. A ceremony had just ended but we were still invited to have a look around. We then stopped in at Resham’s (2540 W. Devon Ave.), a shop featuring handicrafts, clothing, and home decor, all made in and brought over from India. Prices at Resham’s are fixed (meaning, no haggling) and entirely reasonable. I could have easily spent hours in that shop, trying to take in the thousands of items on display.

All the shopping and walking made us hungry once again (OMG, the sarcasm) so we visited JK Kabab House (6412 N. Rockwell Street). All day long, Mohammad referred to it as “the BBQ restaurant” so I was expecting, you know, BBQ. Not quite, but so not disappointing. We were treated to an array of grilled meats with the accompanying bread and sauces. If I weren’t still so stuffed from our earlier feast at Tiffin, I probably would have eaten everything. Only thing I did not care for was Pakola, Pakistani cream soda. It had a weird, almost floral taste to it and I could not handle more than a few sips.

Our group made one last stop at Patel’s Cafe. I was tempted there by the delicious looking sweets in the display cases, but there was no way I could eat another thing. Instead, we all enjoyed fresh coconut water – right from our very own coconuts. It was a struggle for me to even drink the water, after having enjoyed so much food throughout the day, so I brought it home. Lucia was intrigued and made me crack it open entirely. She wasn’t so much a fan of the gelatinous fruit on the inside.

I said my good-byes to the group at Patel’s and left the Spice of Life Tour blissfully stuffed and exhausted. It was an ideal way to get to know one of Chicago’s most animated and bustling neighborhoods, even for this lifelong Chicagoan. Whether you live here or you’re visiting and you’re looking for a unique experience – something beyond Millennium Park and Wrigleyville – strongly consider a Spice of Life Tour of Devon Avenue.

This Spice of Life food tour was complimentary. All the delicious food, the knowledge acquired – and even the five pounds gained – in no way swayed me to write a positive review. All words, thoughts, and opinions are honest and my own.

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13 Responses to A taste of Chicago’s Little India with Spice of Life Tours

  1. @mrsoaroundworld December 17, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Sounds like a fab day out! I adore Indian food (it is a staple here in England) and would never think there would be such thing as a Little India in Chicago. Love the henna 😉
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted…A lux weekend in RomeMy Profile

  2. Lance | Trips By Lance December 17, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    I love Indian food, although it to a recent trip to England to be convinced. Our British cousins showed us all about the fabulous late-night curries. Now living in Memphis, we actually have a good-sized Indian population and several good restaurants. I plan on being in Chicago once or twice in the next year. This will be great. My wife loves Indian food.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted…Christmas Travel Wish ListMy Profile

  3. Karl December 18, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Good to know, since my brothers family lives out in Chicago I am there at least a few times a year. I will buy the coffee if we ever get the chance to swap stories in the Windy City.
    Karl recently posted…Getting from Prague Airport (Václav Haveld) to the CityMy Profile

  4. Leah December 18, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    This is awesome! I love Indian food, henna tattoos, and the fact that all of this is right in Chicago. I agree with Mr. Ali, the best thing to bring people together is food, which is evidenced by your day with Ted and Pola. I’m so very jealous.
    Leah recently posted…Hong Kong Market Hopping with Kensington ToursMy Profile

  5. Erin at The World Wanderer December 19, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    I love all things India, so Little India, and a tour like this is definitely something I know I would enjoy. You look fabulous in that sari, by the way. Next time I come to Chicago, I am definitely doing this. That food looks amazing!
    Erin at The World Wanderer recently posted…Irish Brown Bread.My Profile

  6. Pola (Jetting Around) December 20, 2013 at 1:03 am #

    You described the day in such great detail, Francesca! It was really a pleasure to read – and relive the experience. Even Chicago’s crazy rainstorm couldn’t stop us from having fun!

    This is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Chicago and despite being hard to reach for visitors (and those on the other side of the city), it’s definitely worth a visit. The food, the clothes, and the spice stores are fantastic.

    I recently got another henna tattoo and I have a feeling it’s not the last. Thanks for posting that photo of us – love it!
    Pola (Jetting Around) recently posted…Back to school: FrenchMy Profile

  7. Aggy December 20, 2013 at 2:22 am #

    I love this! The food is mouth watering and your henna tattoos are absolutely gorgeous. It’s amazing how much things you learn from your own neighbourhood 😉
    Aggy recently posted…Bucharest Christmas MarketMy Profile

  8. the lazy travelers December 20, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    as much as we try to avoid structured tours, we’re suckers for food tours because they always take us to neighborhoods that we may not otherwise explore on our own. AND, you always end up learning the most bizarre fun facts (like the aalo tikki/ hockey puck story– love that). also, way jeally you got to spend time with pola & ted! xo, the wino
    the lazy travelers recently posted…six lessons i’ve learned as an english speaking expatMy Profile

  9. Traveling Ted December 21, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    I agree with Pola. Excellent detailed description of the day. I can tell who took notes. I had two incredible Indian feasts overseas: one in Kuala Lumpur and one in Singapore. I have also had tasty Indian food in the Caribbean and South America. It is amazing how influential Indian food is. Now I just have to get to India. Thanks for the link. I will repay the favor and link this to my review.
    Traveling Ted recently posted…Khao Yai overlook with adopted family in ThailandMy Profile

  10. lola December 22, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    Really LOVE your henna tattoo Francesca! so fun.
    lola recently posted…New York City – One of My Favorite City BreaksMy Profile

  11. Raul (@ilivetotravel) December 22, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    You have made me VERY hungry. And next time I go visit you all in Chi-town, I should sample all the great stuff you have filled my eyes with!
    Raul (@ilivetotravel) recently posted…2013: A Year in Food and BeveragesMy Profile

  12. Tom @ Waegook Tom December 22, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    This sounds like a fantastic tour! I’ve only ever done one food tour before (the Eating London Food Tour) and absolutely loved it. A tour of just Indian food? YES PLEASE. I’m from a region of the world which has a load of great Indian food (Yorkshire…seriously! large Indian/Pakistani population) and could eat the stuff all day.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted…New Mexican Cuisine: Red, Green or Christmas?My Profile

  13. Beverage Manufacturing February 24, 2014 at 6:40 am #

    Thanks for this blog, I love Indian food too much and it’s my favorite. I am an Indian and I know how tasty it is . It’s true that we Indians like spicy in our food, without spices we can’t imagine about the food. I really feel happy to read your blog and comments of other commentators really so good.

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