When I attempt to visualize what Northampton might have looked like in its pre-metropolitan era, I find myself relying upon images from Revolutionary times: tri-cornered hats, elaborate candelabra, horse parking. I can’t reasonably imagine a Northampton emptied of its coffee shops and thigh-tattooed pedestrians, its tearooms and bird-watching shops. But it’s particularly difficult for me to imagine a Northampton that lacks its improbably diverse array of restaurants: Tibetan, Argentinean, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian. When did our quaint mountain town, population less than or equal to 30,000, become the ethno-culinary Fertile Crescent we now know it to be?
There is a complex and ultra-rational tale to be told that describes the transformation from Revolutionary then to tea-steeping now. Such a tale would inevitably involve influxes and outfluxes of all economic varieties, along with ever-adjusting supply and demand curves. Seeing that I am no developmental economist, I cannot in good conscience undertake such a scholarly project. Alternatively, I challenged myself to ask simpler, bite-sized questions of those who know better, nevertheless seeking a rational explanation to resolve my historical quandaries. After a few hours of soft investigative work, I wound up outside of India House, one of Western Massachusetts’ very first Indian restaurants and a veritable Northampton institution.
I’m standing on State Street just outside the restaurant, preparing myself to bombard India House’s owners with practical questions (e.g. “Where were you in January, 1981, Mr. and Mrs. Kanoujia?”). As soon as I reach the top step of the front stoop, I’m suddenly stuck frozen in my tracks, unable to move forward. I’ve walked straight into a wall of smell, wonderfully elaborate and yet composed of familiar, contrasting scents: sweet and spicy, salty and sour: undeniably entrancing.
This disarming olfactory encounter set the stage for what would become an enlightening 90 minutes with India House’s Alka Kanoujia. Boy, were my initial journalistic impulses misguided! How foolish of me to believe that I could understand the transition from then to now in strictly rational terms! The story behind this longstanding restaurant is much sweeter and much spicier, much saltier and more sour than I could have imagined.
Speaking with Alka about her family’s restaurant is like speaking with the Dalai Lama about the nature of reality. This is a woman who stumbled upon the great work of her life—India House—as if it were a fatalistically determined event, as if she were chosen. “This,” she tells me more than once, “is exactly where I belong.” Her voice is serious—urgent, even—and filled with a pure, exuberant joy. Her expression, likewise, saunters indeterminately, caught somewhere in between pursed lips and easy smile.
Alka grew up in New Delhi and came to the U.S. at the age of 19. She met her husband Omprakash Kanoujia (Omi), in Chicago, and they were married. Shortly thereafter, the newlyweds relocated to Cambridge so that Omi could attend Boston University.
Alka happened to venture westward to the Pioneer Valley in 1981 to help a family friend take care of her new baby. “I fell in love with the area, and I just said to my husband, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could live here?’” She makes sturdy, gentle eye contact as she relates the sparse details of her relocation. “There was no hustle and bustle at that time.”
In October of 1984, some three years later, India House’s doors opened. “We were both very good at cooking,” she tells me with unmistakable earnestness. “When the restaurant happened, it was beautiful.” And just as Omi and Alka welcomed their new business endeavor into the world, so too would they welcome their first child, Amit, in October. She chuckles to herself modestly, “He brought the restaurant with him! This is what he tells me.” Three years later Alka gave birth to her second child, Anjula.
Through an extensive and complicated series of events (that you’ll have to ask Alka about yourself), both Anjula and Amit ended up back at India House. “You know how the saying goes,” Alka tells me, stifling a contented smile. “You have to set them free. So we never actually pushed—we never pushed—it was something they had to see.” After the trials and tribulations of childhood, Indian boarding school and personal introspection, both Amit and Anjula found themselves back in Northampton. “They’re both very much at home here,” Alka assures me. Indeed they are, I think to myself.
The story of India House—as cheesy as it may sound—is the story of family members who each realized their destinies under a single roof. Alka finds it helpful to represent her relatives as different parts of a tree. Her husband, Omi, is “like [the trunk of] a banyan tree, with great strength and dignity, providing comfort and compassion.” Amit, who manages the kitchen, and Anjula, who manages the dining room, “are his branches, under his guidance, performing to ensure that our patrons receive the best from us, which is food prepared with love and care, hospitality and warmth.” And Alka, though she was reluctant to categorize herself, strikes me as the roots of the tree: nourishing and stabilizing, maternal and steadfast.
This is all to say very little about the food that India House serves, about which I could ramble on for pages. Everything—and I mean everything—is made from scratch in-house. The Kanoujias own two authentic tandoori ovens, clay-made, imported from India, that run on charcoal. Alka develops all the recipes herself, but because she suffers from a series of severe food allergies (gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, corn, coconut), she can never taste the food she prepares.
“People always ask us, ‘How can you do this?’ And I tell them, ‘Because you truly have to want to do it,’” she says, glowing as she speaks, “‘you have to want to do it.’ And I do. So it works! And it’s beautiful when it works.” Alka has committed herself to a mission of dietary accommodation. “Nobody will take your order but us, my husband, I, and my children, precisely because it is a very personalized menu. This is something we created because we know exactly what goes into the making of each and every single dish.”
This is all to say very little about the aesthetic of the restaurant itself. Every single chair and table and window screen is custom-built for the restaurant, made from the finest Indian materials: dark, smoky woods with complementary golden accents. Alka herself lights candles at each and every table each and every night of the week. She tells me, as she shows me around, “Ours is not a very late-night restaurant. We are done by 9:30. Each day, I go home happy that I’ve done something so good today.”
Standing in the center of the dining room, I take a few moments to look around. The place bleeds with the thoughtfulness of family; it’s a real house, I’m thinking to myself, and just then I look over and see Alka re-centering a candle on a table she designed. It’s still the early afternoon. I’m looking at the back of her head, but I know for certain that her expression is sauntering between pursed lips and easy smile, as it so often does.
Very much like losing oneself in the unfamiliar familiarity of a wafting scent, I have descended into journalistic details that have cast me quite far from my initial questions. How did Northampton become the ethno-culinary Fertile Crescent we now know it to be? How did we transition from historical then to historical now? After spending time with Alka in her sanctuary, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the ebbs and flows of invisible, fatalistic forces. Perhaps these pseudo-spiritual speculations—lofty and amorphous as they may smell—can help satiate my curiosity. Or perhaps I’ve found myself a bit too entranced by India House’s mysterious, olfactory allure.
Either way, the Kanoujias are a family that have dedicated themselves to serving the Northampton community delicious, authentic, thoughtfully constructed Indian delicacies since 1984, long before my time in this world. I suppose it’s not so important to understand how they came to be here, after all.•