2439 W Devon Ave. Chicago, IL 60659
Places are not supposed to travel! However, recent scholarship demonstrates otherwise, — that places do travel albeit in symbolic, affective, or non-material ways. They travel as embodied practices and transient microclimates made up of sounds, smells, tactility, and sensory atmospheres. Microclimates appear as sensorial atmospheres that influence mood, identity and a sense of self of those who inhabit these spaces. Immigrants reproduce their world by manipulating the lived, somatic and kinesthetic aspects of space.
Hema’s Kitchen is one of two sites where you are invited to experience a different, more ephemeral kind of place-making that involves your sense of smell. Owner Hema Potla came to the United States in 1988 and worked in restaurants till she opened her own place. Originally Hema’s Kitchen occupied a smaller storefront in one of the side alleys off Devon Avenue. Today her store is located on Devon Avenue and is reviewed in many Chicago gourmet magazines, television programs, and newspapers.
Hema doesn’t cook at home because she explains, “ I think you know, the smells going to the sofas and all … you know. Because I have the restaurant, I can escape cooking there.” However patrons find the smell of Indian food in Hema's Kitchen to be homelike and reassuring. Potla intends to use sensory cues in order to recreate an intimate sense of home in her restaurant. She writes in her website, “Hema’s Kitchen was formed in the year 1992 when my husband and I decided to start a small restaurant which would give our customers the ambience and flavors of a domestic Indian kitchen. What started as a small establishment grew in leaps and bounds as the word spread amongst my loyal customers who loved the dishes I made for them. It grew from a side street Indian restaurant on Oakley Ave to become the first ever Indian restaurant to feature on WTTW Channel 11.”
Observe the ornaments and decorations, the entrance with statues and carvings, elaborately decorated seating space and the warm tinges of red in the interior. An olfactory sensorium plays a large part in producing a unique ambience inside her restaurant. Follow your nose and see how subtle smells create three sensorial subzones within this store. Smell the incense near the sales counter. It reminds the Indian customer of altars in homes (often located in the kitchen) where residents burn incense in front of deities. The incense zone marks the entrance area and distinguishes it from the interior seating space.
Walk in to the interior seating area and smell the smell of Indian food waft out of the kitchen. From the entrance you can see all the way down the narrow and dark interior space to the bright and gleaming kitchen. The kitchen, located at the back of the store is a world that may be inaccessible to a customer, but it is here where Hema cooks — when she wants to make something for her family. The air intake system is carefully designed to ensure that the intense smell of spices and cooking from the kitchen doesn’t seep into the front section.
If allowed into the kitchen you may smell tempering—crackling mustard seeds, dry chillies and spices in hot oil. Gujaratis call it vagharne, North Indians call it chaunk, and Potla who is from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, calls it baghar.
Potla’s personality and demeanor change as she moves between the three zones. She is a gracious host in the front section, often flitting from one table to the other, talking to customers, chatting with those who frequent her store, and making new friends. At the back zone she speaks fluently in Spanish with her Mexican and Central American kitchen staff. The kitchen staff has learnt many Indian recipes from her.
For more on Potla see the People Section.
Text by Arijit Sen
Hema’s Kitchen website