Berkeley's Little India

By Lisa Tsering
Reno Air "Approach"
November 1998

BERKELEY — Foodies and fashion trendsetters alike are looking East.

The flavors of India — chai, intriguing spice mixes, even the hand-rolled leaf cigarettes called beedies — are enjoying a surge in popularity. And San Francisco's lovers of exotica know that a trip to Berkeley’s Little India — a hop over the Bay Bridge — is like a trip into another world.

Bazaar of India (1810 University Ave.) offers an easy entree to the oft-bewildering selection of Indian merchandise. Rows of glittering bangles and fragrant incense, bottled chutneys and spice pastes — and one of the Bay Area’s largest collection of books from India — make this bright and cheerful shop a good place to start. The best days to visit are Fridays and Saturdays after noon, when their mehndi (henna) artist is in residence. Mehndi, a temporary, all-natural tattoo of ornate Eastern design, is a fashion favorite with Madonna, the artist formerly known as Prince, and trend-setters from Manhattan to Melrose Avenue.

Bombay Music House, at 1038 University Ave., is the best place around to pick up a cassette of bhangra, the rowdy and rollicking folk music of Punjab, India. Adventurous types may want to try Bombay’s shrill, funky film music; qawaali, passionate Sufi songs made famous by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; or just a collection of raagas played on the sitar — at less than $5 per cassette, it’s hard to go wrong.

Many Indian women don’t feel dressed unless they’re wearing a bindi, a small colorful dot worn over the “third eye.” Roopam Sarees (1044 University Ave.) has an impressive array of bejeweled, adhesive-backed bindis, as well as long colorful scarves and comfortable cotton pajama suits for men and women.

At the Western end of University Ave. lies Milan, a darker, more mysterious shopping experience. Notable for its selection of over two dozen bulk spices — including delicate green cardamom pods and their pungent cousins, inch-long black cardamom (delicious in biryani, a festive rice dish) — as well as fresh coconuts, chilis and mangoes, the slightly dim and dusty Milan also carries premixed masalas, or spice packets, for under $2. (990 University Ave.)

Vik's Chaat Corner, two blocks from University Ave., draws crowds from all over the Bay Area for masala dosa (a crispy crepe stuffed with spiced potatoes), chicken kathi kabob (chicken stewed with onions and cilantro and rolled into naan bread), and classic snack foods like pakoras (India's take on tempura).

Indians and Westerners pack the place on the weekends, overlooking the spartan concrete floors and florescent lights to concentrate on some of the tastiest — and cheapest — Indian food around, or just to relax with a cup of chai, the milky black tea spiked with ginger and cardamom (726 Allston Way).

As they say in Hindi, bahut achcha (very good)!

Lisa Tsering