A most welcome addition to last year's food cart options on the Capitol Square was Spice Yatra, the first cart dedicated to Indian food in Madison. The food felt like Indian home cooking, with simple yet complexly flavored menu items like chana masala, chicken saag (spinach), yellow daal, vegetable curry, and kadai chicken. Spice Yatra didn't return to the Square this spring, though. Why not? It seemed to have won so many fans.
Spice Yatra chef and owner Sunil Gopal filled me in -- he'd lost the commercial kitchen he'd been renting, at Middleton's The Soup Factory, when that restaurant closed for good. And Gopal's attempts to find another kitchen have so far been dead-ends.
"I've been cooking for as long as I can remember," says Gopal. As a cook, he's mostly self-taught. "I think my inspiration came from my Mom, but then, my Mom doesn't even cook as much as I do -- ever since I took over the major part of the cooking," he reflects.
He wanted to make cooking more than a hobby, but wasn't ready to start a restaurant. He started cooking for friends, then larger parties: "Then I started to develop different kinds of spice blends." The food cart seemed like an ideal route to "see if people liked the type of food I make," and if taking his hobby to "the next level" was feasible.
Gopal, who is originally from Bangalore, was back in India for a visit this past January; upon his return, he found out he'd be losing his kitchen, as The Soup Factory would be closing. "Ever since, I have tried different avenues. And it just didn't work out. I tried churches. In fact even today I got a few calls from churches. They aren't able to help me out with it."
Gopal says he only needs to be in the kitchen 2-3 days a week, and is flexible in terms of when he uses it: "If it's a restaurant, I know that during peak hours, it's going to be occupied." For his cooking, Gopal says, he just needs to prepare the basics, and once he's at the cart, he puts them all together and serves. "My cart has pretty much everything, but I can't execute it directly from the cart. That's the code." He also can't prep his food from his home; it has to be a licensed kitchen.
In the meantime, Gopal, a former I.T. programmer, is doing I.T. recruiting, a business he started when he and his wife moved to Madison about four years ago to be closer to her family. The food cart, however, is clearly where Gopal's passions lie.
Kadai chicken and chicken saag were his most popular dishes last year, along with his chicken pakora, offered only two days a week. Gopal's kadai chicken, made with his own spice blend, is a trademark. "It took me about 17 years, actually," he says, to develop his kadai chicken. He does roast his own spices, too. Otherwise, he says there's nothing special involved except "a little creativity from my side."
"I try to keep it simple. A food cart is not like a restaurant. It has to be limited. Quick and easy. That's the focus I had. And I tried to educate people about what my food's all about."
So if you have a kitchen to spare... contact Gopal through the Spice Yatra website: "The weather is so nice and I cannot believe that I'm unable to get out there at the Capitol and vend."