I have lived in the United States for 13 years now, moving around from Virginia to Michigan to Ohio and now Maine. Every time I land in a new state, I find myself missing – not the last place I moved from – rather, my hometown, Lucknow, a city of nearly 2.2 million people in India.

Last fall, I moved to Maine. Every time I mentioned to Ann Arbor friends that I would soon be moving there, people responded with a single word: “Lobsters!” So that was my picture of Maine food before I got here. (Lobsters are found in some of the fish cuisines of India, mostly in coastal towns, but while I have eaten prawns, I’ve never eaten lobster in India.) In the small town of Brunswick, Maine, my new home, with a population of just 20,000 people, I had little hope of finding a good Indian restaurant – if I could find one at all.

About a month after I’d moved here, I was walking in Brunswick when I noticed a sign: “Bombay Mahal.” An Indian restaurant! The door opened and out came a whiff of turmeric and other spices that instantly plunked me down in India.

I stood there inhaling the aroma and thinking how it was funny that growing up in India, I was surrounded by such smells no matter where I went: my own home, someone else’s house, on the street – there were very few places you wouldn’t smell food being cooked. But I never paid attention. Yet those same smells make me yearn for home when I’m 10,000 miles away from my family, my countrymen, everything familiar.

I walked in. The place was filled with people, eating amid the wooden elephant heads on the wall, square multicolored cutouts of saris hanging from the ceiling, and the din of Bollywood music, spoons clinking against plates and the murmur of conversation, English conversation. Not a word of Hindi being spoken. The decorations were charming, but a little over the top. It seemed like the restaurant was trying too hard to look Indian. And not a single customer was Indian. The place was busy so the food must be good, I thought. But would I like it?

It wasn’t unlike an American going to an American pizza place in a small-town India, and finding the locals gorging on pizza. It’s obvious that they like the pizza sold in that place, but does the pizza taste like it does back home? Growing up in India, I had eaten hundreds of so-called burgers, but it wasn’t until I came to America that I learned the burger was actually a meat patty; in India, a burger is some kind of stuffing, usually potato, between buns.


I stood awkwardly at the entrance to Bombay Mahal until an Indian man materialized, smiling. Did I want to eat, he asked. I wasn’t hungry and I hadn’t planned on eating out. But I told him I’d just moved to Brunswick for my wife’s work, and that I was happy to find his restaurant. I promised to come back soon.

I didn’t keep my word, though. Several months went by. I mostly forgot about the place, and when it did cross my mind, I was stuck on the idea that the food there wouldn’t be the same as at home. Something told me that the food he was serving was supposed to be Indian, but it wasn’t Indian.

Deepak Singh at Bombay Mahal in Brunswick.

I’ve had several American friends who traveled to India complain that the food was too spicy. I’ve seen with my own eyes when their faces turned red, their eyes watered, and they gasped after eating spicy food in India. But the Americans who were eating Indian food in Brunswick showed no such symptoms. I wondered why.

Then came a dark and dreary Saturday when India was on my mind. I was homesick. It was lunchtime. I found myself walking to Bombay Mahal.

The place wasn’t busy. I took a plate and filled it with chicken curry and aloo baingan (an eggplant dish). It was a buffet, something that you only find at wedding feasts in India, rarely in restaurants. Maybe the buffet is an American concoction – a way of showcasing Indian food to people who didn’t grow up eating daal, curry, naan and samosas.

I wanted to eat my meal with naan, but I didn’t see any. “We are cooking fresh naan,” the owner told me. Ecstatic to hear that, I sat down. It had been a long time since I’d been able to eat fresh naan. Right on cue, a few minutes later, the bread arrived. I took a bite of the curry – the chicken was tender and the spice just right. The eggplant tasted just right too, especially when eaten with the fresh-from-the-oven naan.


But my favorite dish was the rice pudding, kheer. Desserts often disappoint me in Indian restaurants in the United States. They are usually too sweet or not sweet enough. But this time, I easily put away two entire bowls of kheer. Milk and rice and raisins and almonds were deployed in perfect proportions. A good way to tell that, my mother once told me, is when the kheer drips off your spoon smoothly – neither too fast nor too slow. As I spooned it up, I wondered if it was actually as good as it seemed, or was it seasoned with longing for home? Maybe a bit of both.

The experience got even better when the owner came over and asked me – in Hindi – if I was enjoying the food. It had been a long while since I had spoken the language. He told me he was from the state of Punjab in northern India. I told him I grew up in Lucknow, in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and that I moved to America after getting married. Although I’m not from Punjab, I told him, people always think I’m Punjabi because of my last name. We laughed and talked for several minutes – all in Hindi. I forgot, for a few magical minutes, that I was far from home.

The Bollywood music that was pouring out of speakers wasn’t my favorite. But in Brunswick, among the smells of familiar spices, the sari cutouts and the elephant heads, the music was lullaby to my ears. After about an hour, I left, feeling lucky to have found an Indian restaurant in small-town Maine that was a perfect ensemble of smells, atmosphere, food and service.

I felt welcomed. I’d found a place that felt like home.

At least for a few moments.

Deepak Singh is a Brunswick resident and the author of “How May I Help You?: An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage.” He tweets @deepakwriter.

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