So many people are quick to say that they don’t like Indian food. I usually find that most people who say that either (a) have never tried any Indian food, but assume they won’t like it because they don’t like “spicy food” (code for curry or anything not American and bland) or (b) have only tried curry dishes and assume that every Indian dish tastes like curry. I assure you that Indian cuisine, like any other, is not a one-trick pony. Don’t be afraid to open the door to one of the most amazing culinary experiences you can have by exploring the diversity of Indian cuisine. It is not all hot and spicy and it is not all traditional curry. With the breadth and depth of flavors developed from meats, seafood, vegetables, and breads using creative combinations of spices and unique cooking techniques, everyone can enjoy Indian food.
I developed an appreciation for Indian cuisine when I lived in the Washington, DC area. I was in DC/Northern Virginia for almost 9 years with access to any international cuisine you could think of. I would frequent my favorite restaurants with my sister and friends – Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Mediterranean, Vietnamese. It was then that I learned that tons of rice and bread will stick to your ribs…and other areas of your body :-) So, I picked up an exercise routine in my mid-twenties instead of putting down my favorite foods. Almost 13 years later, I’ve realized that I need to put some of the food down too! But, Saturday night I did indulge in my favorite Indian dish at my favorite Indian spot in Charlotte - Maharani Indian Cuisine.
My love of diverse cuisines was a driving force during my relocation to Charlotte. I knew nothing about the city when I was looking for a place to live, so I literally drove around in my rental car until I found a nice neighborhood in the University area with easy access to a good Thai restaurant and Indian restaurant. I’m not kidding! That Indian restaurant, unfortunately, went out of business. But, I discovered Maharani, which is close to Uptown Charlotte, about 5 years ago on my way home from work. I have since moved to another area, so I don’t pass Maharani anymore and there aren’t any Indian restaurants where I live now. So, it had been at least six months since I’d been to Maharani because it is a good 30 minute drive. Needless to say, I was eagerly awaiting the trip so I could slip away in the buttery, creamy dreaminess of Butter Chicken – the dumbed-down, English name for the Indian creation known as Murg Makhani.
For those who think they might not like Indian food, I always suggest trying Butter Chicken. As you can see, Butter Chicken makes quite an impression on sight with its bright, vibrant color. The flavors are just as impressive, but I find that the smooth, sweet, buttery creaminess contrasts the brightness of the dish’s color. Maharani describes its Butter Chicken as “Chicken pieces roasted in tandoor and then cooked in a creamy tomato sauce.” Why is this a great dish for a new explorer of Indian cuisine? It offers a mild heat level and the unique Indian experience developed by the myriad of spices/flavorings used, but it also is grounded in the familiar comforts offered by butter, tomato and cream. You can adjust the heat level if you enjoy more of a kick, but Butter Chicken is not a dish that loses something when you eat it mild. I don’t know anyone who has tried it, who still insists that they don’t like Indian food. My favorite accompaniments to Butter Chicken are basmati rice and plain naan, the traditional Indian bread flatbread shown above. I find that people love both of these as well.
If you are feeling adventurous, try the papadum bread that most restaurants give you while you are waiting for your meal to come – see picture to the side. Papadum is crispy and has a distinct bitter flavor. So, don’t be surprised if you don’t like it. The flavor had to grow on me – now I love it, dipped in the spicy mint chutney and sweet tamarind sauce you see on the side, or with mango chutney.
A couple of words of caution – I know it is tempting to go on the internet and find a recipe to try something new at home. I am not posting a recipe here for two reasons. I have never had Indian food made at home that tastes as good as that prepared in an Indian restaurant. Also, the recipe is a bit involved, you might not have all of the spices stocked and you may be tempted to skimp, substitute, short-cut, etc. Trust me – for your first experience, find a good restaurant in your area and try the Butter Chicken. Once you know how good it can be, you can decide whether to take it on at home or find short-cuts like pre-made sauces.
MY CHALLENGE TO YOU: Try something new in Indian cuisine this month and let me know when you do in the comment form below. If you have never had Indian food, try Butter Chicken and naan. If you’ve had Indian food before or already love it like I do, try something new from the menu of your favorite Indian spot – add a new vegetable side dish, try a new bread, venture out to a new main dish. I will bring you more in the future about Indian dishes I love…and some recipes ;-) Happy exploring!