by Lizzie Norgard
For a gas station deli, the Exxon on Main Street offers some uncommon and remarkably popular fare.
Long lines form at the Exxon every Wednesday and Friday at lunchtime when Neera Kaur, who with her husband Bali Singh owns and operates the Exxon station, cooks authentic Indian food and serves it in the station’s deli. She varies the selection every week, usually offering one vegetarian and one meat item served with basmati rice. She also prepares masala tea and samosa pastries every day.
Kaur and Singh moved from California to Walla Walla after buying the Exxon station nine months ago. Encouraged by Whitman politics professor Shampa Biswas, Kaur began serving her samosas in the deli. She soon decided to broaden the selection to a full lunch menu and has been serving weekly lunches ever since.
Originally from India, Kaur uses a combination of recipes she invented herself as well as recipes she learned in Home Science classes in India. She says that cooking has always been her hobby, though she has not operated a restaurant or worked as a cook before. Kaur buys some of the spices she uses, such as red chili, fennel, coriander, and alwain seeds, on trips to Seattle. She is very particular about her recipes, and said that they are “always spicy.” She said that some Indian restaurants use too much cream in their recipes, which moderates the spiciness and changes the flavor of the dish. Spice is part of what gives many Indian recipes their distinctive flavors, and regarding the spiciness of her own recipes Kaur said, “I won’t change it.”
Whitman chemistry professor Frank Dunnivant, who eats Indian food at the Exxon every week, described it as “wonderfully spicy.” When asked about his favorite dish, he said he likes “anything they make.”
Chemistry professor Tommaso Vannelli said that the Indian food is “a good break from pizza and tacos.” Dunnivant and Vannelli both said that the food compares well to Indian food they have had at restaurants.
The Exxon station also has a small selection of Indian spices for sale, including seeds, boxed curries and assorted pickles.
Kaur has not considered opening a restaurant. However, she said she may start a full lunch buffet at the Exxon, which would be open every day, if her customers express enough interest.