indian


Television can be such insidious poison, particularly reality tv shows like “America’s next top model” and tv challenges. “Man v. Food” belongs to the latter category. In the show, the host pits his stomach against some pretty extreme challenges, and on the New York stop, he takes on phaal, ostensibly described as the hottest curry in the country, at Bricklane Curry. Despite its rather senseless premise, “Man v Food” has a sizeable following, and amongst its viewers is my friend Sarah. Now Sarah is usually a very sensible girl, and I am still not sure why she was so eager to take on the challenge. But we are good friends, so if she had to succumb to the siren call of crass tv promotions and hot indian curries, I would be there to provide moral support.

After much mental preparation (what’s the most effective way to eat the curry? rice or no rice? should we bring milk to neutralize the acid?) we met at Bricklane on Saturday, where a line had spilled out of the door whereas its neighbors on Curry Lane were half empty, a testimony to its reputation as one of the better Indian restaurants on the block. No doubt business must have picked up since the show too, with many others like Sarah eager to try the phaal. According to our very chatty server Chad, about 20-30 bowls of phaal is sold every given day after the episode of “Man v Food” had aired. We were soon seated and after a plate of aloo chaat (very middling, needs acid) to line the stomach, and armed with raita and a mango lassi, S dug into her phaal. As for me? I am happy to be a pure spectator and ordered a dish of Goan fish curry (tasty, but not quite aromatic enough).

Forgive my pun, but the phaal was truly foul. Made with a paste of 13 different peppers and other assorted spices such as ginger.  In honesty, the spice level might have been tolerable if the dish tasted a little better, but the grey sludge was largely bitter and devoid of other more appealing flavors. Instead of an instantaneous burning sensation, one encounters a slow burn in the mouth that intensifies and travels down the esophagus. I had merely 3 small bites and was quite put off. Poor Sarah on the other hand had to struggle through the bowl, cooling off once in a while with the aforementioned yogurt mix and drink, and then plunging right back into the fiery depths of curry hell. By the time she had eaten all the chicken chunks in the dish and all was left was a third of the dish filled with black gunk (sauce), Sarah decided, in a haze of pain, that the virtual P’hall of fame and the free beer for completing the dare wasn’t worth it. Indeed, it isn’t, but for those foolhardy enough, game on!

Brick Lane Curry House

306 E 6th St (Between 1st and 2nd Aves)

bricklanecurryhouse.com

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The last week was John’s final week at work, and I will miss John, not just for the camaraderie, the division of labor and the shared jokes and meals, but also for an arsenal of Indian food knowledge. I was a chicken tikka masala girl, didn’t like raita and had no clue which paneer was. John changed that. Most of all, he introduced me to mithai. Mithai, where were you all these years?!
You know how much people like him by how long his farewell celebrations went. Besides the perfunctory round of drinks and a lunch treat by our boss the day after John’s last day at work, a bunch of close friends even met for dinner the week before. The place we chose? Bukhara Grill, for its close proximity to work, large, safe North Indian menu and some nostalgia, for we had often ordered from there by way of Seamless Web.
As people settled in the long banquette with their Taj Mahal beers and mango lassis, we started with crisp papadums and some chaat, or what I described to first timers as “deconstructed potato salad”. The potatos and chickpeas added heft, the crackers crunch, the yogurt cool tartness and the green mint and red (tamarind?) chutneys lifted the dense dish with sweet, hot and aromatic flavors. Samosas were also decent but not as fun as chaat, at least for me.
The entrees consisted of vegetarian and meat dishes. Instead of chicken tikka masala, John selected chicken makhani, a tomato-based chicken curry that John calls butter chicken. Dieters beware, because the sauce is indeed super creamy and great with the copious amounts of freshly baked carb-filled naan at our disposal. The other meat dish was either lamb or goat. I can’t remember, I was too busy eating the tender meat laced with a complex sauce. Besides the meat dishes, we had also a chickpea side, and some favorite vegetable dishes. Saag paneer is spinach and Indian cheese cooked with a lot of different spices, where the heat from ginger and cumin really lingers and warms you long after you’ve swallowed the entire dish. And my ultimate favorite – gobi taka tin, the flourescent red and oily cauliflower stirfry. Indians sure know how to cook cauliflower, from Gobi Taka Tin at Bukhara to the Manchurian Cauliflower at Chinese Mirch. Most of the time, cauliflower is undercooked or so resolutely overcooked that it turns into a mash. Here, the diced cauliflower is cooked through but retains its shape, and the bell peppers and some tomato puree adds contrast to this spicy yet comforting dish.
That night we ate, we talked, we enjoyed John’s company and his running annotation of dishes we ordered. I committed to memory as best as I could and am noting it all down here, so that next time I fancy some Indian food, I won’t have to call John at Penn come dinner time.

Bukhara Grill
217 E 49th St (2nd & 3rd Ave)

I have a sweet tooth and am unabashedly upfront about it. As a result, I’ve borne a fair share of good natured ridicule from time to time, when colleagues jokingly hand me the largest slice of cake during “birthday tea-breaks” or snarkily inform me about leftover cookies sitting in certain conference rooms. However, my well-publicized weakness for candy has perks too. For example, I do get the largest slice of cake around, and people remember to bring me desserts whenever they go on trips. John for example brought back some interesting Indian traditional sweets back to the office after his whirlwind trip to India and I was the lucky recipient of my own box when others had to share… MUAHAHAHA
For the uninitiated, India is a sugar-loving nation, but one can hardly tell from surveying the dessert menu at most Indian restaurants in the US. Besides the standard gulab jamun and ras malai, desserts are pathetically under-represented. And you are hardly missing anything if you choose to skip the commercially produced and oversweetened balls of flour and sugar. But sweets, or mithai, are a big part of life, featuring not only during festivals and religious days, but also as common fixtures during weddings. More importantly however, the small but intensely sweet nuggets are so good that you want them to be part of a daily routine, as a after dinner sweet or something you savor with your cup of chai tea.
Of the selections within my personal box of Delhi sweets, I adore the pistachio and almond burfi, decorated with edible silver leaf most. While not as pretty as some of the more colorful sweets, the blocks of candy made from condensed milk, flavored with a smoky nutty flavor are simply irresistable. The ladoo is another popular sweet, reminiscent of a gulab jamun in its shape and sugar-soaked nature, but even more sinful (and thus better tasting) since its deep-fried in ghee. Unfortunately for the health-conscious, we all know that the best sweets are made with real butter, lard, and in this instance, ghee, but sacrifices have to be made, and for now, taste trumps calories, even as I fruitlessly try to limit my Indian sweet consumption to one after each meal….

My PM managed to wheedle a meal out of my boss, for not informing us of his top secret island wedding and even worst, not bringing back some traditional Indian sweets to celebrate. So off we went to Curry Hill for a large and joyous meal to celebrate the occasion.
My boss chose to bring us to lunch at Chinese Mirch, a restaurant on Curry Hill specialising in Indian-Chinese food. The idea of marrying Chinese food with Indian spices, according to a blurb on the front page of the menu, was a brainchild of an early Chinese immigrant with the most mundane of names, someone called Yong Ah Huat (something like that) who arrived in the India, hankering for some hometown food hundreds of years ago. Hence, he introduced chinese food to India and it had apparently thrived in the subcontinent ever since. Unfortunately, a restaurant dishing out Indian-Chinese food hardly sounds exotic enough to people who grew up eating both ethnic cuisines, therefore I’ve never had it before. Still the popularity is not hard to imagine, given the universal appeal of Chinese food.
So how was the food? It was strange to me at first, because the scent and presentation was so Chinese, yet when you tasted it, there was not a doubt that it had been tampered with Indian spices and ways of cooking. We especially liked the Gobi Manchurian, which tasted more like Aloo Gobi than anything Chinese; the deep fried okra, dusted with paprika and crunchy like fries; and the complimentary dessert, a take on chinese sugared apples/yam/other fruit, with molten sugar poured atop deep fried wonton skin, with sesame seeds sprinkled liberally on top to provide extra oriental flavor. They really do a good job with their deep fried dishes.
But while my colleagues enjoyed the largely spicy entrees, I thought it was a shame that many of the dishes such as the chicken manchurian and the chili paneer came swimming in dark gloopy sauces. I know brown sauce, to many American Chinese food eaters, is a requisite component of a Chinese dish, but still the main ingredients would have had a better chance to shine with a drier finish than being brown-sauced to death. The only entrees i truly enjoyed was the spicy lamb with red, not brown sauce and a thoroughly chinese chicken dish, generously flavored with ginger, spring onions and tonnes of garlic.
So in the end, I liked the space, coolly decorated with some chinese accents including bamboo-print wallpaper and some lanterns, but was mainly ambivalent about the food. Its great fun to try a new cuisine, but subjectively speaking, the sum of parts was not any greater than the separate parts. I’ll take a dosa over manchurian chicken anytime.

Chinese Mirch
120 Lexington Ave (28th St)