All the Raj
Indian cuisine finds receptive audiences from fine dining to colleges
Indian food is chile-pepper hot.
After decades confined to ethnic neighborhoods, it is stepping into the mainstream, bringing its exotic flavors and aromas to the American table as never before. The movement is led by a new generation of chefs who are updating their national dishes, and it is spurred on by the growing sophistication of diners hungry for new tastes.
Upscale Indian restaurants and moderately priced cafes are drawing a mix of trend followers and foodies, while on college campuses, undergraduates are queuing up for curries, sambals and other Indian specialties that increasingly are part of their foodservice programs.
Curries have been on the menu at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., since the mid-1990s, but the past three years have seen an explosion in both the number and nature of Indian dishes served.
|Indian cuisine's influences are evident at many operations including New York City's "21" Club, where Executive Chef Erik Blauberg serves cinnamon-lavender duck.
“Our clientele demands it,” says Rafi Taherian, Stanford’s associate director of residential dining. “Students today are sophisticated. They watch Food Network and grew up eating in restaurants. We used to have tandoori chicken, now we have to have dal and kormas. And the spice mixture has to be right.”
At Stanford, the taste for Indian food stretches across all nationality groups in the ethnically diverse student body. Taherian estimates that 15% of the 9,000 to 10,000 meals served each day in the university’s eight dining halls are Indian.
“This is really great food,” he said. “Because of its limited protein content, it delivers very well for the vegan and vegetarian population. Yet it is high in flavor and is very cost friendly.”
A typical Indian meal at Stanford might include basmati rice, lentil dal, chicken tikka, chicken korma and a little chicken tandoori, for $5.95. Vegetarians could sample basmati rice and kormas made of braised cauliflower, potatoes and kale, for $4.99.
To create its new menu, Stanford sought the expertise of a Bay Area spice company that created premixed spice packets for the university, developed recipes tailored to its needs and sent representatives onto campus to teach staff cooks how to prepare dishes.
A Taste of India series, which brought outside chefs to Stanford for demonstration dinners, educated both the university’s cooks and student body.
Restaurants in almost all segments and price ranges are exploring Indian cuisine. A short drive from Stanford, Tallula has been creating a stir since it opened in San Francisco a year ago.
Tallula serves what Co-owner Harveen Khera calls “regional Indian cuisine prepared with French cooking techniques and California fresh ingredients.”
The daughter of an Indian mother and Malaysian father, Khera grew up in London, eating fish and chips and curry. “Your palate is tempered because you are raised on both cuisines,” she says.
Dishes on Tallula’s menu include miniature lemon-and-cilantro pancakes with tamarind-date chutney, curried lamb chops with mint relish and chickpea croquettes, and fennel-crusted golden trout with sprouted mung beans in lemon-ginger vinaigrette.
|Indian cuisine is about diversity of flavors, textures and ingredients, not just spices, as a mixed thali (an assortment of popular dishes) at Café Spice and other Indian restaurants will attest.
“I was worried that we weren’t going to be able to keep the lights on when we first started the project,” says Khera. “But people have been very receptive.”
On the other side of the continent, Tuhin Dutta is putting his own twists on his native cuisine at the recently opened Cardamomm in New York City. Dutta’s menu includes lamb curry with cognac, orange-liqueur-marinated chicken kebabs with cashew crust, and pan-seared striped bass in a sauce of mint, chile and cumin.
“My foundation is Indian, but I mellow it and incorporate flavors from the rest of the world,” says Dutta, former chef at Banjara and a graduate of the French Culinary Institute.
But don’t call his cooking “fusion.” Make it “modern Indian,” please. “Every cuisine goes through transformation,” he explains. “It’s more a case of old school, new school. It’s more creative today.”
Sumanth Das stands firmly in the creative camp. At Chicago’s Monsoon, the Bombay-born and -trained chef is drawing diners with what he terms his “Indian-inspired Asian cuisine.”
Tandoori beef served with bean cassoulet and soy-red-wine reduction is a signature dish on a menu that includes cardamom-and-fennel-crusted scallops, and wok-fried quail with tamarind and jaggery sweet-and-sour sauce.
“I don’t do really spicy food because a lot of people are turned off by it,” says Das. Instead, when he reaches into his pantry of some 30 spices, he plucks out green and black cardamom and saffron far more often than chile powder. “There are so many spices,” he says. “The thing to do is learn their flavors by themselves, then you can combine them and give a different twist. Customers today are very receptive to that.”
People in Richardson, Texas, near Dallas, clearly are open to 1-year-old Masala Wok. Specializing in prepared-to-order Indian and Indo-Chinese food, the upscale fast-casual restaurant feeds some 200 people at lunch and does a brisk nighttime business, according to Manager Chetan Reddy. In response to the warm reception, a second restaurant, Masala, recently opened in Irvington, Texas.
Customers place orders at a counter and are served at their tables. Entrées include side dishes of rice, dal and the traditional bread, naan. Checks average $8.
|At Monsoon, Executive Chef Sumanth Das mixes classic Western preparations with Indian ingredients. His vegetable Napoleon layers seared paneer (an Indian unripened cheese) with grilled marinated vegetables. It is served with yellow-lentil emulsion and cilantro.
Bowing to American palates, Masala Wok offers dishes in mild, medium and hot versions. And it adds vegetables to its Indo-Chinese dishes, which in India typically are largely meat or chicken.
Popular items include chicken tikka— boneless chicken cubes marinated in yogurt and spices, cooked in the tandoori clay oven and served with curry sauce—and malai kofta, a vegetarian dish of finely chopped potatoes, carrots, beans and paneer (Indian cheese), rolled in a ball and cooked in a yellow-curry sauce.
At lunch, 70% of the restaurant’s customers are American, 30% Indian, says Reddy. At night, the mix shifts to 90% Indian.
Heat and spice
Café Spice, a rapidly expanding New York City-based chain of bistros and express carryouts with units in New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey, also serves sizable crowds at lunch and dinner. The bistro menu features regional Indian dishes, tamed to American tastes, and accompanied by rice, salad, naan, dal and fresh seasonal vegetables.
“It’s a really big plate,” says General Manager Alok Kuman. That big plate is delivered at a moderate price. The extensive menu features such dishes as chicken tikka braised in a cream-tomato sauce, and boneless lamb cooked in onion, garlic, ginger paste, coconut milk, green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and fresh mint. Entrées average $16.
While other chefs are dousing the fire and blending the flavors in their Indian cuisine, Samir Majmudar is going in the other direction at his three Boston-area restaurants: Tanjore in Cambridge, Bhindi Bazaar Indian Cafe in Boston and the new Rani Indian Bistro, on the site of his 12-year-old Bombay Bistro in Brookline.
“When I started in 1991, I had to tone down my food because a lot of customers kept sending it back, saying it was too strong,” says the chef. “Since 1995, I have decided I don’t want to tone it down. I want to be as authentic as possible.”
Majmudar specializes in regional Indian cooking, and trains his waiters to guide new patrons to the dish that is right for them. Those with timid palates are steered toward selections like sali boti, a sweet-and-sour lamb curry with apricots, a dish from Bombay that the chef describes as “very lightly sweet and savory.” The more adventuresome are encouraged to try a fiery vindaloo from West India.
He does not worry that customers will go away unsatisfied. “Indian food offers very hot, spicy, sharp-tasting dishes and dishes that are very rich and very mellow,” he says. “Indian food has everything.”
Spheres of influence
A restaurant does not have to be Indian to serve curry and coriander, saffron and turmeric. Across the United States, chefs are incorporating the bold and sensuous flavors of Indian cuisine into dishes on their contemporary American menus.
“It adds another dimension to what we can get out of any particular ingredient,” says Grant Achatz of Trio restaurant in Evanston, Ill.
Achatz’s Indian spices of choice include saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and “anything in the curry family.” Recent tasting menus have featured curry-roasted cauliflower with fenugreek, couscous and pink peppercorns; Michigan brook trout roe with ginger, soy and papaya; and tapioca of roses, with raspberries and clove ice cream.
“People love them,” he says of Indian flavors. “Today’s diners don’t look on it as a freakish thing. When they see these tastes coming to them in a four-star setting, they get excited about it.”
Following are other operators who spice up menus with the flavors of India.