Indian food has been a mystery to me. I know it’s one of the world’s great cuisines – a result of diverse culture, geography, history, language and religion. I know that it comes from a densely populated country that runs from the tropical south to the mountainous north and from the Arabian Sea to the Indian Ocean.
There are plenty of Indian restaurants around here – from white tablecloth to take out – covering a wide spectrum of Indian food. Ready to explore, we enlisted our friends Susan and Steve to go with us to Coromandel in Darien and introduce us.
Coromandel, in the Goodwive’s shopping center, is a colorful, well turned-out restaurant with tablecloths, uniformed servers, and a menu that reads like an encyclopedia of Indian cuisine. Three pages of entrees include tandoor, seafood, chicken, lamb, beef, and vegetarian plus appetizers, soups, breads, and rice dishes. Thank heavens for the guidance of Susan and Steve.
Masala, a mix of spices, is the foundation of southern Indian cuisine. Curry, for example, is a masala. We buy it as a ready made mix, just like pumpkin pie spice or chili powder, but in India, each cook makes their own. Often turmeric gives its distinctive yellow color. Coriander, cumin, cloves, and cardamom are often included as well as fennel, bay, or star anise. It can be used dry or made into a paste with water, oil, or coconut milk.
At Coromandel, the wide-ranging menu covers lots of territory. Look carefully at the descriptions to see place names like Punjabi, Peshwari, Bombay, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Goan, and many more regions.
We began with lasuni gobi, crispy cauliflower in an herb-tomato sauce – a big hit with everyone. Portions are generous, so we shared three entrees: murgh shahi korma, tender chicken breast in pistachio and cashew sauce with saffron; mangalorean prawn, perfectly cooked shrimp in a gingery coconut stew; and mirapakaya mamsam koora, lamb with red chillies, coriander, and ginger – the spiciest of the bunch. All this was accompanied by basmati rice and washed down with Taj Mahal lager from India.
Naan, the traditional bread of the India, is cooked in a tandoor oven by sticking rounds of dough to the blisteringly hot inside of the tall clay oven. It’s hot, fresh, and irresistible.
Joe Pullopilly, the managing partner at Coromandel is ever present and happy to guide newbies through the menu. His knowledgeable staff bustles through the stylish dining room, taking equal care of everyone. We felt like insiders when a large party in traditional indian dress came in, sat next to us, and ordered an authentic Indian banquet.
Mumbai Rasoi on Main Ave. is at the other end of the spectrum. A no-frills, reasonably-priced, quick-service place for takeout or eat in, there are only two choices: vegetarian dal saag or chicken saag. Vegetarian or chicken – that’s all the regulars say. My mouth was singing with the flavors all the way home.
With our new-found fascination in Indian food, Marsha wanted to try her hand at home. Biryani, layers of basmati rice and meat seasoned with a traditional masala, typical of the nomadic Mogul culture was her first effort.
Patel Brothers Indian supermarket in the Best Buy Plaza, the local source for Indian supplies, was the place to begin. Ghee (clarified butter), chutney, and naan got her started, but the store is a wonder world of exotic ingredients, fresh vegetables, spices, nuts, rice, and dried fruits. It’s a treat just to walk through.
After making masala from scratch, Marsha sautéed the chicken and vegetables, prepared the rice, and built the fragrant layers in a casserole. Served with cucumber raita (yogurt relish), her biryani was a delicious and satisfying
Bonani Indian Kitchen in Broad River is celebrating 30 years of take out and eat in. Its tenure testifies to the quality of the cooking. The long menu is all cooked to order. A vegetarian biryani was fragrant, loaded with vegetables, and finished with a little spicy heat. The value-priced meal came with excellent naan.
Saffron on Westport Avenue deliciously features the cuisine of the Punjab, the owner’s home region. The pleasant dining room, authentic music, and helpful guidance through the menu set the mood. Hot, crispy pakoras, potato and chickpea fritters, quickly disappeared from the plate. Palak paneer featured Indian cheese (a staple in the Punjab) in creamed spinach. Anther regional classic, chicken tikka masala, was tasty tandoor-grilled chicken in a tomato and cashew sauce.
At every restaurant the owners and staff were warm, welcoming, and eager to explain the food. Our introduction to Indian food looks like the beginning of a long-term, culinary relationship.