The Bargain Bhaji
London in the mid-1980s was a crash course in East Asian culture for a girl like me. The universe was Thatcherite; the city reeled under economic stagflation, an AIDS crisis, and a resurgence of neo-Nazi extremism. But there was one bright side: Every corner minimart had a pile of samosas and bhaji on its front counter; you could eat for pennies. A young Indian housewife named Perween Warsi had started making curries and dals at her kitchen table with a bevy of friends, a business she eventually parlayed into a contract with Safeway and a multimillion-dollar company (she´s now the richest Asian woman in Britain, with a CBE from the Queen). As long as you knew how to heat up the plug-in electric burner and the toaster oven provided in your closet-sized, hideously expensive ¨bed-sit,¨ you could pick up, for a dollar or two, a frozen vacu-sealed bag of mung beans or black-eyed pea dal, a mixed-vegetable curry, and a bag of chapatis and you´d have a meal fit for a Mughal.
You couldn´t walk a block in North London without finding a Punjabi restaurant or a poster for Hanif Kurashi´s latest gay-Paki film, My Beautiful Laundrette (the ´80s cultural equivalent of Zadie Smith´s White Teeth). I learned to love the rustic, spicy, gloriously fattening comfort foods incorporating exotic ingredients I´d never heard of: jaggery, ghee, garam masala, asafoetida, fenugreek, lassi drinks laced with cumin and black salt (which, inexplicably, was actually pink). When I came home to the States a few years later, I´d had enough of the terrible weather, the pub bombings, the street grime, the grotesque housing prices. But I really missed Indian food.
In one way or another, I´ve been looking for it ever since, and the Hindu-Sikh celebration of Diwali this month seemed like a good opportunity for exploration. Indian restaurants and groceries in my neighborhood have come and gone the spice shop on Dixie Highway where I used to buy my turmeric has morphed into yet another Cuban sandwich bar. If I have to drive 30 minutes for my fix of rogan josh, such is my fate.
¨Indian¨ cuisine around here generally means Punjabi with a dash of Bengali; that´s like saying American cooking consists of fried chicken, okra, and pecan pie. You won´t find many South Indian dosas on local menus, the pork and duck of Goa, or the pink rice, banana leaves and complex fish dishes of the coasts. Even so, I´m partial to the buffet lunch at Taj in Deerfield Beach that features a lineup of the old Punjab-Bengali standbys, because you can sample so many different dishes for just $8.95. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I filled two plates: sag paneer of spinach and homemade cheese; the creamy spiced peas and potatoes called alu matar; eggplant bharta; vegetable korma with cream, tomatoes, and raisins; channa masala; three kinds of chicken; onion bhaji doused in more cream and yogurt sauce; sweet pickled potatoes, coleslaw, and yogurt-cucumber dahi raitha; and a katchumbar salad of spiced onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Plus fruit chutney, hot sauce, and the intensely salty pickled vegetables whose flavor sends me reeling back to my old Highgate bed-sitter, like an East-Asian version of Proust´s madeleine. As if all this weren´t bang enough for your buck, you also get a big basket of bread hot off the griddle dense, smoky naan lightly blackened on the outside and two wonderful puffballs of fried poori. For dessert, that mouthful of milk and honey called gulab jamon and a dish of pure, cool delectability rice pudding with slivered almonds and pistachios.
You´d pay several hundred dollars with a passel of guests to get this much variety at dinner. So when you go to Taj for an evening meal, you must make decisions. We tried to, over a plate of crispy lentil papadam, stimulating and peppery, with a dish of pungent, sulfurous onion chutney; we dithered; we backtracked; we changed our minds and finally gave up in defeat. Our waiter, though, wasn´t so irresolute; he insisted we have the saag chicken ($13.95) and lamb bhuna ($13.95), the Taj special appetizer ($8.95), some garlic naan ($1.95), and an onion kulcha ($2.95) stuffed with onions and coriander and baked in the tandoor oven. We sank back into our leatherette booth, beneath the elephant-god Ganesh statue and the carved wooden screens, passive and grateful.
Taj´s food is so delicious that the memory of it makes my toes curl. Onion bhajis ($3.95) come out of the fryer meltingly soft and greaseless; they dissolve in your mouth. The special appetizer plate offers luscious, warm mini-samosas stuffed with potatoes and peas; fragrant chunks of chicken tikka; and a seekh kebab made from minced pressed ground beef laced with herbs.
There´s no better way to mop up a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, green peppers, onions, and the remnants of perfectly cooked chunks of tender lamb than with a piece of Taj´s chewy onion kulcha, a bread baked on the hot tandoor walls. Every dish I´ve sampled here is unique and intensely aromatic, with a mixture of spices unlike any of its neighbors. Colors and textures vary from the odd, sweet, brilliantly red pickled potatoes served at the lunch buffet to the dense brown blanket of the mashed eggplant bharta ($9.95); the soulful green gravy of buttery spinach and cheese saag paneer ($9.95); the butter and cream-colored chicken korma ($13.95) studded with raisins and almonds; or the bright-pink-yogurt-infused, fall-off-the-bone tandoori chicken pieces ($12.95). Taj´s channa masala ($8.95), like so many Indian dishes, manages to be both head-clearingly spicy and still intensely comforting.
The foyer walls at 4-year-old Little India in Sunrise are covered with write-ups about the place; it´s a neighborhood favorite, and the dcor is no-frills but cozy, dark and woody, accented with Indian prints and linen-covered tables. Little India offers a menu similar to Taj´s, with the addition of three goat dishes and the complete absence of beef. Since it´s illegal to kill a cow in most of India (goat and mutton are the preferred meats), this restaurant may be a tad more authentic in spirit than Taj, which nonchalantly purveys a half-dozen forbidden beef curries. Little India also has a wider, more intriguing selection of breads, including a fabulous, sweet kashmiri naan ($4.95) stuffed with cashew and dried fruit paste, a keema naan ($4.95) filled with minced lamb and herbs, and a special naan ($4.95) spread with minced chicken. They´re also big on desserts: fresh cream cheese balls, mango or coconut custards, and homemade ice creams (each $3.95).
Little India´s appetizer platter ($7.95) comes with excellent, deep-fried chunks of chicken pakora, little samosas and vegetable bhajis, and slices of lamb kebab, along with tiny bowls of dark, sweet tamarind sauce, which tastes like the marriage of apricots and Worchester, and a tangy mint chutney. We also ordered a plate of onion bhaji ($2.95), but these were much greasier and less delicate than the ones we´d had at Taj.
I´ve eaten goat only twice in my life: first in a curry at a tiny Ocho Rios dive, later shredded up in a Trinidadian roti, and I´d loved it both times, so we ordered goat karahi ($12.95), stir-fried with bell pepper, onion, tomato, and spices. With that, we spooned up a rich eggplant bharta ($9.95) and chicken reshmi kebab ($12.95) chunks of white meat marinated in yogurt and cooked in the tandoor. The goat, alas, was a mistake; under the sauce, we found just gristly knuckles, a little gamey, minimally meaty, ultimately inedible. The bharta of pureed eggplant too was unfortunately overpowered by a single spice possibly cloves. We were enthusiastic, though, about both of the lovely breads a crusty spinach paratha scented with coriander and the flavorful, sweet kashmiri naan and also with our chicken reshmi kebab, which had been marinated in yogurt, garlic, and ginger and spiced with garam masala. This was a vast amount of food; our table for two was embarrassingly crowded. We paid our $70 tab and slouched out with so many takeout cartons that we could barely lift them.
I´d love to take the best of Taj and Little India and hook them up Little India´s variety of special breads to sop up Taj´s superior and more distinctive sauces; Taj´s delicate bhajis, vindaloos, and biryanis sweetened with Little India´s more extensive desserts and lassis. But I suppose if I have to ferry the 20 miles between them to sample the highlights, that´s not so much of a hardship. And even at today´s gas prices, it´s still a hell of a lot cheaper than living in London.
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