2741 W. Devon
To hear Syed Hassan tell it, the desserts at Ambala Sweets, his new Devon Avenue sweets-and-snacks shop, are actually good for you. They're made with ghee, the clarified butter used in traditional Indian cooking and reputed, according to the ancient holistic medical system ayurveda, to aid digestion and promote health. "A lot of Indian people are vegetarians," says Hassan, "so they don't have a lot of sources of fat. Ghee is a good source of fat. And actually, people love it."
With marble floors, mirrored walls, and glass doors with gold handles, Ambala feels like an upscale department store. Sitting tidily in its front window are stacked squares of green pistachio barfi, a milk-based dessert with a fudgelike texture. Other traditional sweets are heaped on the long, gracefully curving counter inside, under immaculate clear-plastic domes. The counter workers give out samples hand over fist, chatting with customers in Hindi, Urdu, and English and happily providing explanations to the uninitiated. "This is number one. This is very fast-selling," says one, proffering a chunk of habshi halwa--a sticky brown treat made with milk, wheat flour, and cashews. It has the consistency of an underdone brownie, and, like many Indian desserts, tastes alarmingly sweet to the unaccustomed palate. The store carries several variants, including gajar halwa (made with carrots) and anjeer halwa (with figs).
Pera, a doughy orange confection, is prepared with dried milk and cardamom, colored with saffron, shaped into small patties, and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. Some of the sweets are even more elaborately fashioned: imarti, made with cardamom, look like crullers dyed orange, while the saffron-flavored fritters called jalebi resemble raw pretzels. Suterfeni, fried threads of sweetened rice flour flavored with saffron, is meant to be doused with milk and eaten out of a bowl. It's easy to get sugared out quickly here, but a strategically placed water cooler offers instant relief to customers who've sampled too much.
Based in London, the Ambala chain has dozens of locations throughout Europe. About two years ago Hassan, who owns J-Bees men's clothing stores and Athlete's Foot franchises in Chicago, Detroit, and Louisville, proposed opening an Ambala store on Devon, in the middle of Chicago's thriving Indian and Pakistani community. After sending representatives to suss out the local market, the company enthusiastically agreed, though it took until this July to get the necessary FDA approvals to import products and ingredients from London.
The store, the first Ambala in the U.S., has received a warm reception so far, Hassan says: "We got on almost every Indian channel, Indian newspaper." Many of his customers used to frantically stock up on Ambala treats whenever they were overseas. The store is open daily until 11 PM to take advantage of the busy night traffic in the area. Hassan and co-owner Sohail Khan, who's also the midwest regional manager for Athlete's Foot, are planning a second location in Lombard, which has a sizable Indian population. The Ambala company also plans to open branches in Houston and New York in the next year or two.
Nearly all of the desserts are sold by weight, and a large sign on the wall lists the prices per pound, most of them between five and eight dollars. For everyday occasions, counter workers tong sweets into purple-and-gold cardboard boxes bearing the lavish Ambala logo. The store also offers small golden boxes customers can fill with treats, along with more sumptuously decorated purple metal containers that are often filled and given to guests at Indian weddings.
Ambala sells savory treats, too, including Ambala Mix, a blend of puffed rice, peanuts, cashews, potato chips, and raisins; a spicier variant called ferrari chevda; and dhalmooth, a mix of thin dried noodles, brown lentils, and cashews. Indian and Pakistani customers favor Ambala's mango, ginger, lemon, and garlic pickles, Hassan says: "Every household uses pickles for dinner or lunch. It's good for their health." One of his favorite treats is the dessert called gulab jamun, sweet dough balls fried in ghee and soaked in sugar syrup. Ayurvedic considerations aside, there's only so much a person past the age of 12 can take of such profound sweetness. Right? "It depends if you're hooked on it," he says. "I eat it every day."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.