It's 10 o'clock on a Saturday night, and our family has just returned from a day at the temple celebrating Holi, the Hindu festival of colors. We colored each other with every color imaginable. We danced to an Indian band. We ate samosas (flaky Indian pastry filled with potatoes and peas) and potato fritters with spicy tamarind chutney. The meal, from a local restaurant, was topped off with a creamy yogurt pudding. Tomorrow we are headed to see an Indian movie being touted as the next Indian blockbuster. And in a few more weeks, I get to see India's current heartthrob live on stage.
Where am I?
Right here in Washington.
When I moved to DC more than 13 years ago, this would have been a dream. Indian movies were rarely shown here. If I wanted to cook Indian at home, I had to get spices and ingredients from New Delhi and worry about clearing curry leaves through US customs. If I wanted to eat Indian out, the choices were very limited.
The area's Indian community has blossomed, largely because of a highly educated, English-speaking community of doctors, lawyers, and financial professionals with homes in upscale areas like Potomac and McLean. The Dulles corridor has attracted many software engineers and high-tech entrepreneurs. The Indian Embassy estimates that 1.7 million Indians live in the United States–twice as many as ten years ago–with about 100,000 in the Washington area. It is a diverse group that speaks different languages, has different religions, and comes from different parts of India.
The community has brought with it a strong support structure. There is an accredited Indian school in Fairfax that teaches Indian languages, classical dance, and music. There are more than ten Hindu temples and three Sikh gurudwaras (temples) in the area. A movie theater in Loehmann's Plaza in Falls Church shows only Indian movies.
With local channels showing Indian programming and satellite providers like Dish network bringing six Indian channels plus much-in-demand cricket programming, home does not seem so far away now.
A decade ago, most Indians preferred to cook at home rather than eat the "Indian food" in restaurants, cuisine that was often watered down. The repetitive menus featured only northern Indian food and showed little awareness of the more than 30 cuisines that make up the country's culinary repertoire. There were few vegetarian choices on menus, a major shortcoming considering that many Indians are largely vegetarian.
The food of India has been influenced by invasions through the centuries–Mughals, British, Turks, and Portuguese all left their mark. "Nothing was ever discarded," says actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey. "It was made Indian." The invasions created a unique and varied cuisine.
With a 3,000-year-old religious heritage, India is home to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and the Bahai religions–all have different dictates about what can be eaten and how it is prepared.
The cuisine served today at local Indian restaurants is beginning to showcase this rich diversity.
Restaurants operated by trained chefs have raised the bar on Indian cuisine. By bringing in the regional tastes of India, along with good service, they have moved Indian cuisine in the direction of fine dining. Flavors are much more refined. Interiors and ambience have come a long way.
"The awareness level of our clientele regarding Indian food today is very high," says Naresh Advani, owner of Supper Club of India in Herndon. "The awareness of the difference between spice and heat has increased, and we are being asked to prepare spicier, more authentic food. The Indian clientele is asking for the real taste of home."
Doler Shah, a 23-year veteran of the restaurant business and owner of Nirvana and Indian Delight, says, "American tastes have changed. People are traveling more and learning more about Indian food and culture. They are now coming back and asking for specific dishes and are requesting they be prepared authentically.
"Sometimes," she says, "the food they request is so spicy even I cannot eat it."
Who's serving the area's most authentic Indian food? That's a close call. You can find very good food at both fine-dining restaurants and more modest places.
Amma Vegetarian Kitchen (3291-A M St., NW, 202-625-6625; and 344-A Maple Ave. E., Vienna, 703-938-5328). Amma's down-to-earth cooking can best be appreciated in its versions of the light-and-crispy lentil crepes called dosas and the light-and-fluffy rice cakes called idlies. The searing Mysore dosa holds perfectly spiced potatoes in its fold. The lentil curry Sambhar served alongside is agreeably tangy. A pleasant surprise is the Ras Malai, a cheese dumpling bathed in a sweet milk sauce and crowned with crushed almonds–a northern Indian dessert prepared just right at a southern Indian restaurant.
Bombay Bistro (3570 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, 703-359-5810; and 98 W. Montgomery Ave., Rockville, 301-762-8798). Bombay Bistro's consistency of quality in food and service has made it a longtime favorite. The menu offers cuisine from different parts of India. The weekday buffet, for about $7, is a great way to sample the menu. Highlights include Paneer Makhani–Indian cheese cooked in a creamy tomato butter sauce–and sumptuous biryanis. The dishes on the regular dinner menu–spicy Chicken Madras, vegetable croquettes in a cream sauce, tandoor-roasted eggplant, smoky tandoori monkfish, and the cooling yogurt pudding laced with pistachio and saffron–are a testament to why the restaurant has been earning so much praise. The owners of Bombay Bistro opened Indique in Cleveland Park two years ago.
Bombay Club (815 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-659-3727). Champagne brunch at the Bombay Club, a stone's throw from the White House, is a nice way to enjoy a Sunday. You might spot such patrons as former president Clinton, First Lady Laura Bush, Vice President Cheney, Nelson Mandela, or Madeleine Albright. The sober yet striking ambience is reminiscent of the days of the British Raj. It's a great spot for power lunches. Says owner Ashok Bajaj, "I wanted to provide a place where people could come enjoy the taste of Indian food without the overpowering taste of overspiced cooking."
Bombay Club is known for its breads, particularly its naan. Use it to mop up the cilantro-based green chili chicken or the tangy Goan fish curry. Ask for the house-made mango chutney. The Bombay Club also has an interesting wine list. "Wine was an important part of ancient Indian cuisine," Bajaj says, "but has been overlooked in most Indian restaurants."
Bombay Curry Co. (3110 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-836-6363). Nestled in a strip mall in Alexandria, the reasonably priced Bombay Curry Company was voted Alexandria's Best Neighborhood Restaurant a few years ago by Washingtonian readers. The chatty owner, Balraj Bhasin, worked at a restaurant in India that focused on the cuisine of northern India, primarily marinated meats.
Bhasin uses fresh spices in preparing the simple homestyle dishes. For a true taste of India's Northwestern Frontier, try the spicy Kadai chicken prepared with crushed coriander seeds, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and aromatic fenugreek leaves. The owner also sneaks in some southern dishes like the delightful Nilgiri chicken. Named for the evergreen Nilgiri mountains of southern India, the chicken is bathed in a mild, fragrant sauce prepared from fresh cilantro.
A visit on Sunday for the lunch buffet might offer you lauki ki kheer, a milk-based dessert prepared with gourd, a very homey dish from the state of Punjab. This is one of the few Indian restaurants that provides a children's meal that includes Indian as well as American dishes.
Heritage India (2400 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-3120). This attractive, award-winning restaurant does not boast new cuisine or secret foods from exotic parts of India; it serves classic Indian fare straight up–and does a first-rate job. Sepia photographs of Indian royalty give the dining room a regal appearance.
Start with the delicately spiced pan-fried filets of fish in the Mangalorian Fish masala or the mild-flavored Mulligatawny soup prepared with lentils. In my opinion, Heritage India serves the best samosas in town–flaky pastry stuffed with delicately spiced ground lamb. Among main courses, the grouper tossed with onions and tomatoes and the lamb cooked in almond sauce flavored with fennel are my favorites. Vegetarian dishes are anything but predictable. Okra spiked with dry mango powder is one of the best dishes. Forget the plain breads here and go for the hot and fresh stuffed kulchas (especially the one with onions).
Heritage India's Sanjeev Tuli is promising a new location in Dupont Circle that will entice with Indian-style tapas in addition to its regular menu. "Salmon samosas will be a must-try," he says.
Indique (3512-14 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-6600). Focusing on authentic cuisine with elegant decor and good service, Indique has become a hot spot, especially popular with young people. Chef K.N. Vinod's expertise in southern Indian cooking can be seen in such dishes as Calamari Ullarthiyathe, a spicy preparation of squid with shallots, ginger, hot peppers, and mustard seeds; mussels stewed in gently spiced coconut milk; and fiery hot Chicken Chettinad cooked in toasted Tellicherry peppercorns, coriander, and anise.
Most Indian restaurants struggle with desserts. Indique's playful concoctions marry the chef's backgrounds in Indian and French food. Kulfi, a traditional Indian ice cream, is served with a refreshing orange sauce. Sweet Indian dumplings, Gulab Jamun, are flambéed at table. Forget the Kingfisher beer here and treat yourself to the tangy tamarind margarita, a bestseller, or even the pink kokum martini, prepared with the mangosteen fruit. The drinks are helping attract a young crowd. "We like bringing people here to show off what Indian food is really about," a young Indian friend confides. "I know the service will be good and my friends will be impressed."
Nirvana (1810 K St., NW; 202-223-5043). Nirvana is my favorite restaurant for vegetarian Indian food. Each weekday it offers a buffet highlighting a different region of India. Owned and operated by Doler Shah and her husband, Jawahar Shah, Nirvana goes well beyond the standard Indian fare. The Gujarati buffet, from the western state of Gujarat, showcases a perfectly prepared Kobi Nu Shak, a cabbage curry.
Puris–fried Indian bread–are just right, never soggy or oily. The dessert Sev Ni Birang, vermicelli and sugar cooked together, forms a melt-in-your-mouth pudding. The bar menu, in addition to wines and beers, features Indian drinks like somras, prepared with milk, mixed nuts, and rum–just the thing to wash down the Ghata Biryani, chickpea patties layered in rice, from the northeastern state of Rajasthan, or the highly spiced vegetable vindaloo.
Passage to India (4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-3373). This attractive restaurant, decorated with antique maps of the Indian subcontinent, is a great place to order dishes you've never tried before. You can get a sampling of the best from the preplanned platters, which offer well-thought-out meals. The Nawabi Khazana features kebabs of fish, chicken, and lamb; chicken cooked in sesame and poppy seeds (Dum Ka Murg); lamb simmered in yogurt (Yakhani Gosht); and a rich rice pudding for dessert.
The vegetarian Begumi Khazana features vegetarian fritters, crisp potatoes in a tangy dressing, mixed vegetable curries, Indian cheese in a velvety tomato sauce (Paneer Makhni), and a sweet rice pudding. Both platters include saffron rice, delicious house lentils, and a side salad. Owner and chef Sudhir Seth's specialties include silky spinach with corn (Palak Makai) and an inspired chicken in butter tomato sauce (Murgh Makhani).
Skewers (9736 Traville Gateway Dr., Rockville; 301-279-6999). This newly opened restaurant knows kebabs. Owner Imran Ahmed, who has more than 15 years' experience in the business, says his vision was to create a homey place that prepared kebabs just right. The naans are just right, too. The jumbo prawns in a spicy red marinade and the lamp chops marinated in a ginger-and-garlic paste and then cooked in the clay oven are mouthwatering.
In addition to the Indian entrées, the menu offers Mediterranean treats like tabbouleh served with an Indian mint flatbread. Chicken breasts cooked in creamy almond sauce and ground-chicken kebabs prepared with fresh herbs and spices are the highlights of the "specialty menu." The interior of this fast-food place is spotless. With pictures of Hollywood stars on the walls and hand-drawn portraits from Pakistan, the ambience is welcoming.
Supper Club of India (13055 Worldgate Dr., Herndon; 703-736-0466). Owner Naresh Advani, a 27-year veteran of the restaurant business, has helped start some 15 Indian restaurants worldwide. General manager Patrick Lazarus, who has been with Advani for more than 20 years, ensures good service. The food is prepared impeccably by the Qureshi brothers, members of a legendary family who served as the chefs of Indian royalty and who descended from the Mogul rulers who came to India from Persia. The cuisine reflects the liberal Persian use of nuts, cream, yogurt, clarified butter, dry fruits, cinnamon, and cloves. The dinner menu features such dishes as Lobster Angara (angara means spark), lobster cooked in a fiery red spice; a delicate cashew roll of potatoes and nuts; and the gently spiced Murg Badami, chicken cooked in a creamy almond sauce.
Tandoori Nights (106 Market St., Gaithersburg; 301-947-4007). Walls covered with Washington artist Freya Grand's murals, a snazzy bar, and a seriously excellent tandoori pomfret–a fish similar to pompano–give Tandoori Nights all the right ingredients for a fine Indian dining experience. Chutneys, often overlooked in Indian restaurants, shine here and are a perfect accompaniment to the shrimp fritters on the extensive menu. The chef's special lamb chops, a unique dish cooked in a gravy with chickpeas, are quite delightful. Raj Kachori, a regional specialty from the eastern part of India, showcases deep-fried mini-balloon breads filled with garbanzo beans, yogurt, tamarind sauce, and mint chutney. It makes for sloppy eating but happy taste buds. The house-made ice creams are a treat–the season around Valentine's Day featured a delicious and unusual rose ice cream.
Woodlands (4078 Jermantown Rd., Fairfax, 703-385-1996; 8046 New Hampshire Ave., Langley Park, 301-434-4202; and 18216 Contour Rd., Gaithersburg, 301-963-4466). Simplicity is the charm of the restaurant, and authenticity is the charm of the food. The rice-and-lentil crepes contain many choices of stuffings, including an unusual one of Indian cheese. If you are bold, try the Milakai Podi, a fiery mix of spices served as a side; in southern India it is called "gunpowder" because of the kick it provides. Sprinkle it over your dosa or rice.
I love visiting this restaurant on the weekend, when spiced steamed-rice-and-lentil patties garnished with coriander, cashews, and cilantro are on the menu. If your taste buds hanker for something really fiery and delicious, try the Indian-style pancakes with onions and chilies. Tear off a piece and dip into the freshly prepared coconut chutney. Have a mango shake on hand to cool the fires. Pistachio ice cream and a glass of perfectly brewed cardamom tea will leave you sated. End your meal with a paan, a traditional and much-loved Indian mouth freshener prepared with betel leaves, grated coconut, fennel seeds, and areca nuts.
Cooking Indian at Home
Cooking Indian at home used to be an exercise in locating authentic ingredients. Not these days. In addition to the more than 20 Indian grocery stores in the area, Indian spices and ingredients are on the shelves of supermarkets like Giant, Wegmans, and Whole Foods. Besides carrying hard-to-find ingredients, stores trying to meet the demands of the growing Indian community are offering semi-house-made foods like prefermented batter for preparing Indian dosas, Indian desserts, and house-made breads. Balraj Bhasin, owner of Bombay Curry Club, says he "was stumped a few years ago when we would get calls for takeout asking only for naans and samosas and no entrée. After a few calls, I asked the customers what was going on. They said that they were preparing chicken curry or lamb korma at home and were only calling the restaurant to get the breads and samosas, which are harder to prepare."
Four local stores stand out for their variety and freshness.
Dana Bazar (12215 Nebel St., Rockville; 301-231-7546). This 4,000-square-foot grocery opened its new store last year, having moved from its original Rockville Pike location. Here you can find some of the best Indian greens, like fenugreek, mustard, and spinach. The fruit selection includes unusual items like jackfruit and breadfruit. It offers locally prepared desserts and snacks, plus a large selection of Indian movies, DVDs, and magazines. On weekends, there's a snack bar.
India Grand (7283 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-752-2232). This recently renovated store offers a wide choice of fresh vegetables, spices, and Indian movies. It also has a small fast-food restaurant on site. The sign in the window that says, VEGATABLES HERE CHEAPER THAN KOREAN STORE indicates an enterprise that understands its market.
Indian Spices, Gifts & Appliances (3901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-522-0149). A stone's throw from the Ballston Common mall and Metro station, this grocery store has a 33-year history. In addition to spices, pickles, fresh breads, Indian beers, and desserts flown in from New York, it carries dual-voltage appliances, luggage, and clothing.
Patel Brothers (2074 University Blvd., Hyattsville; 301-422-1555). In this store that opened in 1987 you will find a wide array of typical Indian vegetables like okra, baby eggplant, and green beans. The frozen-food section offers a variety of prepared dinners, breads, and ice creams. Video rentals are also available, as are ethnic pots and pans and unusual items like spiced teabags.