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Dinner at the Mango Tree reminds of travels to India

My memories of the food in India are spread across three separate trips and nearly a decade of my life. I first went to the subcontinent when I was 18 years old, a newly minted graduate from a high school small even by North Idaho standards.

All told I’ve spent about a year in the country and eaten more dosa masalas, questionable samosas and soupy curries than I care to count.

I’ve traveled most extensively in southern India, but I’ve ventured north, too. And the food, like the culture, varies tremendously between the two. Trying to make a definitive statement about the cuisine in India seems an impossible task better reserved for the experts.

Yet, I’d like to say something about spice.

The meals I’ve had on those trips were some of the spiciest I’ve ever eaten. It challenged my understanding of what enjoying food meant. I found myself eating more slowly and carefully, partially out of concern for my taste buds.

This unlocked a whole world of gustatory experience. I tasted my food in India in a way I do not taste food in the U.S. It was not always pleasurable, but, in the way new experiences often do, it forced me to expand my understanding of what a good meal means.

In the U.S., or at least the section of the country I call home, food is a comforting and safe experience. A gentle hug from a well-known and beloved friend. In India, the food was more of a wrestling match, an experience that made me sweat and consider the why of eating.

And usually that effort paid off, and I was rewarded with a new revelation, whether it’s the subtler sweetness of a good curry after the screaming heat dissipates or the ease a soothing yogurt dish provides after a spicy meal.

On Monday, those memories came back to me while eating dinner at the new Mango Tree in downtown Spokane.

I will not lie and say the food there tasted the way I remember it tasting in India. The ingredients were fresher and the spice more muted (which isn’t to say it wasn’t a wonderful meal) at the Mango Tree. The food was adapted to American tastes and sensibilities.

But there were moments that recalled the intensity I remember. Bites of the spiced lamb took me back to my first trip to northern India. The papadum, a type of crispy bread served as an appetizer, recalled countless meals in southern India. And one particular bite of bone-in chicken gave me a jolt of spice reminiscent of meals eaten years ago.

I was happy to be reminded of those meals and a different, more challenging way of eating.

Eli Francovich is The Spokesman-Review’s outdoors editor.