I expected it to be steamy and hot, deafening with the shouting of orders, the clang of metal spoons against cooking pots and the incessant pounding of pestle against mortar. What I found instead was a haven of calm and happiness.
What would you expect to find were you, too, to spend a morning in the kitchen of an Indian café? Like me, I expect, too influenced by watching TV cookery programs, you’d have expected a frenetic pace and raised voices. It was Sam who first introduced us to Ganga Café about a year ago. It’s on the narrow street of shops that by coincidence is closest to our villa, Lorong Kurau, the street that also holds two of our other favourite eateries – Bakar and Mario and Luigi.
We’d noticed it though. Each time we’d walk past Ganga on our way to one of the other restaurants, a charming and beautiful woman would step on the street and greet us so warmly that we felt guilty as hell to be walking straight past.
“Next time, we promise!” We’d call out sheepishly, feeling like traitors.
But Sam had told us about the ayurvedic chapattis and the fabulous healthy green pranic juice he enjoyed when he’d taken his laptop there to work and so, he’d dragged me there for lunch. It’s not that I’m against vegetarian food, nor that I dislike spice. Far from it. It’s just that being a typical expat wife being a little off the beaten track and not serving cappuccino, it wasn’t on my meeting friends for coffee or lunch radar.
I soon learned that Meeta, the lady behind the warm welcome, was the owner and that every single dish in that place was easily the best, healthiest, least greasy, least unnecessarily ‘slap you on the back of the neck like Eric Morecambe used to do to Little Ern’ hot than any other Indian food we had ever eaten (with the exception of Julie’s, who was our Mangalorian helper in Dubai and Oman days). We miss you, Julie.
Soon we were heading to Ganga for our Sunday brunches, devouring their breads and curries, chutneys, idli and savoury doughnuts while refreshing our palates with chai masala tea. Who cared about a long black when you could eat like kings for about three quid a head?
We tried their thalis, their a la carte and we even tried their sweet sticky gulab jamun. And now, it has become a taste we crave on a weekly and occasionally daily basis. With our departure date looming there was only one thing for it. I had to get into their kitchen and find out for myself how they managed to make their food taste so darn good.
Meeta, being Meeta, was totally on board with the idea, particularly as I promised to write about her too and at the end of January Josh and I were allowed into the hallowed narrow space that is her kitchen. It was 7.30 am and all was quiet despite there being six or so chefs hard at work. They were patient with me as I managed to constantly stand in the wrong spot and needed to be moved. They gladly let me watch over their woks and explained how the sauces were made. And then, like magic, dish upon dish emerged and was laid before us as we were commanded to eat while we talked to Meeta. This was when we learned how on earth they manage to make their food quite so extraordinary.
All of the dishes without exception contain one special ingredient – love. Seriously.
“If someone is not happy then I ask them why,” says Meeta. “My chefs must be happy at work. I ask them if they think they can bring something special to Ganga and if they can’t I let them leave. No problem.”
Meeta Sheth came to Kuala Lumpur from Mumbai when she married her Malaysian husband and is a Jain. This ancient Indian religion believes in non-violence, is against lying and against harming any living creature.
“It’s all based on ‘ahimsa’,” Meeta continues using the Sanskrit word at the cornerstone of Jainism – non-violence, in thought and speech and deed. “We are all family. Unlike other restaurants I let my staff take their meals here. If someone comes by to eat here and is poor then I tell them they are my family too and I give them discount.”
Such good intentions pay off. On Sundays it can be hard to find a seat. Word is spreading and Ganga Café is often the busiest place on the street. Of course good intentions seep into the food too. It took years for Meeta to find a good source of vegetables. For a long time she did all the shopping herself, frequenting only the places she could trust and not getting to bed til way after midnight.
But it was there in that galley kitchen that the biggest surprise was to be found. Her potato curry contains no curry powders or spices, only onion, garlic, green chilli, curry leaves, cinnamon and salt. The spinach and cheese curry (my favourite) has a base not of pounded spices, but of fresh sauce made from onions, garlic, chillis and tomatoes. The red deep fried bitter gourd that is a staple of every banana leaf meal in KL, when made with chilli powder, turmeric, baba sambar spice mix, ginger garlic paste, salt, cornflour, rice flour and water, becomes golden brown when fried and not the colour of expats’ toenails. At Ganga they use no MSG, no preservatives, no colours. Everything is made fresh from the best ingredients and it is made with love.
And so, as we head back to Holland in March there is some peace in my heart that I will be able to recreate Ganga in The Hague. Ahimsa rocks!