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Koliwada is a Sikh neighborhood on the outskirts of Bombay where men in turbans set up food stalls every night, and people gather in the open air to eat tandoori. The night air is full of spice and charcoal, music and laughter. You buy a piece of meat the instant it comes out of the hot clay oven, the herbs and spices still smoking. The red chile marinade permeates the meat all the way to the bone; the crust is crispy, but the flesh is incredibly juicy.
Chicken makhni special: $10.95
Lunch buffet: $8.95
Mango lassi: $2.95
Tandoori chicken: $12.95
Darayus Kolah drops the orange chicken leg back on his plate, ending his reverie and bringing us back to a less juicy reality here at Ashoka on Hillcroft. "Tandoori chicken in the U.S. is always dried out and bland," he complains. "Maybe it's the American chickens?"
Darayus is a Houston architect who grew up in Bombay. I met him at a potluck supper a couple of months ago. He had cooked a unique Parsi dish called masoor, made with black lentils that he carried back from India. I trust a man who flies around the world with lentils in his luggage. I thought he might be just the guy to lead me on a food tour of Houston's Indian neighborhood. On a previous visit to this part of town (see "Veg Out," July 13, 2000), I confessed to an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the regional cuisines of India, and I promised to get back to you with more information. I wish keeping promises were always this easy.
"The chicken makhni is the thing to get here," says Darayus, coming back from the buffet with a second helping. Makhni is a buttery curry from northern India, he explains, and it's usually a good bet in a Punjabi-style restaurant like Ashoka. He also loves the flaky fresh-baked nan here, and the cumin-heavy dal, which tastes to me like brown lentil chili. He finds the saag paneer average, the meat cubes too tough in the lamb curry, the navarattan korma (mixed vegetable curry) too squishy, the mango lassi too thin, and the tandoori unspeakable. "In Houston, skip the tandoori and go for the chicken tikka; that's the Pakistani barbecued chicken. It always tastes better."
Punjabi cooking probably became popular in the United States because it features a lot of rich meat dishes, Darayus speculates. The Punjab region is just south of the Himalayan foothills; it gets cold up there in the winter, so the people have a lot of grilled meats and buttery curries, which suit Western tastes. Bombay Palace[4100 Westheimer, (713)960-8472], Bombay Brasserie [5160 Richmond, (713)355-2000] and Ashoka are all good Punjabi-style restaurants. Amar Singh, the chef at Ashoka, worked at Bombay Palace for more than a decade before he opened this place about a year ago. Ashoka isn't as nicely furnished as its older cousins, but it's a little cheaper. And it's conveniently located around the corner from the Indian grocery.
I ask Darayus for a quick survey on Indian food. There are 15 languages in India and at least as many regional cuisines, he tells me. So forget about learning them all. The dominant style of cooking in Bombay is Moghlai, a sort of universal Muslim style. Biryani is a typical Moghlai dish; it's a rice pillau with vegetables or meats, and it's usually baked in a clay casserole dish sealed with dough or mud so that it becomes a kind of pressure cooker. Pakistani, Moghlai and Punjabi cuisines are fairly similar northern styles, he says. All of them feature excellent wheat breads. If you like beef, try one of the Pakistani restaurants on Bissonnet (see "Multicultural Masala," June 8, 2000), or for excellent Iranian skewered meats try Durban Shiskabob [5670 Hillcroft, (713)975-8350].
Darayus is Parsi; he speaks Hindi and Gujarati. Gujarat is on the west coast of India, north of Bombay. It's heavily influenced by its early Persian settlers. The best Gujarati restaurant in Houston is called Thali [6855 Southwest Freeway, (713)772-0084], Darayus says. It has a buffet for lunch and dinner, so you don't have to figure out the difficult Gujarati language to order. The spinach and lentil dishes are wonderful. A woman walks around the entire time you eat, passing out the most fabulous poori, the little hot breads eaten with seasonings and toppings, which are the heart of Gujarati cuisine.
"But my all-around favorite Indian restaurant in Houston is Madras Pavilion [3910 Kirby Drive, (713)521-2617]," Darayus tells me. "It's southern Indian vegetarian food .Get the wada, which is like a savory donut; the idli, a sort of a dumpling; and the masala dosa. It's a buffet [at lunch], so it's easy to see what you're eating -- all the vegetables are fabulous."
Vegetarian restaurants really appeal to me when the temperature surpasses 90, I tell him, and that day soon will be upon us. I ask how the summer in Houston compares to summer in Bombay. "The heat is about the same, but the air is heavier in Bombay," Darayus says. "It's like pea soup, and the pollution is awful. The motorized three-wheeled rickshaws spew fumes everywhere."
We pay the bill and hop in his car for the short drive to the shopping center at the corner of Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway. While we drive past the tiny Indian shops, I imagine Hillcroft clogged with motorized rickshaws. On the way, Darayus plays me a tape of a young woman with a lovely voice, singing in French. "That's my niece, Ramona Sunavala; she won a recording contract in a talent contest in Bombay. Now she's also going to Bollywood to be in a movie," he says.
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