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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
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
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
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
The other night, while sitting over a decent meal at Princeton’s
Grill, my brother recalled the same event, with the same negative
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
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
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
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
from place to place. Local highlights include the long lamented
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
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
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
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
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
nights when it’s Chaat night. Chaat night offers the opportunity to
try what most of us Westerners never have the opportunity to
— Indian street food. While I normally avoid buffets (and I
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
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,
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
Fresh broccoli, sweet potato slices, red and green bell peppers,
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
Pickles have whole fruit in them and tend to be more piquant. If
ordering one of the spicier entree items, it’s good to have the
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
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
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
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
For me, Indian food is an opportunity to temporarily step into a
world where all of my senses are enlivened and challenged. It’s a
trip worth taking.
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