Spicy food has lots of benefits for hulking humans. That's just one reason grown-ups acquire a taste not only for gin but also dark coffee and Tabasco sauce. The plants we think of as aromatic, that we use to liven up our dinners, contain volatile oils and chemical compounds. Those oils and compounds are "interesting," we say, "exotic." They tickle our taste buds. They spur our appetites. They're not quite so sexy if you're a smaller mammal or an insect, however, say a caterpillar or a rabbit, for whom chewing on a jalapeño is like eating a poison ivy salad: if it doesn't kill you outright, it'll at least make you uncomfortable enough that on your next garden foray you'll recall that you prefer romaine heads to habaneros, carrots to curry leaves. So cinnamon and pepper plants are well defended from all pests but one. They don't call us omnivores for nothing.
And when the thermometer goes way up? A Caribbean or Indian curry makes us, as Southern ladies like to say, "perspire." Which keeps us cool. Volatile oils in herbs like cilantro, thyme, and pepper also have antibacterial properties; witches, midwives, and family doctors have used them to soothe everything from canker to cancer. Turmeric and ginger are touted as arthritis remedies and help prevent Alzheimer's we're told (although those claims have not been evaluated by the FDA). Eat a couple of cloves of garlic a week and you might disrupt the metabolism of any tumors you happen to be harboring: The National Institute of Health tells us the stinking rose is a terrific immune system booster. Cinnamon has been found to reduce blood sugar, which is good news for diabetics. Cardamom helps you digest your lunch and makes your breath smell good. Cumin soothes a stuffy nose. Nutmeg puts the insomniac to sleep, or wakes a drowsy libido (it mimics the effects of Viagra); just don't eat too much of it, or you and your boner will be taking a magical mystery tour, since a few teaspoons of nutmeg will make you hallucinate like old Tim Leary.
And here's another piece of advice from a girl who's eaten her share of restaurant swill and paid her dues in tummy turmoils. Listen up, intrepid foodies, you swaggering braggarts sussing out the rarest slop from the filthiest roadside carts, you blustering swains with your tales of homemade goat's-head cheese and swine-bristle soup: The hotter the tamale, the less likely you are to spend the evening hugging a toilet bowl. Pepper, oregano, cloves, nutmeg, cilantro, and other hot stuff keep food from spoiling and can considerably lessen the likelihood that you'll end up flowing freely from both ends.
The India Palace
The India Palace, 4478 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Open for lunch buffet 11 a.m. till 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5 p.m. till 9:30 daily. Call 561-478-5606. Wheelchair accessible.
So next time your waiter asks, "mild, medium, or hot?" go for the gold, my friends. Tell him "eight;" tell him "ten." You'll eventually get used to the effects of capsaicin, the compound that puts the punch in paprika and the burn in burrito; the more you eat, the longer you'll live to love it. In Europe during the Middle Ages, pepper was so valuable you could pay your rent or your soldiers with it. An 1884 article in the New York Times reminds us that the landholding of Finchley, in Middlesex, England, was rented annually for a pound of peppercorns. There's an evolutionary reason why cultures in warm climates without working refrigerators have revered chilies and black pepper for centuries.
None of this is to imply in the slightest that you need suffer a moment's hesitation about the South and North Indian fare served at The India Palace. This three-year-old restaurant on Okeechobee Boulevard is wedged between a boutique selling saris and a grocery store purveying all the ingredients you'll need to replicate the Palace's menu at home. The only health dilemma you're likely to face at this wonderful, family-run eatery is the question of how many pounds you can afford to put on. Having tasted practically everything on their menu over a period of three weeks, I can attest that my digestion remains in excellent fettle. If I've been made at all miserable, it's been an existential sort of pain: for example, I wonder whether life without the Palace's palak paneer is really worth living. And there have been relationship snafus since my significant other and I discovered the place. Harsh words have been exchanged over the question of who got up at 3 a.m. and polished off the last of the aloo paratha and chicken tikka. We're going to have to hire a therapist to sort out our boundary issues, such as the question of when it becomes necessary to share a single leftover tandoori shrimp with your spouse.
In the time it takes to complete one lunar cycle, we've become contentious Palace regulars. Why can't all food taste this good? If a single family can turn out seven different kinds of bread, each more pillowy, buttery, fragrant, and delicately spiced than the one you ate here last week, or yesterday, or two minutes ago, what the hell is going on at other restaurants with their pre-frozen dinner rolls and stale crackers? The puri, chapati, roti, and naan at India Palace ($2.99 each, or $5.99 for a mixed basket) is made daily with their clay ovens and griddles, and they are very generous with the stuff. It soaks up those creamy, cashew- and yogurt-infused sauces around your chicken, lamb, or fish to make what must be the world's most perfect meal.
Furthermore (as long as I'm in decrying mode), we have the Palace's masala dosa ($9.95 for two), a transparent crepe made with rice and lentil flour, so crisp it shatters when you bite into it, rolled around a yummy slathering of curried onions and potatoes and paired with a dipping sauce of cool green coconut, coriander, and green chili chutney — why hasn't this magical snack become our national dish? Why haven't fast-food dosa palaces sprung up all over South Florida? And how is it our thirsty tropical populace has escaped becoming addicted to mango lassi ($1.75), a beverage far smoother, richer, and sweeter than any franchised smoothie? Such questions whirl 'round and 'round in my overheated little noggin.
Some people are addicted to mango lassis, our waiter tells us during our third visit. He has a customer who comes in regularly and drinks five tall glasses in a single sitting, he says. You've gotta figure one of these blended shakes, a super-sweet, pungent, deliciously odiferous concoction of yogurt and fresh mango, thick enough to practically eat with a spoon, is going to set you forward about 400 calories. So at one go this customer is putting away more than my entire daily caloric intake. He's definitely not going to fit into any of the teensy beaded fripperies selling next door at Fab India Boutique.
I love a mango lassi as much as the next girl, but with dinner I'll order the salt and mint lassi because, unless it's heavily spiked with something above 80 proof, I prefer my beverage savory. I've given up on the Palace's house wine — neither of the whites are any good and both were served too warm both times I ordered them. But it took me just two sips of the mint and salt lassi to acquire a taste for this drink that has never flagged. It's pretty much an ideal companion for the chicken samosa appetizer ($4.29), a chewy pastry stuffed with potatoes and chicken and livened with ginger, turmeric, and garam masala. It's marvelous accompaniment for palak paneer ($11.99), the beloved spinach and homemade cheese dish with its warm, wafting mists of cumin and coriander. Or with shahi korma ($12.99); chunks of lamb basted in a sauce made from cream, almonds, cashews, and a color-wheel of spices: saffron, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, onion and garlic bulbs, ginger root, and black and cayenne pepper.
I haven't had a dish yet that I didn't love at the Palace, from a menu that ranges all over the Indian map — the tandoor dishes of the north, seafood from the coasts, and vegetable dishes, dosas, and the lentil donuts called vadas from the south. Some, though, were so special, so beautifully presented in their copper chafing dishes and sizzling skillets, and so ridiculously cheap considering the amount of pleasure they bestowed, that I'll recommend you try them first. In geographical order, the North Indian classics:
Eight jumbo tandoori shrimp ($17.99), coated with a classic tandoori marinade of yogurt, ground cumin seed and garam masala, among other ingredients, skewered and cooked in a clay oven and served in a skillet piled with gorgeous, just slightly charred vegetables — carrots, onions, broccoli, and squashes.
Chicken tikka palak ($12.99): a Punjab/British Empire concoction consisting of cubes of chicken first marinated and cooked in the tandoori (like the shrimp, above) then mixed into a creamy sauce with fresh spinach. Ideal with a side of paratha (potato-stuffed fried bread) or onion kulcha (potato and onion mixed into tandoori-baked bread and doused with butter), or even an entire basket of mixed breads — garlic naan and butter naan, plus deep-fried puri. Watch your neighboring diners, about half of them Indian families, to learn to eat gracefully with your hands, using the bread as a utensil.
Malai kofta ($10.99): the vegetarian's dream dish. Potato flour croquettes filled with cheese, vegetables, and spices, cooked with onions, green chilies, and curry leaves, and finally plunked into a bath of the most redolent gravy imaginable.
From the East Coast:
Fish moli ($15.99). Fillets of mahi cooked in coconut milk spiced with garlic, onion, green chilies, and curry leaves. We ordered ours extra hot. The firm flesh of the mahi absorbed every nuance of its complicated sauce.
From the South: Melt-in-your-mouth masala dosas ($9.99) with coconut chutney and sambar, a tamarind-based broth. Other choices include cheese dosas, the jumbo-sized ghee roast dosa, medhu vadas (fried lentil donuts), steamed lentil patties called idlis, and the uttapam pancake served with chutney.
For dessert, homemade chai ($1), again highly spiced, is enough. We've tried the mango ice cream and rasamilai ($2.99), a cooked cheese in sweet milk, and I wouldn't rate either above just O.K. If you're still hungry for a sweet, order your third or fourth mango lassi.
Now go get your spice on.
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