An Expert Guide to Indian Cuisine: It’s About Layers, and Flavors

By: Saundra Amrhein

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As the Indian-American population has soared, so too, have the dining options for lovers of the fine and rich cuisine that stems from the Indian sub-continent. Here's an expert's guide to enjoying the fare in Tampa. And, if you want to know more, see 12 Tips for Understanding and Enjoying Indian Food.

TAMPA – Long before the thick, rich masala with the tender, moist chicken arrives, before the creamy symphony of butter chicken plays out in your mouth, or the lamb vindaloo can bring tears to your eyes, Surinder Dhaliwal is explaining layers.

“That’s what Indian food is all about – it’s all about the layers,” she says.

That and – no, not the spiciness – the flavors. Layers and flavors.

“There doesn’t have to be heat,” she says addressing straight away the stereotype about Indian food. “It’s all about the flavors.”

As the Indian-American population in Tampa Bay and the rest of the country has soared the past few decades, so too, have the dining options for lovers of the fine and rich cuisine that stems from the Indian sub-continent with all its regional flavors, spices, chutneys and curries.

The Fowler Avenue corridor and adjacent thoroughfares near the University of South Florida in Tampa alone host about a half-dozen Indian restaurants, but there is no shortage throughout the rest of the region and surrounding suburbs.

To the novice diner, however, a little advice could go a long way toward preventing a bite into what looks like a carrot but might really be a tongue-torturing hot chili pepper. And, no matter who many times you’ve dined at an Indian restaurant, there is so much more to learn. (Such as: unlike with Italian bread, do not make the mistake of loading up on the nan before your entrees arrive. Save it for the main dishes. More on that later.)

This is where Dhaliwal enters the picture. As an expert on Indian food, she knows just what types of dishes mix well together and what types of herbs and spices go into each. The thing is, she rarely eats out. That’s because she runs her own business, teaching Indian cooking classes with fresh ingredients and spices from the local grocer. 

Born in Punjab, India, Dhaliwal moved with her parents at the age of 4 to London, where her homesick father spent the rest of her childhood recreating Indian dishes in their kitchen with ingredients from their garden. Dhaliwal learned at his side, and as she grew older and worked through a school-teaching career in Rochester, N.Y., she decided to turn her lifelong passion for Indian food into a business when she and her husband retired and moved to Florida.

On this evening, dressed in a colorful purple salwar kameez outfit of pants with a tunic-like top common in India, she makes an exception and agrees to meet at local Indian restaurants to share some of her insights on her favorite subject.

The first stop is Taste of India on Fowler Avenue for appetizers around 5 p.m. – the hour when many local Indian restaurants re-open for dinner following a lunch-time buffet. The dining room is expansive yet cozy, dimly lit, with two-toned green-orange walls, mirrored pillars and a bronze statue of Ganesh at the entrance. Soft melodic Indian music plays in the background.

Before any food can hit the table, Dhaliwal recommends a refreshing drink of mango lassi – the cool yogurt drink that not only takes the edge off a hot day but also can be used later to neutralize a spicy morsel of food. It arrives in an hour-glass shaped glass, thick and orange, with a swirl of red strawberry syrup for flair along the sides – tasting deliciously somewhere between a smoothie and a milkshake.

Right away, before taking food orders, a waiter brings a small decorative plate of three chutneys and a bowl of papadam – salty, crispy wafer-like crackers made from chickpea and lentil batter fired on a griddle. And so begins Dhaliwal’s chief message about balance between sweet and sour, hot and cool.

“One of the things I do in my cooking classes is try to explain about the balance of flavor – not overly hot or spicy, so that you get the layers,” she says. A sign of good Indian food is not just the spices and the amounts that are used, but how they are used and combined – from cayenne pepper, garam masala, ginger, onion, garlic, to cilantro or dried coriander, turmeric and cumin. The meats and vegetables can be made and mixed multiple ways.

“It’s endless,” she says.

She suggests taking a tiny spoonful of the chutneys, first without the papadam, and letting them rest on the tongue to appreciate the flavors. “It’s just like wine. I let it sit and let the flavors come through.”

There is the tamarind chutney, which is tart and sweet, often made with the tamarind fruit, cumin, brown sugar, ginger and varying spices. Then the green chutney with cilantro and yogurt.

“I love the freshness of the cilantro and the lime and lemon,” she says. And then the red chutney, almost like a chunky relish, often made with a combination of sweet, sour and spice – of red onions, vinegar, sugar and paprika.

The chutneys can be used throughout the meal to layer flavor and texture atop the appetizers and entrees and the gravies or sauces in which they are served.

Next come the key appetizers.

“Samosas are always great,” she says. These little, triangular-shaped, deep fried pastries come stuffed with a spiced filling of potatoes and green peas. They go wonderfully with the different chutneys.

She orders pakoras, or vegetable fritters, dipped in seasoned chickpea batter and deep fried. These are eaten with the hands, she says, dipping them in the chutneys – a carnival of flavors on the tongue that mix and melt in the mouth.

Because the chef was from South India, there is a special item on the menu that stems from that region. Dosas, which are crispy and savory crepes that usually are served flat like a pancake. But the chef is intent on impressing his diners and whips up the dosa into a pyramid shape. It arrives on a platter along with a small dish of sambar, or lentil and vegetable soup.

Dhaliwal slices into the crispy dosa with a fork and breaks off a piece, filling it with the accompanying masala curry of sautéed vegetables and potatoes. She adds a dab of the green chutney on top for a refreshing light kick.

“I could eat two of these,” she says. “I think the dosa gets an A.”

Alongside all items, Dhaliwal has ordered a bowl of raita – a cucumber, carrot and yogurt salad that is a great side to go with the whole meal, particularly if the heat gets to be too much for a newcomer to Indian food. (Note: a glass of water does not do the trick and only swirls the spices around on the tongue.)

“Ordering a yogurt is always soothing,” she says.

Now it’s time for some entrees at another stop down the road on Fowler Avenue – the popular Taj Indian Cuisine restaurant.

There are two adjacent dining rooms, one of which is open for use. It is small and dimly lit with maroon walls and décor. About a dozen people dressed in business or casual attire take up the middle of the room at a table celebrating a birthday.

There are Indian beers on the menu, along with domestic choices, and Dhaliwal mentions that the popular Kingfisher from India is a favorite of her son’s. It is light gold in color, tasty and refreshing.

She advises against the impulse to order the popular nan oven-baked bread before the entrees arrive because it will fill you. Besides, it is supposed to scoop up the food.

“I can eat fresh nan and nothing else,” she says.

The menu is over five pages long with a few dozen choices per page – slightly overwhelming.

Before settling into a run-down of the entrees, she recommends one more appetizer – the chaat papri – which she likens to nachos in its easiness, popularity and ubiquity on food carts in India – with its wafers underneath a bed of sautéed potatoes and chickpeas.

On entrees, she advises, again go for balance.

If choosing a spicy vegetable dish, also order a low-key meat dish to go with it along with a yogurt or side salad.

Or, if ordering a rich, chicken dish in a creamy sauce, also consider choosing a green selection to add a variety of taste.

Here are some recommended groupings:

Butter chicken, a popular selection, as a main entrée, to go along with saag paneer (cheese cooked with creamed spinach and spices), and then a dum aloo (potatoes cooked in herbs, tomatoes, onion and ginger cream sauce). This combination offers a range of textures, protein, greens and different flavors.

Lamb vindaloo, which is spicy, paired with a cooling and refreshing dahl raita, or yogurt made with cucumbers and mild spices. The vindaloo is rich in flavors, hot and heavy on spices; while the raita is mild, soothing and cooling.

The the popular chicken tikka masala, which is rich, moist, tender and highly seasoned, could be nicely paired with a green dish, such as eggplant (bharta), which is mashed and made mildly seasoned with peppers, onions, tomatoes and other spices. 

“When we go as a family,” she says of her husband and three adult children, “we order eight dishes and put them in the center, and everyone takes a bit of everything.  

The meals arrive in small bowls, placed in the middle of the table, thick red and brown steaming stews, the butter chicken glistening with ghee. A waitress places separate dishes of basmati rice on the table to be scooped up and mixed on a plate with samples of each entrée.   

“So then you use the bread like a spoon,” Dhaliwal says, tearing off a piece of nan bread and scooping up some of the chicken tikka masala and its gravy from her plate.

With a healthy dent in each entrée and barely room to digest another morsel, space must be left for dessert: a delicious pistachio kulfi, or ice cream, which arrives in a bowl in the shape of a cone, flavored with cardamom, and thick like custard.

“This was excellent,” she says as all at the table pat their stomachs. “I should walk home.”

To contact Surinder Dhaliwal or to learn more about Indian food, recipes or one of her classes, visit her websites at: http://fineindiancuisine.net/ or http://surinderskitchen.com/.

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