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.]
- 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.
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!
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.
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.