Share |

Bennington Bites: Garam Garam Pop Up at Pangaea

Bennington is many people's first foray into Vermont, especially those coming from New York City or the Capital region. While large for southern Vermont, the town, where all directions are given from it's best known intersection "The Four Corners" has that classic, Vermont small-town feel. Its Main St. is dotted with shops and restaurants where everyone knows everyone. There are several restaurants to choose from, too. But there's another food scene in Bennington: one that has embraced the creative economy. The "Bennington Bites" series highlights Bennington's burgeoning alternative food scene starting with the pop ups that always sell out: Mariam Shah's garam garam.

It never fails: when the garam garam social media announces a pop up, everyone starts talking. Everywhere you go in Bennington or the surrounding towns you hear it, "Are you going?" No one needs to say where. We all know. If Mariam's cooking, we're eating. It would be safe to say that garam garam is the favorite restaurant of many Bennington residents. But it's not a restaurant. It's a pop up. It's a meal with friends at Mariam's table. But more than that: it is a huge part of our community.

Bennington College alumnus, Mariam Shah, crafts incredible meals from her native Pakistan and creates new dishes inspired by the flavors and spice of the country. She has taken her food to New York, Brooklyn and beyond where it never fails to sell out. But there's something about garam garam in Bennington. Maybe it's because Bennington has felt like home to Shah since she enrolled at Bennington College in 2010.

On Monday night, Mariam returned to Pangaea for a pop up. Her first pop up was in the space in 2016. It was also Bennington's first pop up.The First garam garam Pangaea Popup Since then things have changed: for Mariam, for Bennington and the world. But garam garam has weathered the changes and only gotten better with age.

Traditionally, Mariam's events have been a flurry of activity. I once referred to them as "Thunderdome, but fun." No reservations. First come, first served. You'll find her at area bars, restaurants or other spaces and you'll know it's the right spot by the line out the door. Couples figure out how to get off of work early and friends don't wait for the person who's running late. It's a testament to her food and to her perfectionism: Mariam always delivers. Everyone knows it. And our alliances are to her when we get the chance to enjoy garam garam. What friend who's running late?

On Monday, however, Bennington experienced garam garam differently. The partnership with Pangaea allowed for reservations and to envision garam garam as a restaurant. On this unseasonably warm night, at nearly 9 pm, Pangaea was a who's who of Bennington. We saw owners of local restaurants enjoying meals. One had just finished and stopped to chat with us about her and her guests' incredible meal. Many hugs were exchanged and the atmosphere was electric. Not only were we excited for a garam garam pop up but we were also excited to see what garam garam would be if it were a permanent fixture in Bennington.

That electricity could have been something more, though. It could be the deep connection Mariam and garam garam have to the space and its owners. Before garam garam existed, Mariam was spending an evening with friends at the bar at Pangaea Lounge. A woman across the way pointed to Mariam and exclaimed, "You! You're a hot ticket!" Having never heard the term, Mariam adopted it but eventually traslated hot into Urdu. She was officially "garam ticket" to the friends who had been there that night. And then, months later, when trying to decide on a name for her food business a roommate suggested "garam ticket." Mariam wasn't a fan but they riffed on it and eventually he said, "garam garam." As Mariam explained to me, "He had no idea that he had just come up with the perfect phrase. In Pakistan you'll always hear people asking for their food hot (in temperature). 'garam garam chai', 'garam garam naan', 'garam garam whatever'. We'll also describe things that are cold as 'thanda thanda' or things that are big as 'bari bari' and small as 'choti choti'. So really, what my very white, American friend Michael had come up with wasn't just an authentically Pakistani phrase, he had had unknowingly dived deep into the heart of Pakistan."

We arrived right before our 9 pm reservation. Nick Disorda, owner of Pangaea and dear friend of Mariam and supporter of garam garam, greeted us warmly from his post at the host station. It was fun to see him looking casual and not in his usual chef's black. He exuded excitement.

Two of our party had arrived earlier and were already seated. Mariam was around, focusing on both the kitchen and service aspects with the confidence of a true leader. The staff was made up of Pangaea's usual kitchen crew, under Chef Shah's direction and vision, with servers made up of Mariam's staff. 

Nine courses were served, seven of which were vegetarian and many of which were gluten free.  

Our server, Melissa, greeted us and brought over the wine list. I chose the Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc and stuck with it for the night.

Melissa walked us through the menu, which was pre-set, and gave us paapar, a selection of papadum. There were nine courses altogether, all varied and providing a glimpse into the breadth of flavors, styles and dishes in Mariam's repertoire. For two of them, diners pre-selected, when making reservations, if they wanted the meat or veg option. We had three meat options and one vegetarian in our group. The food came out quickly, but not before we got to take a look around the packed dining room (on a Monday! at 9 pm!). 

The two small courses after paapar were served room temperature. I'm not sure how Mariam packed so much into the Dahi Puri (pictured below). The sweet yogurt and tamarind sauce made the flavors pop but beyond the flavors of the dish was the complexity in texture. The semolina puffs were crunchy but not hard, the inside a mix of soft potatoes and toothy chickpeas. Texture is a huge part of Mariam's food and she never fails to consider it, even with something so small.

I like sweet potatoes and make them often, but I've never put a citrus and chili lime twist on them like Mariam. These soft treats, Shakarkandi, would be perfect for a party and I have to imagine simple to prepare, although I'm sure it takes years to find the perfect balance of flavors. The potatoes were local, from Mighty Food Farm.

Next up were two bowls of Mirchi ka Pakora, battered shishito peppers in Mariam's famous garam garam tamarind sauce. Shishito peppers, especially deliciously blistered ones, have been appearing on menus for a few years now but garam garam does them differently. The batter of dried pomegranate and coriander seed was flavorful. We finished the first bowl quickly but savored the second, leaving many for throughout our meal. At no point did they get dense, greasy or heavy.

After these two dishes we were each served a a plate with the remaining courses.

The Gobi Fry, at one o'clock consisted of cauliflower stir fried with mustard seeds, nigella seeds, kari leaf, dried red chilies and green chilies. I thought it might be boring, but the cauliflower was the perfect canvas for the flavors of the spices and peppers. The veg was super light, and one of my favorite tastes of the evening.

Kaali Daal aur Chawal, the green lentils and basmati rice, included crispy garlic and dried red chilies. The crispness of the garlic was exactly that, not crunch but slices of crispy garlic—almost caramelized or candied—that tasted incredible. I've never had garlic done this way but I'm definitely going to try making it at home. It's amazing how a change in something we see in so many meals can grow far more complex just by preparing it differently.

The Tandoori Chicken Tender, at six o'clock was a fun addition to the menu. Marinated overnight in yogurt and "a mad concoction of spices," the chicken was hot and juicy, especially with the mint cilantro sauce that was dotted under it. That sauce was incredible. In fact, that was the only complaint of the evening: we wish we'd had a small bowl of it on the table for throughout the meal. It would have been especially great with the paapar. Mariam kept in mind the heat of this selection, contrasting with a cooling mint raita.

At nine o'clock Mariam's beef and string beans, Keema Chawal, might look simple but it was anything but. There was a deepness to this dish. The garam masala and coriander brought such depth and the crunchiness of the string beans was a great touch.

At eleven o'clock was the surprising Aloo bhara Paratha: flatbread made with atta flour and stuffed with a mix of potatoes, onions and birdseye chilies, cilantro and "magic spices." How can something so thin be so packed with flavor? Only Mariam knows. 

Mariam's menu provided small tastes of many dishes which meant there was room for not one but two desserts. 

Kheer, the rice pudding on the left, was infused with rosewater and cardamom, and tasted like Fruit Loops would if they were stripped of too much sugar, chemical flavoring and dyes and made naturally. We all agreed about this and loved it. The flavor was light and the temperature warm enough so that the flavors weren't muted. The Sooji ka Halva offered a melange of savory flavor. This traditional Pakistani dessert is made with semolina, cloves, saffron and cardamom. Both satisfied without being too sweet or too heavy.  

If you live in or around Bennington, or will be visiting the area, I cannot recommend garam garam enough. What started as a small venture—working as a personal chef, selling samosas at farmers' markets—has grown into a favorite part of Bennington's alternative food scene and the growth is not over. Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which I share a recent interview with Mariam (in her voice) that includes what's coming next. Be sure to follow garam garam on Facebook and Instagram so that you don't miss an opportunity to try this incredible food. 


Your rating: None Average: 5 (3 votes)

Recommended Reading

No related items were found.