One of the new foodie friends I’ve made in Orlando is Isha Shah, the influencer who runs the Will Fly For Chai Facebook and Instagram accounts. She is an excellent photographer, a top-notch writer with exquisite taste, and a genuinely kind and good person. She is originally from India, but she and her husband have lived in Orlando for 17 years, and they are vegetarians who love to eat, cook, and travel. (Like and follow Will Fly For Chai, by the way! I bestow the Saboscrivner Seal of Sublimeness upon it, and upon her.)
Once a month, Isha will organize a meet-up of local foodies at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, but I had never been able to attend these gatherings before… until this past weekend, when we met at the Hindu Society of Central Florida (https://www.orlandohindutemple.org/), a beautiful temple nestled in the suburbs of Casselberry, ten minutes from where I’ve been living for a decade! It opened in 2005, four years before we moved into our home, and I had no idea it was so close. My regular readers will know I love discovering new things, places, and experiences, and nothing amazes and astonishes me more than finding hidden treasures close to home. This is a perfect example of one of those.
There is a cafeteria on the premises that specializes in South Indian food, and she recommended it highly. Now, I like almost all the Indian food I’ve ever tried, but I’m definitely not an expert. I’ve been to a certain Indian lunch buffet near my work countless times, and I like all the standard, familiar dishes, but I knew this was going to be different. Here I’d have Isha to guide me, explain things, and make recommendations. Because I’m not well-versed in Indian cuisine, I also wanted to test my limits with spices, since most of the food on the lunch buffet is very mild (which is probably for the best, considering they expect us to return to work and continue to be productive). I figured the dishes served at the temple cafeteria might be a little hotter. I looked forward to this lunch all week.
I had met Isha once before, at a lunch at the East End Market (see my Hinckley’s Fancy Meats review), but this time I also met her cool husband and her delightful mom, as well as several old and new friends and acquaintances from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps. The cafeteria was a standard setup where you order and pay at a window, then wait for your number to be called and bring your tray of food to one of the many tables. They had a handwritten menu on a large dry-erase board, offering most of the options listed on the website. Everything was vegetarian, and most of it was new and unfamiliar to me. In typical Saboscrivner fashion, I over-ordered, expecting I’d share everything with the lunch bunch:
An order of vada ($5), which had the texture of good cake doughnuts — battered and deep-fried with the slightest crispy exterior but a soft, dense interior, only savory instead of sweet. These three vada came with a bowl of sambhar, a thick, lentil-based vegetable stew, meant to either soak or dip pieces in. They also came with coconut chutney (top right).
A samosa plate ($4), featuring three pyramid-shaped deep-fried pastries stuffed with spiced potatoes, onions, and peas. I’ve had samosas before, but these were the best ones I’ve ever had. They were such a great blend of textures, with the outer pastry shell very close to the Cuban empanadas of my childhood, fried to perfection but not greasy at all.
The show-stopper was the dosa ($6), an absolutely huge South Indian crispy crepe. The batter is made from fermented rice and black lentil flour, then fried in a skillet and folded or rolled into a very thin, delicate, crispy wrap, perfect for stuffing with fillings or breaking off pieces to dip into things. This took the longest to cook, but it was worth the wait. The dosas are so big, everyone was taken by surprise by them.
I ordered my dosa with masala, a slightly spicy blend of potatoes, fried onions, and peas seasoned with curry spices. I thought the dosa might come stuffed with the masala, but instead it was served on the side, which was perfectly fine. It also came with coconut chutney that was nice for cutting a bit of the spice. Whenever I return, I will be brave and order the mysore dosa, which came stuffed with a spicy chili paste. The kind and concerned man taking the orders warned me it would be too spicy, so I deferred to his judgment this time, but Isha shared a piece of hers, and I could totally handle it! Next time.
Expecting heat, I ordered a cup of mango lassi ($1.50), a sweet and cooling yogurt drink that is my go-to beverage at Indian restaurants — not just for cutting the heat, but because I love anything with mangoes. This was a very small plastic cup, so I sipped to make it last, but I was glad to have it near at hand.
My friend ordered idli, which are softer, fluffier discs that are similar to the vada, but not deep-fried, so I suspect not as flavorful or as interesting, texture-wise. More experienced people advised him to rip them into chunks and soak them in the sambhar. I didn’t try these, but I wondered if they might be similar to the consistency of bao buns.
He also ordered chole poori, which was fried, leavened flatbread (which looked similar to puffy flour tortillas) served with a bowl of chole, a spicy curry made out of chickpeas. I didn’t try this either, but I will next time!
Finally, as the group wrapped up our meals and started gathering to take a tour of the serene and welcoming Hindu temple, I got talked into ordering a mango kulfi dessert ($3) — smooth and creamy mango ice cream with real chunks of fruit on a wooden popsicle stick. I would have been fine with the cool sweetness of my wee cup of mango lassi, but I was glad I succumbed to the peer pressure, because it was a hot day, and the kulfi was a refreshing treat as we ventured back outside.
I felt very calm and comfortable as we wandered through the temple itself, shoes left in racks outside. Isha encouraged us to explore the altars and just take everything in. Wanting to be respectful, I didn’t take any pictures or even check my phone inside the temple, so I felt more attuned to my surroundings, maybe more mindful, certainly less distracted than I usually feel. The holiness of the large, open, ornately-decorated room was palpable. There was so much culture and history to behold that it felt as much like a museum to me as it did a temple. Since I eschew organized religion myself, museums always feel like holy places to me, where you can learn about other cultures and contemplate our place in the larger framework of the world. (I feel the same about libraries, but I am, after all, a librarian.) I asked some general questions about the temple and about Hinduism that I hope weren’t stupid, but Isha was very patient and informative, and so was a Hindu priest who happened to be nearby. I couldn’t get over how welcome I felt — how welcome she made us all feel there. As if a large, cheap, tasty, and NEW lunch with nice people wasn’t enough, I learned a lot too.
And one more big lesson I learned was about myself: that I eat A LOT of meat. (I’m sure you have noticed, dear readers!) I have always had the utmost respect for my vegetarian friends, but this lunch reminded me how delicious and satisfying vegetarian food can be. I never missed meat in any of these dishes, so it made me think about being more mindful and maybe not feeling obligated to include meat in every meal I eat as a matter of course or habit.
It was the best Sunday afternoon I’ve had in quite a while. And by the way, the cafeteria is open (to all, including the public) on Fridays from 6:00 to 8:30 PM and Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.