Does This Come With a Side of Rice or Chapati? Browsing Through Indian Restaurants in the American South
- I am thankful for all our ethnic restaurants trying their best to recreate “Ghar ka khana” for us.
Indian curries are spicy and need to be eaten with rice or leavened/unleavened bread. Most North Indian restaurants in the U.S., Europe, and in India offer a side of jeera or cumin-tempered basmati rice. Some entrées come with deep fried bread like chana bhatura or aloo puri. The South Indian dishes have a variety of rice/lentil crepes called dosasand they come with mustard tempered potatoes, an array of sweet and spicy chutneys containing coconut, peanuts, and garlic. A bowl of tart vegetable and lentil soup called sambar completes the entrée. They don’t expect you to order chutneys and sambar extra. It’s just common courtesy of the restaurateur and an expectation of the Americanized Indian customer.
Over the last 30 years, we generally eat at these ethnic restaurants with family and friends. COVID-19 ushered in an era of takeout. The ones we commonly use are familiar with our ordering habits and they try to accommodate us. The owners of Taj India in Birmingham, Alabama knew that I liked my Punjabi Kadhi without pakoras or fritters, so they gave my pakoras on the side. My Palak Paneer was always cooked without cream and the tandoori rotis were always made with whole wheat.
Once we invited my daughter’s professor and his team to lunch at the same restaurant. They ordered nan with chicken curry but when they saw my rotis, they wanted to try them. They loved the earthy taste and texture and exclaimed that they liked the tandoori rotis. I thanked the maitre de and asked them to send another basket of whole wheat bread and take the white naanaway. But the good doctor protested. He wanted to keep his white naan too. We have moved from Birmingham, but when my daughter’s friends go to Taj India, they talk about all of us breaking authentic Indian bread together.
When we order food from Sitar restaurant on Jordan Lane in Huntsville, they listen to what I am saying. They always cook in less oil, with extra ginger, and make sure to add a side of onions, chilies, and slices of lime. If they are feeling generous they throw in a spoonful of Pachranga pickle and Gulab Jamun for dessert. I am thankful for their consideration. The establishment is not fancy but they are courteous. After a long day of work or after an international flight from India that makes me miss home-cooked meals even more… This restaurant caters to my pangs for home. I have their number on the speed dial. Many of my friends go there and order my favorites.
Not everyone is as accommodating though. At one restaurant the owner came out to stare at me when I ordered their ginger chutney. They also left me sitting for 40 minutes before taking my order, focusing more on a family of eight. Those restaurants have folded over the last year, while the kind ones continue to thrive.
Amritsari Paneer Tikka
A flavor in a far-flung corner of the world that conjures up a memory of childhood. I remember a stroll down the Company Garden path in Amritsar. Holding dad’s hand and looking back at mom as she shook her head at my hop-skip-jump gait. The wafting aroma of Amritsari paneer tikka or fish pakorawould wake me up from a deep slumber as a kid. I remember the Amritsarichef’s face wreathed in smiles as I complimented him on his fish pakoras and told him how dad used to tell us not to eat fish in the months without an “R”. The owner of the restaurant was so envious of his chef that he bragged about all the dishes he could cook.
Food envy! Indeed! I tried to distract him by asking him if he could recreate a special dessert for our table. I was amazed when he went back into the kitchen and brought a tray of sweets with a flourish! Rose kulfi with falooda, gajar halwa and gulab jamun. My favorite was a small earthenware sakora of paan-flavored phirni. The unexpected flavor of a pinch of pureed betel leaves was refreshing in the creamy sweetness of blended rice pudding.
Most of us go to restaurants to enjoy fresh bread hot from the oven. Gourmet restaurants like Junoon in New York or Rasika in Washington, D.C. do not serve rice or bread with their dishes. You have to order a bread basket that may contain naan, tandoori roti and missi roti for the table. The same thing applies to rice. There is an option for steamed or lightly fried pulao with bay leaf and cloves.
When you are in a fancy environment with candles, flower arrangements and soothing music, you overlook that particular faux pas and happily order both carb options for the table. But when you go to a dhabastyle/hole-in-the-wall place, you expect a fistful of cooked plain rice or chapati with your food.
But let me apprise you about one restaurant that takes pride in serving home-style food. It’s about four hours away from Huntsville as the crow flies. Their food is fresh and mouth-watering. They offer a variety of North Indian entrees, appetizers and desserts. They also make regional and seasonal dishes like Dal Baati Choormaand Sarson Ka Saag with makki ki roti. This is the Indian version of mustard greens and cornbread. Only more mouth-wateringly yummy, if you scoop up the fragrantsaagwith the roti, after drenching in butter! In between saag-roti bites, you alternate with a teeny bite of green chilli pepper and gud (jaggery). This eating ritual transports you straight into the golden yellow sarson ke khet in Punjaband Haryana. Last time my daughter ate her dinner while watching the epic romantic Bollywood film DDLJ!
But this restaurant is adamant about its carb policy. It does not give you any bread or rice. Recently, my daughter ordered food from them and paid for naan to go with her chickpea curry. They charged her $2.00 and rang it up as dessert? She did not question this as long as she got the bread. At home when she opened the foil-wrapped bread she saw three bite-sized pieces of nan! She was really amazed! She sent me a picture and said: “Mom, do they think I am a mouse”? This would be perfect for Jerry but not sufficient to go with a chana masala! I laughed out loud. For some reason, they don’t like cooking rice or making naan.
Regardless, their food is honest. They have transported us so many times with their choorma to my nani’s kitchen in Jaipur. After eating their spongy rasgullas, I have to blink because they are just like the ones my uncle used to buy from Bengali Market in Delhi. Next time I am in Atlanta, I should order two servings of badam halwaand bring some naans for the chaathouse. I am thankful for all our ethnic restaurants trying their best to recreate“Ghar ka khana” for us. It has been very difficult for many of them to keep their doors open and pay their employees during the pandemic. If we want to have quality and variety in Indian food, we must support them. They are trying to make their ends meet, one curry at a time. If we don’t support them, they won’t survive.
(Top photo: Taj India, Birmingham, AL)
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published many poems, essays and two books, “My Light Reflections” and “Flow through My Heart.” You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.