Explorations in Ethnic Cuisine – Indian

When I graduated from Dear Old Maine and moved south to the North Jersey, I was woefully unprepared for the culinary experiences of NYC. Though I had enjoyed many a Bert’s Special at Pats (feta, tomato, and spinach pizza? Opa!!) and even sampled a fair amount of crab rangoon at the old China Light, I found that the many new varieties of food I encountered on my big city dining adventures were both exciting and terrifying. The old saying, “He was a Bold Man that first ate an oyster” rings true…that is until you slather one of those suckers up with cocktail sauce and chase it with a gin martini…huzzah! The goal of this series of weblogs is to share some basic knowledge of various cuisines and encourage the reader to branch out and try something new…or at least make it through dinner without ordering from the kiddy menu.
The first year I lived outside Maine, I walked passed a restaurant called Karma Kafe in Hoboken at least 50 times thinking it was a hippy coffee shop…turns out it was the best Indian place in town and would remain a personal favorite for over a decade. Indian food has some of the boldest spices out there along with the heartiest vegetarian food available. I challenge any steak loving man to accompany me to an Indian buffet and not leave full…on my annual Lenten meat-fast I usually end up gaining weight from scarfing so much chana palak (spinach and chick peas in a creamy sauce). Now that’s a good Catholic!
Some dishes are fairly common as sides and appetizers in most Indian restaurants. Dal makhani is a soup-like mixture of black lentels, kidney beans, and spices. It’s got some nice bite to it and makes for a decent palate cleanser. Naan replaces bread as the preferred appetizer nosh. It’s similar to a pita but a little less dry and more savory. Naan is usually served with a spicy green coriander (aka cilantro) chutney and/or a cooling raita sauce made from chilled yogurt and cucumbers. It’s similar to tzatziki for all you who have My Big Fat GreekWedding on your Netflix watch list.
Most main courses you order at an Indian joint are what the British have categorized as curries; meaning some sort of meat or veggies in a gravy and served over rice. Two of my favorite recommendations are chicken tikka masala and lamb korma. The prior is a stew of chicken, marinated in yogurt and grilled in a special tandoor oven, cooked in a creamy tomato and coriander sauce with a bunch of other ingredients like garlic, cumin, ginger, pepper, etc. It is kind of like an Italian vodka sauce but with some more zippy flavors. Lamb korma is seared meat that again is stewed in a creamy yogurt-based sauce flavored with cardamom, coriander, cumin, onions, turmeric, ginger, and about 25 other spices. It’s fantastic and definitely on the milder side if you’re not one for spicy food.
If filling curries aren’t your bag, biryanis are rice casseroles (again with lots of interesting herbs and spices) that can include just vegetables, chicken, lamb, or seafood. For people still on the Atkins Diet, you usually have the option of a variety of simple meat, seafood, or kebab cooked up in the tandoor oven and served on a bed of onions and cabbage. The yogurt marinade makes everything extra moist and the carbs are minimal.
To accompany your meal, there are some decent Indian beers that are extra dry lagers which don’t interfere with the serious spices you’re ingesting. Two that I’ve filled my own stein with recently are Taj Mahal and Kingfisher…I’m pretty sure they are from the same brewery but usually one comes in a big bottle…that’s my fav! If you aren’t imbibing, the tasty alternative is a mango lassi. This is a yogurt and mango smoothie that has a nice zip to it and could be substituted for dessert….however, I don’t recommend EVER skipping dessert. A fairly common option is called kheer. It’s a rice pudding with milk that is light yet very sweet. Similar to arroz con leche but not as filling; meaning you can manage to get it down your gullet after a hearty feast!
Photo Credit: www.indiamarks.com

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