Monday, October 27, 2008

Swagat Indian Cuisine restaurant Celebrates Diwali Festival

Oct. 24 - The thought of experiencing my first Diwali Festival in an Indian restaurant was too good an experience to pass up. So, one Friday night, I braved the traffic going to Makati to head to the Swagat Indian Cuisine restaurant.

"Swagat," I will soon learn is a Hindi word, which means "welcome." From the facade of the restaurant, one would have thought that the lettering of the restaurant's name was too plain-looking to merit attention. But inside, one's spirit is easily lifted by the vari-hued colors of the interior starting with the foil chains that criss-cross the ceiling, the tie-dyed cloths that line the corners of the walls, posters and small pieces of mirrors that flicker here and there, which all seemed to dance along the music coming from the modern Indian singers' videos being played on the television, and made warmer by the technicolor Christmas lights that cascade down the front glass window, and frame all posters in the walls as well. In one of the walls, one reads the cutout letters announcing "Diwali Festival."

Deepavali, or Diwali, is a major Indian festival, and is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs across the globe as the "Festival of Lights," where the lights signify the victory of good over the evil within every individual. The word "deepavali" comes also from the lighted rows (avali) of lamps (deepa) that greeted King Rama of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile in the forest. Today, Diwali is celebrated on the first day of the lunar Kartika month, which comes in the month of October or November.

"So, there is no exact date for it each year, but this year it falls on Oct. 28" explains Komal Khanchandani, who proudly says that she is the owner, manager and cook of the restaurant. "If I were in India, I would have celebrated this event with my family but since I'm in the Philippines now, I am celebrating it yearly my Filipino friends and everyone who eats here." And Khanchandani further explains that the festival is akin to the Christian's Christmas event where everyone eats good food, buys new dress, and gives gifts to one another. The one special mark of the event, she says, is the giving of sweets to all who celebrate the said occasion. During this time, too, her restaurant gives discounts to her customers.

Khanchandani, or Komal to her friends, arrived in Manila from India with her husband Sanjay in 1981. Finding that there's not enough restaurant offering true Indian home-cooked meals in the country, and prodded in part her husband's expatriate Indian friends, they initially put up Sangam, a hole-in-the-wall Indian carinderia in Makati. But seeing their growing clientele, in 2003, the couple finally decided to open Swagat Indian Cuisine in a bigger location in Rada. Since then, the restaurant has been opened to the public from 11am to 11pm and foot traffic has been nonstop that most diners would call in advance to reserve seats, especially at meal times.

For that evening, Khanchandani had to excuse herself at once as she was to cook it all: for appetizers, there was mixed pakora or deep fried sliced onions, chilies and potatoes rolled in chickpeas flour. I dipped one pakora, which tasted like an upscale empanada, in mint sauce and was pleasantly surprised by its interesting flavour in my mouth. I also ate pappadom masala, which is a thin deep fried crisp lentil wafer served with onion and tomato bits, and which is definitely better than nachos. I became an instant fan, too, of the bhel puri, puffed rice bits (like noodle bits) served with various chutneys, and wonderfully crunchy. For the main course, we were served the machi palak, or fish cooked with spinach, and chicken kadai, with a big chili on top of it. This was accompanied by two plates of rice meal: the shrimp biryani, and the unbelievably hot methi matter pullow, which is a bit green, colored by the fenugreek leaves, with green peas. Wonderfully taming all the spiciness in my food is my glass of strawberry lassi or sweetened yogurt drink flavoured with milk and strawberry. For dessert, we had the privilege of tasting Khanchandani's much sought-after homemade ice cream or kulfi. Khanchandani says it takes all of five hours to make it and yes, it's easily one of the restaurant's bestsellers. So, I took my sweet time eating my kulfi! Biting into my last spoonful of the ice cream, in my mind, I saw several arrows of lights, lights of happiness, indeed! Happy Diwali Festival everyone!

Swagat Indian Cuisine restaurant is located in FCC Building on Rada Street, Legaspi Village, Makati (tel. 752-5669).

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