Once at dinner at El Bulli in Spain, then considered the best restaurant in the world, we were served a course simply called “countries.” It consisted of three small porcelain spoons with a spoon full of liquid in each. As you put the spoon in your month it was instantly clear what country it represented.
And so it is with Indian food. It may be hard to describe it, but you know it when you taste it.
But when I started to research for this column, I realized it was biting off more than I could chew. We are talking here about a cuisine with a history of over 5,000 years, from about 20 very different geographic regions, each with its own version of Indian food. Plus there are about a dozen restaurants in and near Santa Monica serving one version or another.
That said, most of the Indian restaurants in Santa Monica have frightfully similar menus, and none seems to take advantage of the tremendous diversity of Indian regional cuisine. One good feature is that the prices are always reasonable. For $12 to $18 the diner can expect an excellent lunch or dinner. Of course if you get hooked on the lassi yoghurt drinks, or have a few beers to quench the heat, the price might go up.
Rice and spice are the staples of Indian food. The next items commonly available include a surprising variety of beans and vegetables. Some regions’ cuisine utilize peanut oil, others prefer sesame oil — still other chefs use ghee (clarified butter, available in local markets).
Some of the most popular spices are saffron, mint, chili peppers, black mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, and garlic. Many Indian chefs keep a mixture of their favorite spices, in their “custom mixed” proportions, ready to go. Some of these mixes have become popular and have special names, such as garam masala.
Of the many Indian restaurants around Santa Monica, there are four that I frequent on a regular basis. For a lunch buffet I like Nawab of India. They bring out fresh naan bread, and on the buffet there is always a good selection of saag (a spinach dish), lentils in a sauce, rice, tandoori chicken, and one curry (but not necessarily flavored with the “curry” spice best known here).
The second restaurant is Gate of India where I find the offerings to be of very good quality, and the dishes are served over a flame so they stay hot. The prices here are a bit higher than at some of the other restaurants, but not excessive.
Pradeeps Indian Cuisine, located on Montana Avenue, is convenient, never too crowded, and is particularly good for vegetable dishes and a more healthy Indian cuisine. Pradeep has specialties which are their own versions of traditional Indian dishes, which are nice to try for a change.
The first Indian restaurant I ever frequented was Akbar Cuisine of India, when it was owned and personally run by the father of the current Akbar owners. It was on Washington Boulevard in Marina Del Rey, and we would often go there after spending the day at sea. Now there is still an Akbar on Washington Boulevard, but it is closer to Lincoln Boulevard, in a smaller space. The biggest surprise in this location is the selection of very expensive cult wines.
The Akbar I go to now in Santa Monica features a typical menu, very good service, and very reasonable prices.
While I like to complain about the lack of attention to the huge variety of regional Indian dishes I’ve read about, the fact is that I almost always order one of three dishes, either chicken tikka masala, a very hot Vindaloo, or a tandoori dish. The tandoori is served without sauce, but with a spice rub.
My favorite is the chicken tikka masala. I’m not alone here. It is considered the most popular dish in British restaurants and in the UK it is considered a British dish, not Indian. Just as the French claim that the Syrah grape originates in France, not Persia, the Brits claim that they invented this dish! Chicken tikka masala is made by marinating chicken, usually in turmeric power and paprika to turn it orange, then cooking it in yoghurt, cream, and tomato sauce. Coriander, cumin, and chili may be added. It is said that there are over 50 different common recipes for this dish. The one at Gate of India is rich in yoghurt. The one at Akbar is less rich with more tomato in the sauce.
The other Indian dish to which I am addicted is Vindaloo, and I usually select lamb Vindaloo. The word comes from a Portuguese meat stew made in a wine and garlic sauce. Indian cooks significantly changed the original Portuguese recipe by adding spices and potatoes (to reduce the expensive meat content). As is often the case, the dish is even better if kept overnight and eaten the next day when the spices have infused into the meat.
Today, Vindaloo is often spiced to be the “hot” item on Indian menus for those so inclined. But I make it at home without much chili power or hot peppers so that my wife will eat some of it. I sauté pork butt or chicken pieces in ghee and chopped onion, add some cumin, turmeric, mustard, vinegar and salt and pepper, and cook until the onion is soft and the meat is browned. Then I add vinegar and tomato sauce, and cook until the meat is very tender.
Sometimes it comes out really good. And sometimes I wish I had gone to a local Indian restaurant.
Special alert: for those who read my recent article on the Palace’s dim sum, and are looking for another dim sum restaurant serving from carts, drive down to the PV Palace Seafood Restaurant for lunch (about 20 to 30 minutes from Santa Monica): 2166 Pacific Coast Highway, Lomita, Calif., 90717, (310) 326-3228.
If you go
Nawab of India
1621 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Akbar Cuisine of India
2627 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Pradeeps Indian Cuisine
1405 Montana Ave.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Gate of India
117 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com