You walk into an Indian restaurant and immediately, a strong aroma tingles your nose. A hint of turmeric, cumin, garam masala … spices, spices, and more spices.
You look around and see countless families devouring rice and curry. The walls are lined with fancy decor and paintings of intricate flowers. Colorful drapes with fancy patterns hang from the ceiling to give a warm and cozy feel. Energetic Indian music plays loudly in the background. The distinct thump of the drums makes you want to dance. You peek into the kitchen and watch as the chefs are nearly engulfed from the smoke of the tandoor (clay oven). You think to yourself, how could this Indian restaurant get any more authentic? That’s where you’re wrong. Completely wrong.
In recent years, the craze for Indian food has heightened tremendously, especially in the Bay Area. Several restaurants have opened up trying to appeal to a large variety of people, but those restaurants can never really be successful until they pass the ultimate test: approval from the Indian community. While some restaurants like Pakwan have flourished in our eyes, opening up multiple spots in San Francisco, others like India Palace have received harsh criticism for their lack of authenticity. There are many factors that play into creating the perfect indian food.
Just like hamburgers are the core of American cuisine, spices are fundamental to Indian food. The spicier, the more authentic.When you have a spoonful of chicken tikka masala, and your mouth feels like it’s exploding from all the flavor, you’re not dying, it’s just a testament as to how good the food really is. Balance of spices is essential to creating the perfect combination of flavors. There is a very particular way the spices should come together to create different curries and produce a distinct taste in each one.
One of the most significant reasons a lot of Indian food in the Bay Area is not authentic is because of the ingredients used. Most, if not all, restaurants use heavy whipping cream or flour in their curries to blend the dish together. While it might taste good because it caters to the average American palate, it is almost considered a disgrace to the traditional Indian community.
In India, curries are made with fresh cream and yogurt combined with a strong flavor base of onions to make a dish that is more healthy, natural, and real. The processed whipping cream many restaurants use here does nothing but dilute the amazing curry and bar its full potential to shine in all categories. You might be skeptical, but put a little trust in someone who’s been to India 12 times and has a mother who can whip up any curry in 20 minutes flat.
There are also some necessary principles that might seem minute, but are very important to creating the perfect overall visit. While the basmati rice and chicken tikka are key, there are smaller courses that are almost just as important: Indian masala chai and mango lassi. To get the full experience, you need to have at least one of the two.
The way coffee is to Americans, masala chai is even more vital to Indians. Chai is a rich and milky tea that is made by brewing black tea and a mixture of Indian spices. Many Indian restaurants have watered down chai that lacks flavor, but real masala chai should hit you with aromatic spices like ginger and the perfect amount of sweetness. It may not appeal to you, but if Starbucks has a iced chai tea latte, then there must be something good about it right?
Mango lassi is a yogurt based drink that blends mango pulp and yogurt together to create a refreshing sensation that combats the spices perfectly and cleans out your palette.
It might not matter in other cuisines, but Indian cuisine is made great by all the different types of foods and drinks it offers. All categories are unique, from samosas (think of it like our version of an empanada or calzone) to traditional biryani (flavored rice), each item brings variety to the table.
However there are a few I approve of in San Francisco, such as Curry Leaf, Pakwan, and Shalimar. Above are just some of the factors that play a big role in making your dinner worth every penny. While the only thing Indian food has helped me do is gain weight from all the carbs and become susceptible to spicy food, it might give you amazing new flavors to experience. ♦