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Charlie Hatton
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Cash and Curry

I’m very close to swearing off Indian food.

Not because I don’t like Indian food — or at least the presumably heavily-bastardized, watered-down, fattened-up Americanized Indian food that most Indian restaurants serve. Because I love it. I’ve been a fan for years.

(I still remember the occasion, in fact, if not the exact date. Back in college [in a small town on the outskirts of cow country], I interviewed for graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. A couple of my hosts were from India, and for my mid-interview lunch, they took me to a nice Indian joint down the street.

It was my first taste of semi-authentic Indian food. And it was phenomenal. I ended up going to grad school at Pitt — based as much on that lunch as on their faculty or facilities, probably.

Of course, it was a tough decision. When I interviewed at the University of South Carolina, they introduced me to kimchee. Clearly, these were both excellent schools.)

Anyway, I’m all about the Indian food. I like the “good stuff” — more authentic, traditional, made with India-local ingredients — and I like the less-good stuff. Your average tandoori chicken. Nan that never saw the inside of a clay oven. Biryani that may have started life as Uncle Ben’s. It’s very difficult to make “Indian-style” food that I won’t enjoy.

And yet. So close to swearing it off. And here’s why.

The vast majority of the time I eat Indian food is when I order it online for delivery. This is, for me, perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of modern humanity. You may marvel that we’ve put a man on the moon, or cured countless diseases or discovered the Higgs boson. And those are all pretty great, sure. The steam engine, the television, the fancy little pop-tabs on top of soda cans that don’t come off or cut you when you open one — also super. Really check-plus-plus-plus stuff there. Gold stars all around.

But when I can sit in my living room, rocking a pajama-sweatsuit ensemble, make a few clicks on a laptop computer connected to absolutely nothing, and forty minutes later some guy rings the doorbell with three pounds of aloo mutter and lamb vindaloo and a side of kheer?



As ever, there’s a monkey wrench gumming up the works. An unfortunate complication. A samosa in the ointment.

The website I order from is fantastic. We have access to all sorts of mouthwatering cuisines from every corner the globe, thanks to Boston’s culinary diversity and the site’s savvy partnering. We can eat Mongolian on Monday, Tibetan on Tuesday and wash it down with Wietnamese wax noodles on Wednesday.

(Poetic license. No, you shut up.)

The point is, it’s great. And Indian being one of our faves, we order it often — maybe once every couple of weeks. Usually, it’s from this restaurant a few blocks away. They do nice work, they’re fast, and they even offer online coupons. Therein lies the trouble.

You see, the site we order from wants to be “helpful”. And so, when we make an order, it cheerfully looks through all the available online coupons that are relevant and applies the one that would save us the most money. And that’s super. Except one thing.

The most frugal coupon for this curry place is a “10% Student Discount”.

Neither my wife nor I are students. Nor do we plausibly look like students, or have old student IDs lying around with which to skeeve ten percent of our orders off this restaurant.

And yet, the website applies the disount. Every. Single. Time.

Invariably, the delivery guy shows up at the door, makes ready to hand over the goods, and stops, the bag full of biryani poised tantalizingly close to my fingertips.

Say…” he says slyly, through narrowed eyelids. “Are you a student?

Thus begins our dance. I tell him no, honestly. I tell him the website applies the stupid coupon, and there’s no way for me to take it off. I tell him I’ve tried — oh, how I’ve tried. I can’t prevent it, I can’t remove it, and there’s no “NOT A FREAKING STUDENT!” box I can check in my profile. It’s not me. I’m not trying to rip you off. I’m not impersonating a subject of higher learning. I just want my lamb vindaloo at a fair price. No scam, no lies, don’t put me on a blacklist. I apologize to you, and the chef, and the entire Indian subcontinent. It’s not my fault. For true.

He pauses, frowning, then says, “Well, okay. But I’m adjusting the bill on your credit card!

That’s more than fair, I assure him. I thank him for his understanding and generosity, pry my dinner from his suspicious fingers, and he finally leaves, peering evil-eyed at me over his shoulder.

Ten days or so later, we do it all over again. Sometimes, it’s a different guy. Sometimes, he’ll recognize me right away. (“Aha! You’re the guy who’s not a student!“) But it always ends the same way. Protests of innocence. Denial of blame. Cynical disbelief. And eating dinner in embarrassed shame. It’s enough to put a guy off his tikka masala.

I’ve tried ordering from other Indian joints, with some success. But that’s a hit-and-miss proposition. For one, nowhere else is as close. So the food might be an hour or longer in coming. Also, my wife isn’t quite as adventurous as I am when it comes to sampling the cuisines of far-off exotic lands. I’ll often ask, on “Indian night”:

Should I order from the ‘coupon place’, or try something more… exciting?

With another dozen or more Indian restaurants around town, I like to ferret out the edges of their menus. Try things I’ve never tried. Push some boundaries. Live a little, through my taste buds.

At the question, my wife will usually wrinkle up her nose and give her answer in an exasperated three-word reply:

Not goat again!

And so, the order goes in to the regulars. The website calls us students. And the circle of shame continues.

I’ve decided the only way out of this mess — well, the only sane way; I mean, what am I going to do, walk down the street to pick up food? Preposterous. — is to give up my beloved Indian food. Stop ordering altogether, and hope we don’t inadvertently piss the Thai place or the Chinese restaurant or our favorite pizza joint off in the same fashion.

It’s a high price to pay, but I just don’t see any other option. It’s either that or go back to college, just so I can look my delivery guy in the eye again. And with those huge tuition payments, how could I afford takeout Indian food? Even at ten percent off? Not happening.

So it’s goodbye to Indian food, for now. Maybe someday they’ll get rid of their coupon, or the website will listen to me, or I’ll convince my wife to go for an MBA and lend me her ID. In the meantime, every time I walk by a Curry House or a Punjab Palace, I’ll sigh wistfully and keep on walking, and try to remember the good old days. Oh, Calcutta!

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