Experiencing home away from home

No matter how many years you live outside your country, there are times when a wave of homesickness washes over you. You just can’t stop reminiscing about home, the streets that you are so familiar with, the neighborhood shops, the walk back home from work or school under the shade of leafy trees, the little cozy café where you stopped by to pick up a sweet treat, known faces of neighbors, the sound of a language that is commonly spoken on the streets and in homes– in my case Tamil, and last but not the least, authentic food that your palate craves for. No matter how authentic an Indian restaurant claims to be on foreign soil, it just doesn’t re-create the same tastes that you savor back home.

So it was one of those times when I was indulging in sweet memories of my hometown Chennai that I walked into this little unassuming restaurant on Serangoon Road, bang opposite the Perumal Koil in what can be called the Little India precinct of Singapore. The sign-board read ‘Sri Lukshmi Narasmihan Restaurant’ and a peek from outside only revealed a row of wooden tables and chairs. Nothing fancy. Nothing to rave about. But a step inside and the experience that followed is something that will stay with me forever. For the sixty minutes that I spent there, I almost forgot that I was in Oriental Singapore.

It was a hot sweltering day when I swung the restaurant door open at 11:00am to step in for a quick bite and for some restful time. It was early in the day for Indians to be having lunch and so the restaurant was almost empty save two or three tables that were occupied by other customers like me. Unlike the unrelenting heat that beat upon you outdoors, it was cool inside and the restaurant was well-lit by rows of tube lights affixed on the ceiling. The sound of devotional chants playing in the background calmed my senses within minutes. I noticed that the walls were adorned with beautiful traditional Tanjore paintings, aka Thanjavur Oviyam; vividly and richly colored figurines of Hindu Gods and Goddess such as Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Hanuman, and Lord Krishna.  I placed my order and while I waited for my food to arrive I just soaked in the ambience.

As I sat there, I was reminded of my Chennai days when I was embraced with coolness as soon as I set foot in my home after having traveled in the afternoon heat of the city. I wonder if you have ever felt that. A sense of relief as you step inside your home; and you wonder how it is that your home is cool and shady while it is blistering hot outside. The devotional chants that were playing reminded me of the temple that was just a stone’s throw away from where I used to live in Chennai. It reminded me of all my South Indian friends’ homes and of the erstwhile Brahmin neighborhoods. And the food? Well what do I say…Have you ever tasted temple food? It’s vegetarian, tasty, simple, and freshly cooked. It’s simply lip-smacking delicious. That is what the cooks at Sri Lukshmi Narasimhan replicate be it their pongal, uppma, dosai, idlly, oothapam,vadai, sambar-rice, or the full-blown South Indian meal served up in a banana leaf lined thali. As I savored my chappati plate – two soft chappatis served with a cup of wholesome dal, and a lightly spiced sabzi – I couldn’t help noticing the duo at the adjacent table. A lady in her 40s with her mum in her 60s deeply engaged in a conversation in Tamil peppered with English.  It was easy to discern their Tam Brahm descent by the way they spoke and I must unabashedly admit that I enjoyed listening to them and watching the mami relish her oothapam.  I almost felt like I was in a Sangeetha Bhavan  or Ananda Bhavan in Chennai.

I am no coffee addict but I simply couldn’t resist ordering a filter coffee that day. It came in the tumbler and dabara and as I poured it back and forth till it was of sipping temperature I thought to myself, “Now this is the real thing; not some hazelnut or butterscotch flavored frappe, latte, mocha in the name of coffee.” I don’t know what it is about South Indian filter coffee…maybe it’s the coffee beans, maybe it’s the chicory, maybe it’s the tumbler and dabara or maybe it’s just the nostalgia that comes with it….

Having tended to my bout of home-sickness for the day, my tryst with Lukshmi Narasimhan ended with a smile on my face, a spring in my step, and a lightsome heart.

It was not just about food. It was about re-creating the feeling of home away from home.

PS: If you are visiting Lukshmi Narasimhan, the perfect time is during lunch on week-days. It’s quiet and service is quick. It’s pretty crowded at dinner time and be prepared for a longer waiting time for food and a noisy atmosphere on weekends. But believe me, it’s totally worth it. Any south Indian dish you order will be good, so just go ahead and indulge your cravings. A few of my favorites are the mini tiffin (a sizable idly, a medu vadai, a masala dosai, a ladleful of pongal laced with ghee and a serving of tea/coffee/buttermilk), rice/chappati meal (rice/chappati, papad, south indian veggies, rasam, sweet and maybe I’m missing a few more items), and the Andhra spicy dosai (a dosai with some super spicy chutney or podi spread inside).  The average cost for two people is about S$20.

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