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February 24, 2009

Loving Curry in Bangor

When I was in fourth grade, my mother decided we would expand our tastes and knowledge of geography by having weekly international food nights. Every Thursday she picked a country and cooked something that seemed representative. Japan: teriyaki chicken. Russia: beef stroganoff. Mexico: tamale casserole. If there was a restaurant nearby we'd go out. I ate baklava for the first time at Christopher's, the now-closed Portland restaurant we went to on Greek night.

Although international night was a fun idea and welcome break from the meat and mashed potatoes routine, I was dead-set against it because it meant homework. I had to get out the encyclopedia and research the country of the week, then give a presentation before dinner about its customs, history, system of government. I had to make the national flag out of construction paper and hang it on the fridge. It felt unjust: an extra social studies report every week for no grade, no stickers, no nothing? I refused to learn about geography unless I was compensated.

International night didn't last long, either because of my complaining or because the "ethnic" section at Shop 'n Save, a neglected ghetto for soy sauce and stale taco shells, was rapidly exhausted. But the foods I ate on international night were for many years my only reference points for foreign cuisine. When I studied abroad in London, I declined invitations to some of the world's best Indian restaurants, explaining that I detested curry. I'd reached this conclusion one international night while eating a badly-executed concoction of frozen peas, milk, and curry powder over Minute Rice. Maybe it was a bad recipe, or maybe my tastebuds were immature, but for a decade, when I remembered trying to chew and swallow that yellow mess, I was sure I hated anything Indian. I don't remember which gateway curry finally brought me around, but sometime after college I had an epiphany, and I want to kick myself now for all the opportunities to eat great Indian food I've turned down.

Luckily, in Bangor I've got two restaurants within steps of my door that make a mean curry. Taste of India (68 Main Street) and Bahaar Pakistani (23 Hammond) offer many authentic, interesting vegan and vegetarian options. Almost weekly, I head to one or the other and order chana masala, a hearty dish of stewed chickpeas with tomatoes, ginger, garlic, coriander, chilies, and garam masala. My husband alternates between Taste of India's karahi paneer, a spicy, creamy curry with mild cheese, and Bahaar's paneer vindaloo, assorted vegetables and cheese in a cheerful yellow chili sauce that will melt your face. The entrees at Taste of India are less oily, but Bahaar has better naan. Portions are large at both restaurants, so unless you're Paul Bunyan you'll have something leftover for lunch. The vegetarian dinner for two at Taste of India is easily four meals, with soup, samosas, naan, rice, two entrees, and dessert for $33.95. The staff at Bahaar will make things as spicy as you like, but we usually have to plead with the waitstaff at Taste of India, who are justifiably skeptical that their Bangor customers can handle it.

If you're in central Maine and beginning to feel isolated, if your tastebuds are becoming lethargic, head to downtown Bangor and have an international night of your own. Do not make your children write a report, or they will resent turmeric into adulthood.

Mary Lake is a writer, teacher, columnist for MF&L, and vegetarian blogger: Mitten Machen

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