By Stephen and Kate
We love Indian food. We love the differences in cuisine from region to region — even as we love the more Americanized versions of standard Indian dishes that you see on buffets from here to Seattle. But we didn’t always love it. We, like many other people not from South Asia, were once flummoxed by a buffet full of foreign dishes and a menu full of bewildering choices. We couldn’t tell a chapati from a pakora from a thali. All we once knew about Indian food was that it was probably spicy. And some of it is. But some isn’t.
So, curious by nature and interested in eating tasty things, we dug in and have been pleased to learn about Indian food over the years – even branching out to making it ourselves.
India Palace (3007-H McGehee Road) is Montgomery’s only Indian restaurant. Birmingham boasts some really good Indian food (e.g., Silver Coin, Taj India), but the cuisine is still something relatively new to many Montgomery residents. India Palace offers a lunch buffet every day (except Monday, when they, like many Montgomery restaurants are closed) as well as menu-based dinner service. We’ve had dinner there before, but recommend the buffet for folks who are still figuring out what they like to eat. We’re pretty confident that armed with a little knowledge everyone can have a great dining experience at India Palace or (most) any other Indian restaurant. So, a few useful items to consider:
Bread and Rice – Indian food is typically served with bread. It’s really good. The various flatbreads will help you dip up mouthfuls of food or get the last bit of delicious sauce, and they are wonderful in their own right. The most common is naan (pronounced “non”), which can sometimes be ordered as garlic naan (that’s our favorite). You might also try roti, made with whole wheat flour but similar to naan. Its cousin paratha is a layered whole wheat bread sometimes served stuffed with delicious goodies. On the buffet, you’ll always see rice. That’s good for soaking up sauces. You’ll want to make a little pile of rice and then scoop some of the other stuff onto it. Rice may be called “basmati.” That’s a particular variety of long grained rice esteemed for its delicate flavor.
Curry – Most people believe that when something is called a curry, that means it is spicy. Actually, the word curry refers to the sauce or gravy that food is cooked in, rather than to any particular spice mixture. That’s why a curry you order in a Thai restaurant doesn’t taste anything like a curry you get in an Indian restaurant, and both are light years from the thick brown stuff the Japanese call curry. Some places (more Thai than Indian) will divide up their kinds of curries by color: red (made with a red chili powder), yellow (again the tumeric), and green (green chili and lime).
There are a variety of sauces used in the kinds of Indian food you’re likely to encounter in the average buffet – the chicken curry probably has an onion and tomato sauce, made yellow by liberal addition of tumeric, while the vegetable korma likely has a more creamy sauce that might be made with yogurt. In any case, the food on the buffet will not be spicy. When ordering off the menu, you can ask them to make it as spicy as you wish.
Chutney – Indian meals typically include a variety of small sides and sauces known as chutneys. These are basically jams or pickles that can be sweet, savory, or spicy. The green stuff is usually mint chutney. It’s really good on samosas, fried pastries with potato and vegetable filling. You might also be offered a tamarind sauce for some dipping. Tamarind is a sweet-tart fruit also used in a lot of Thai cuisine, and it’s delicious for dunking pakoras, deep-fried vegetable fritters that are especially abundant and delicious on the India Palace buffet. Next to the chutneys on the buffet you’ll see a big bowl of raita. This is a delicious cooling cucumber-yogurt sauce that is wonderful with spicier foods. Don’t mistake it for the sweet rice pudding next to it – this is called kheer, and it’s really good. If you’re mostly experienced with Western cakes and cookies for dessert, try something new and check this out.
Tandoor – A good bit of Indian cooking is done in a tandoor – basically a super-hot clay oven. You might try the tandoori chicken or lamb. Meats are usually kept moist in the tandoor by being rubbed with a yogurt-based sauce first. Naan and some other breads are also cooked in the tandoor, whose high temperature helps them puff and crisp – it’s really hard to replicate these results at home.
Dal – Usually the buffet will have some kind of dal. This is basically a lentil stew that most people eat over rice. There are several kinds of lentils, and this will determine the color of the dal you’re served. There are a number of delicious soups common to Indian restaurants – try the mulligatawny for something delicious and different. At India Palace, it’s vegetarian – an added bonus.
Indian food may or may not be influenced by the period of brutal British colonial rule. It is almost always a good genre of food for vegetarians and may or may not be healthy, per se. Like any nationality, you’ve got a wide variety of methods for cooking, which can range from frying things to baking them. Also, depending on the restaurant you’re at, they may have a great variety of items on the menu — more than just lentils and rice, obviously. Some of our favorite Indian dishes have involved eggplant and items familiar to Southerners, such as okra.
When starting out, especially if buffet ordering, try to keep things separate on your plate (the liquid sauces can run together if you’re not careful) — at least until you can figure out what you like. Once you get the hang of it, the various foods are actually pretty tasty when put together. Among our favorites are aloo gobi (which is cauliflower with potato) and saag paneer (which is a spinach dish with cubes of a unique kind of cheese in it). Meat-eating friends might suggest starting with tandoori chicken or the chicken tikka masala.
Indian food primer aside, the food at India Palace is pretty good. Located in a strip mall near a sadly-closed Halal grocery store and a sadly-closed book store (“The Book Nook”), between a hair place and a seller of braids and extensions, the Palace is the only game in town. The people that work there are super nice and the atmosphere is spare but not unpleasant. It’s quite affordable at lunch ($10-$15 for buffet and drink) and certainly suggested whether you are new to the universe of Indian food or a seasoned vet.
Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.