Corrections or additions?

This article by Patrick Mooney was prepared for the May 8, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Flavors Fill the Sail, the Passage is to India

It’s difficult to pinpoint when my attraction to

India’s

complex and unique cuisine began. Why does one try food so different

from the familiar? From a culinary standpoint, I sometimes think that

it’s a bit like the progress of any obsession — moving from

dalliance,

to infatuation, to full-fledged addiction. One tires of pot roasts

and takes a veal parmigiana for a spin, then it’s on to mu shu pork

and chiles rellenos, and before you know it you’re staring at a menu

offering Chicken Tikka, Lamb Pasanda, Vegetable Korma, and Bangan

Bhartha.

For too many of us the mention on Indian food brings back memories,

generally negative, of dishes spiced up with a sprinkling from a small

can or jar of supermarket curry powder. I too have such a memory of

my father spiking my mother’s Welsh rarebit with Durkee’s curry

powder.

The other night, while sitting over a decent meal at Princeton’s

Masala

Grill, my brother recalled the same event, with the same negative

connotation.

In my case Indian food was rescued and reintroduced to me more than

20 years ago by a pair of slightly more adventurous friends who talked

my wife and me into trying Sitar on Route 27 in Kendall Park. I now

know that the food Sitar then served wasn’t the finest, the meats

may not have been the best cuts, but oh those flavors. I had never

tasted the like — complex, bright and unlike anything that had

ever crossed my lips before. And a world apart from my father’s early

attempt at fusion cuisine.

At this point, a little discussion of geography might be in order.

Like any large country, menus vary from north to south and east to

west — the food of Goa is different from that served in Madras,

which is different from the specialties of Tamil Nadu. Just as most

Chinese restaurants in the United States serve both Szechuan and

Cantonese

cuisine with a bias toward one or the other, most Indian restaurants

serve a sampling of dishes from various regions and cultures of India.

However, most concentrate on dishes from Northern India and supplement

their menus with items from countries with which India shares the

subcontinent — Pakistan and Bangladesh.

You may from time to time be lucky enough to come across

a restaurant that focuses on dishes of Southern India, which are

brighter

and somewhat bolder than their northern cousins. Kalluri Corner on

Nassau Street offers a few dishes from the island of Sri Lanka, which

sits off the southern coast of India.

While it’s common to think of curry as the core of Indian cooking,

it’s probably worth noting that curry references a blend of spices

and that there are different curries with entirely different tastes.

However, there are ingredients that tend to appear and reappear to

a greater or lesser extent as you move from region to region. Not

surprisingly, everyone uses garlic. Ginger, cardamom, coriander and

its fresh alter ego, cilantro, tend to pop up regularly, as do

tamarind

and turmeric, and of course, chili peppers in one form or another.

Since my decades old experience at Sitar, I’ve tried Indian food in

many places, local, across the country and overseas. There are

variations

from place to place. Local highlights include the long lamented

Curries

and Spice that once sat in a Colonial era building in Kingston, and

Sahib in Edison, which occupied a small storefront next to a Dunkin

Donuts. Curries and Spice combined fine Indian cooking with a western

sensibility in style and presentation. Sahib offered impeccable

quality

and presentation. I have yet to taste a Samosa (a deep fried pastry

filled with spiced potatoes and peas), which comes close to matching

Sahib’s. One of the single best Indian dishes I have tried was a

Chicken

Balti from a take-out shop in a small town in Scotland. On the other

side of the ledger, one of the most disappointing was a grievously

mediocre meal at a highly touted Indian restaurant in San Francisco.

While Curries and Spice and Sahib have long ago left the central New

Jersey scene, we are fortunate that a growing crop of Indian

restaurants

has sprung up in our midst. For some reason they appear to pop up

in pairs — Masala Grill and Kalluri Corner in Princeton, Crown

of India and Flavor of India in Plainsboro, and Palace of Asia

and Passage to India in Lawrenceville. Of this sextet, I am

particularly

fond of Passage to India at the Lawrence Shopping Center.

Passage to India produces food that is consistently high in quality,

provides better than average service, and interesting spins that make

the food more interesting. I love visiting Passage to India on

Wednesday

nights when it’s Chaat night. Chaat night offers the opportunity to

try what most of us Westerners never have the opportunity to

experience

— Indian street food. While I normally avoid buffets (and I

strongly

recommend avoiding the lunch buffets at the local Indian restaurants

where the food tends to be over-salted, over-fatted, and not that

interesting), I make an exception for these exciting and different

little bites. I’m particularly fond of Pani Puri, puffy, hollow little

balls made of chickpea flour that you poke a hole in and fill with

marinated chickpeas and a soupy sauce of cilantro, then pop the whole

thing in your mouth. I find them addictive.

Indian food can do that to you. The aromas are so intense and rich,

my saliva glands start working overtime when I open the door to an

Indian restaurant. I know that the aromas are a harbinger of the

sharp,

sometimes spicy hot flavors and deep rich sauces soon to come. A word

about those sauces — they’re not for the diet conscious. Indian

cooking uses a decent amount of oil, ghee (clarified butter), cream,

and/or yogurt.

Masala Grill in Princeton is not only committed to using organic and

free-range ingredients but keeping the use of oil to a minimum. The

vegetarian sampler appetizer gives wonderful evidence of this

commitment.

Fresh broccoli, sweet potato slices, red and green bell peppers,

yellow

squash, and red onion are tossed with an excellent garam masala spice

mix, then lightly grilled. The vegetables end up just cooked enough

while still retaining their individual integrity. The sampler also

includes wonderful potato cakes and a few chunks of tofu that’s been

charred in the tandoor, the traditional clay oven. Entrees at Masala

Grill are a bit more mixed — on one recent visit some were

under-spiced

and others were over-salted.

Despite my affection for Indian cuisine I rarely make

it at home. It’s not the simplest cuisine to tackle and I hate it

when I get part way through a recipe and I can’t find the fenugreek.

Who has fenugreek, a common spice in Indian cooking, in their pantry

anyway? When I have a hankering for Indian at home I take the easy

route (no, not take out, although that’s not a bad option) I take

advantage of Patak’s very decent sauces and marinades. Made in the

United Kingdom where Indian food is as common as Italian food in New

Jersey, they have the right complexity and offer tasty recipes on

the label.

The confession that I use canned sauces will get me shunned by serious

foodies, but I have an even worse confession to make. I also enjoy

the ready to heat and eat entrees from Tamarind Tree. I’m particularly

fond of the Navratan Korma, a creamy vegetable medley with cashews.

Available at many supermarkets, the box contains a plastic tray that’s

sealed with an aluminum lid and a package of brown rice. You simply

throw both in boiling water and five to ten minutes later you are

dining. Serve it with Patak’s lime pickle and it’s a tasty and more

than adequate meal.

Recently, another option has become available at Forrestal Village.

Aniyan’s Sadya Indian Restaurant, which started out at Nicky’s Feast

counter in the food court, offers full meals, but they also sell their

sauces for you to take home — all you need to do is add chicken,

beef, or vegetables. If the chicken curry I tried recently is

indicative

of the quality of their sauces, I may be replacing Patak’s as my path

of least resistance to a quality Indian meal at home. I’m curious

about the relationship with Nicky’s Feast, which specializes in

grilled

chicken dishes and which offers choices from both menus. A small story

I found interesting: While I, of European extraction, was waiting

to order my chicken curry, the gentleman in front of me who appeared

to be of Indian ancestry avoided the curries and kormas, and instead

ordered a grilled chicken sandwich from the regular Nicky’s menu.

Is this a great country or what?

The one thing I miss when I prepare Indian dishes at home are the

breads. I am a big fan of Naan, a puffy flat bread (if that’s not

too much of a contradiction) that is cooked on the inside wall of

the tandoor oven which chars it ever so slightly, then peeled off,

and brushed with ghee. It’s wonderful on its own and it’s a great

way to gather up those last little drops of sauce.

Most Indian restaurants give you Pappadoms when you sit down, Masala

Grill being the exception. Pappadoms are crispy, cracker-like flat

breads made from lentil flour and are often spiced. One normally

cracks

them into smaller pieces and dips them in the tamarind or coriander

sauce served with them, sort of the Indian version of nacho chips

and salsa. Then there are Onion Kulcha, stuffed with onions and

spices,

and Alu Pratha made with mashed potatoes and whole wheat flour. And

that’s just the tip of the bread options.

There are also the optional side dishes, chutneys, pickles, and Raita.

There are many types of each and they add an pleasant complexity to

your meal. Chutneys tend to be cooked and mashed fruit or vegetables,

generally on the sweet side, of which mango chutney is the most

common.

Pickles have whole fruit in them and tend to be more piquant. If

you’re

ordering one of the spicier entree items, it’s good to have the

cooling

effect of a raita, a blend of yogurt and diced vegetables.

Another cooling option is the yogurt drink lassi, which

comes in a variety of fruit flavors. I particularly like the mango,

although I don’t order it for the same reason that I don’t order milk

shakes very often — they’re too filling and then there’s the

calories.

Which raises the question of what to drink with Indian food. Some

people do go for lassi, others take tea. Indian tea, which is flavored

with cardamom and other spices is served hot, sweetened, and with

milk. I like it at the end of the meal. I know that many people choose

beer with their Indian meals and I understand the appeal of a cold

beer, but I prefer a German Riesling. Rieslings tend to be off-dry,

and the complex fruit and floral flavors go very well with and stand

up to Indian cooking.

If you have never tried Indian food, I encourage you to do so for

the brightness of it, for the thrill of eating something different

from the everyday. If the fear of spiciness is keeping you back, start

by trying tandoori chicken, marinated in a mild spice blend and then

cooked in the tandoor oven. Most of the time it is wonderfully

flavorful

and juicy, like really good barbecued chicken. You never know, you

may find it so appealing that you start branching out to kormas which

are also pretty mild, and then stepping up to Lamb Rogan Josh or

Pasanda,

and before you know it you’ll be thinking maybe, just maybe you’ll

slide all the way up the heat scale and give the Chicken Vindaloo

a try.

For me, Indian food is an opportunity to temporarily step into a

different

world where all of my senses are enlivened and challenged. It’s a

trip worth taking.


Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments