Sunday, September 23, 2012

Taj Palace Restaurant, White Plains


There was a time, several years ago, when the East Post Road area of White Plains had two Indian restaurants within a stone’s throw of each another—the remarkable Dawat, and the not so remarkable “Bengal Tiger” which neither did justice to Bengal, nor to the majesty of this big cat.  Dawat shut down for reasons unknown.  A few years later Bengal tiger burned down, raising the average quality of Westchester Indian food in the process.  Recently, the new Taj Palace Restaurant opened for business in the same vicinity and we tried their lunch buffet today. 

The afternoon lunch buffet is a good time to test the mettle of an Indian restaurant for this is where they can advertise with original creations, or try to pass off a slipshop dish.

The buffet quality was mixed.  The idli and sambar was reasonable, the kebabs stone cold.  There was fluffy rice and soft naans.  The baigan bharta and daal makhni were decent, the bittergourd-potato curry--a first for an Indian restaurant here—was superb and a unique offering on the menu.  The non-veg dishes sounded like a caricature of the stereotypical Indian restaurant menu: Chicken Tikka Masala, Madrasi Lamb, and Tandoori Chicken.  The lamb was tender and had undertones of actual South Indian spices (Madras is in the South).  Take this honesty in nomenclature as good news for not all establishments will do this. The kheer and Gulab Jamun were oversweetened, and will not gain any converts.   I give them points for the bittergourd.  I take away points for what I suspect was the addition of food coloring to the dishes—this is an old practice that has no place today.

The food here was not bad—it was decent.  But I am perplexed by the lack of creativity on a humdrum buffet menu of an Indian restaurant that has opened its doors in 2012.  Certainly, the clientele's demands have a lot to do with what a restaurant puts out.  This buffet will be a litmus test.  If the current menu does well, it will be because Indian restaurant diners in this county refuse to evolve and are comfortable with the tikka masalas of  the past—Indian food will degenerate into what the neighborhood Chinese restaurant has become today.

Taj Palace on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why is silver foil used in Indian confectionery and sweets?

Many years ago I returned from an Indian vacation carrying a box of Indian confectionery for my friends at the Midwestern company where I worked.  Things like barfi, kalakand and such, solidified milk based creations with sugar and other additives.  This was the early nineties, Indian food was not common in Minnesota, and it was likely their first exposure to Indian sweetmeats.  One of them looked with some doubt at the thin silver foil that covered one of these confections (it is meant to be eaten along with the piece).  Eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he popped it in.  But his hesitation got me thinking.

Silver foil, called varak, vark or chandi ka waraq,  has been used in all types of Indian sweets made with milk, dates, and nuts for at least a few hundred years and India uses up about 13 British tonnes of silver foil every year for this purpose.  Most likely this is because the antibacterial properties of silver has traditionally helped increase the shelf life of the confections.

This is not only an Indian thing.  More than a hundred years ago, milk would be preserved in the West by throwing in a silver coin.  Before penicillin came along, silver was part of wound dressings used in WWI.  The fact that silver, along with other metals such as copper and zinc can destroy living cells was figured out around 1893.

Why silver acts this way is not known for sure.  There are a few theories.  One is that the silver strips away and reacts with elements like sulfur present in bacterial cell membranes.  This affects the ability of the bacteria to respire, or to absorb energy so that it eventually dies.

Muslim artisans from Hyderabad specialize in hammering waraq out in micrometer thick foil between pieces of leather. While waraq  is supposed to be 99.9% silver, today there is likely far more danger from the spurious alloying of the silver—there are reports of this happening frequently.  The good news is that alloying silver reduces its ability to be “worked” into very thin sheets so there is a limit to the extent of contamination possible.

Visiting a regular, middle class Indian confectionary in a large Indian city can cause some anxiety to the tourist.  There are usually flies hovering around inside the glass cases where the food is stored.  Indian sweets however are unlikely to give stomach infections.  Quite aside from the silver foil, which not all confections have, the high sugar content can dehydrate and kill bacteria, curbing their growth.  Syrupy confections such as rossogollas are particularly effective in this regard. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Oh Calcutta

3rd Floor, Silver Arcade, 5 J.B.S. Halden Avenue, E M Bypass, Kolkata

Oh Calcutta is a nationwide “upscale” restaurant chain that serves Bengali food.  I visited the one in Delhi in 2005.  This time we went to the one on the Eastern Bypass in Kolkata.

For someone living in the United States, it is a pleasure to walk into an Indian restaurant with normal décor.  No hints of the colonial British Raj, no splash of Bollywood colors and tonality, none of the gimmickery used to promote Indian restaurants in the West.  Rabindra Sangeet, instead of sitar, wafted through the loudspeakers—Ei Monihar anay nahi shajey—the song Tagore wrote as he rejected his knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh incident.

We started off with Mocha (banana flower) Chop and Prawn Cutlet as appetizers.  Preparing mocha is a labor-intensive process, and is therefore convenient to have at a restaurant. Eaten with a kasundo (mustard) dip, the “chops” were perfect—a crisp, browned batter free of oil on the outside, and a mashed matrix of mocha inside.  The prawn cutlets were also well made: the chopped prawn filling had a satisfying texture, and it was garnished with little bits of chili and coriander. 

As the main course, the four of us shared three plates.  One was Daab Chingri: prawn and coconut milk cooked inside a green coconut and then served inside the coconut.  The second dish was Kumro Pata Aam Achar Ilish—hilsa fish (shad is a close American relative to the hilsa) cooked with pumpkin leaves and a mango pickle. These are not every day household Bengali dishes, and are culled from old recipes going back two or three generations.  The third dish, Railway Mutton Curry, owes its name to the goat curry that is served on Indian trains, and is a straight up concoction of goat meat, potatoes, generous amounts of gravy, and fresh roasted spices.  These dishes, as is the Bengali way, were had with white rice.  The Daab Chingri was terrible.  A graduate student could cook better with a can of coconut milk and some garden variety frozen shrimp.  The other two dishes fared much better.  The deboned hilsa was tender and the mango pickle gave just the right highlights.  The railway mutton curry had nostalgia written all over it.  It is a simple curry that, with rice, can spin a devilish web of overindulgence.

While at the restaurant, we noticed the barman concocting some South Indian coffee for a customer, where the coffee is aerated by pouring the hot liquid repeatedly between two tumblers at a vertical separation of about three feet.  We asked for some, but were politely turned down-- this was not in the menu and was being made for a special customer.  The VIP lifestyle is sewn in to the Indian way of life! 

For dessert we settled for Nolen Gurer Ice Cream—ice cream flavored with liquid date palm jaggery (made by boiling the fresh sap of date palms).  While Nolen gur, a traditional syrup that is best had during the time of winter, is used extensively in the making of traditional confections, its introduction into ice creams is a recent development.  It had a somewhat fibrous texture and it was not unpleasant.  It will take me a few more tries before I can endorse it whole heartedly.

All in all, Oh Calcutta provides a decent array of Bengali food that is somewhat uneven in quality.  The food is not in the same league as in Kewpies, the Bengali restaurant near the Forum.  It is a chain restaurant and therefore there is some unavoidable routineness to the dishes. It is a quiet place with tasteful wooden décor, and a nice place for a business meal.