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.
I ask Darayus what he misses most about Bombay. I get the sense that, although happy with his work, he's a little displaced in Houston. "I miss the way people get together and socialize every night," he sighs. "In Bombay, you go to a club in your neighborhood in the evening, and all your friends are there. You don't have to make plans and coordinate schedules and drive to a different part of town. Being with your friends is just a natural part of your life."
A family walks into India Grocers [6606 Southwest Freeway, (713)266-7717] at the same time we do. They seem to be coming from a wedding or a religious ceremony. The women are dressed in brightly colored flowing Indian dresses, with ornate jewelry and the traditional markings. They seem so exotic, until one of the teenagers says to another, "Are you kidding? I have already been to this place, like, so many times "
Darayus takes me to an aisle stocked with cans of fruit and picks one up. The label says, "Alphonso mango pulp." "Once you have eaten Alphonso mangoes, you will not be able to eat any other kind of mangoes," Darayus assures me.
"So what do you do with the canned mango pulp?" I ask.
"I buy a gallon of Blue Bell vanilla and mix it in the food processor with a can of this pulp. Then I refreeze it. It's the best mango ice cream you will ever have."
There are several varieties of packaged papadams, the crispy lentil tortillas, and a chest freezer full of nan, paratha and kulcha breads. Aisle after aisle of chutneys, pickles, condiments and bottled hot sauces, including the popular Patak's line, are available. I browse through the drink-mix syrups: Rose, almond and lemon-barley are the most popular flavors. I am intrigued by a "cooling summer drink" flavored with "screwpine extract."
Darayus is partial to Parsi-style tea. It's a strong green tea made with lemongrass and mint, he says. He picks up a jar of seasoning paste and takes it to the checkout counter. Then we stroll across the parking lot to Anand Bhavan [6662 Southwest Freeway, (713)977-0150]. There is a Gujarati buffet in progress, but we just order ice cream. I get my favorite Indian flavor -- saffron-pistachio -- and he gets a fruit flavor called chikoo.
"Going out for an ice cream is a wonderful excursion in Bombay," says Darayus, as we walk back across the parking lot eating our scoops with plastic spoons. "The ice cream stalls are on the beach, and there are zillions of them. They have every flavor you've ever heard of: rose, saffron, mango, chikoo. And the flavors are so intense; they really taste like the fruit. Then there's the sea and the breeze "
It sounds lovely the way Darayus describes it. But I realize the flavors he remembers are made more intense by the sense of home they recapture. If I were standing in Bombay right now eating ice cream on that beach, after living 20 years away from home, I would probably be dreaming of Blue Bell back in Texas. I thank Darayus for the tour. I think he had fun, too, even if it did make him homesick.
As Lin Yü-t'ang once said: "What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?"