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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Ali Khan Band

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
Back in New York, where I'm from -- sort of -- there's a street in the East Village (Sixth Street, to be exact) that is widely referred to as Little India. Both sides of it are lined with traditional Indian restaurants, one after another after another. They all offer effectively the same menu of extraordinary Indian cuisine, in the same general atmosphere, at the same great prices. The local joke goes that if you were to walk through the back door of any of the adjacent restaurant dining rooms, you'd find that all the food was coming from one long, communal kitchen.

San Francisco, alas, has no Little India. And at the not-so-scary risk of being invited to sample the creations of every irate Indian chef in town, I'd say we don't really have any standout options either. Sure, there's a sea of lunch buffets, and a few decent upscale joints. Perhaps most notable is Berkeley's unusual Vik's, which splits its warehouse location in half, selling Indian spices and supplies on one side, while churning out rock-bottom, fry-your-tongue, cafeteria-style delicacies on the other.

But still, no Sixth Street.

All this is to say that I love Indian food. The curries, the chutneys, the rices, the naan. (Oh-ho-ho, the naan.) I've even dabbled, with varying success, in cooking the stuff myself. So you can imagine my utter delight at being invited to join a full-fledged extended family for an honest-to-goodness, home-cooked Indian meal.

This particular group is actually a Group: the Ali Khan Band, whose fusion of classical Indian and Pakistani music with elements of modern pop has made it one of the Bay Area's pre-eminent purveyors of world music. Dinner was at the Outer Sunset apartment of core band members Sukhawat Ali Khan, his sister Riffat Salamat, and her husband, Richard Michos. Ali Khan met me at the door. "Welcome, my friend," he said, greeting me with an exuberant hug. "Hello, Mr. Barry."

"This is your place?" I asked.

"Yes," said Ali Khan, "all of us." He clearly meant it in the larger, spiritual sense: Not everyone present lived there. In his black cowboy hat and green-sequined Indian shirt, Ali Khan was exceedingly likable.

Walking through to the kitchen I met Richard and Riffat, a vocalist, who had done all the cooking for our meal. Also joining us was Rami Ziadeh, the band's percussionist, and his girlfriend, Jody. Everyone immediately made me feel like part of the Ali Khan family. The kitchen doubled as a living room,

making for a very communal feeling of good food and friends. I installed myself on the wicker love seat while Richard passed around glasses of red wine.

On the walls hung all sorts of Indian photos and artifacts, along with various posters from the band's previous gigs. As Riffat put the finishing touches on our meal, I asked about the origins of the Ali Khan band. Richard put the debut album, Taswir, on the CD player while Ali Khan told me the wonderfully rich story of his family's musical history. "The music is very old," he explained. "The music of the gods. We learn it from our ancestors. My grandfathers, to his son, to his son. From my father to me. Four brothers." In the background the haunting sounds of Ali Khan's melodies helped to conjure an almost physical sense of the history.

Suddenly Richard was standing next to the kitchen table laden with dishes and bowls and packages of Indian food. An anxious smile on his face was my clue that it was the guest's duty to start. "If you're ready, we're ready," he said. And everyone grabbed a plate.

Where do I begin? There was tandoori chicken -- on the bone -- with the telltale tomato-yogurt coloring and crisscross scorings, a casserole filled with a spicy chickpea stew, and a spinach and potato dish (aloo palak) in two different bowls. "This one is spicy," explained Rami. "And this one is spicier." There was also a large dish of yellow dal (puréed lentils), along with a variety of chutneys and sauces -- and a seemingly bottomless basket of naan, which Rami consistently replenished with warm, crispy sheets of bread from the oven.

My silent exuberance must have been clear to everyone, and Richard suggested, "Well, if you like that, maybe you should try this." As he attempted to pass me a very innocent-looking jar the rest of the group shifted uncertainly in protest.

"No, don't," cautioned Riffat.

"You like spice, right?" asked Richard.

"Oh, yeah," I said, spooning the mixture onto a piece of naan. "What is it?"

"It's a pickle chutney mango kind of thing," explained Richard.

As I ate, Ali Khan explained that for 500 years -- a full five hundred years -- every member of his family had carried on the tradition of learning and practicing their heritage as vocalists. In fact his father, I learned, is Salamat Ali Khan, legendary worldwide as a classical Pakistani singer.

My plate miraculously cleaned itself. And my mouth burned.

"More? Please," insisted Rami. "We have so much."

"Oh, I'm just resting," I assured him. "It's all so good."

"I'm glad you enjoy it," nodded Ali Khan.

"Except the pickles," I admitted. Talk about hot and sour. Yow.

Everyone chuckled at my discomfort.

After my second and third trips to the buffet, Ali Khan left the room to retrieve an unusual instrument: a large, laptop piano box with an accordionlike bellow on the back. "This is the harmonium," he explained, before proceeding to demonstrate the basic techniques of playing it. Motioning up to the ceiling, Riffat cautioned him about the noise.

"It's still early," he said. "Not 10 o'clock." Looking back to me he shrugged, "New neighbors."

Before long, Ali Khan had the harmonium going full speed as deep tonal sounds began to escape from inside him. Richard grabbed his acoustic guitar and added some modern accompaniment. Then Rami produced an hourglass-shaped steel drum, adding complex rhythms with his fingertips and palms.

The clacking of the wooden harmonium keys, the whining of the bellow, and all the other musical elements were merely a backdrop for the mesmerizing sounds of Ali Khan's voice. When he sang he entered what was clearly a trancelike state. His head turned and his fingers pointed, seemingly apart from his own will, as the room filled with music. Richard and Rami played along as the pace quickened until the music finally spun out of control into a frenzied crescendo.

It was like musical aerobics. Extraordinary.

Rami, a native of Jordan, explained, "This music, because it's devotional, every time they pray it's different. So there is a form, but within the context of the form you can make the song what you want to. They can go for an hour, basically, and go from a really slow beginning, into like a frenzy, and it gets faster and faster and faster."

The group celebrated as Riffat once again reminded Ali Khan about the neighbors. Attempting to stay the inevitable, she served up mugs of cardamom-laced tea and glasses filled with a creamy rice-pudding-style dessert studded with whole blanched almonds.

"This is delicious. What do you call this?" I asked, ready to write down the name.

"Rice pudding," she answered. And the music continued.

This time Riffat decided to forget about the neighbors, and gave in to the group's urgings to sing one of her popular songs. Once again the pace of the music started slow before building to an all-consuming rhythm. Riffat sat casually on the sofa, a bright, flowered nose ring setting off her face. The sounds she produced were magical. In the end she raised her head toward the ceiling and seemed to simply let the music come out of her, filling the entire room (as well as the neighbors' upstairs) with pure vocal joy.

"It's like the Pakistani folk blues," joked Jody.

"You know what that song means?" Richard asked. "You better enjoy every minute of your life, because you never know when your last breath could come."

"Yeah, so get together and love each other," added Riffat.

We all settled back to enjoy the calming silence that followed the song, before Ali Khan interrupted to sum up his 500 years of history. "You sing with heart," he explained, while smiling at his sister. "If you don't put heart into it? Nothing. Just a piece of noise."

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


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