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DiningOut with Food Culture of India — Bergen and Hudson NJ

India’s regional cuisine on parade in New Jersey

Food Culture of India - DininOut New Jersey

Food Culture of India – DiningOut New Jersey

India’s regional cuisine on parade in New Jersey

The cuisine of the large southern Asian nation of India is as diverse and colorful as the country itself. Indeed, Indian culinary art reflects 8,000 years of history and culture from across this vast expanse. Indian cuisine differs across the country’s diverse regions as a result of variations in local culture and geographic character.

Many of India’s most famous dishes come from the north, which includes the states of Punjab, Uttar, Pradesh, Mudhya, Kashmir, and the cities of Mumbai and Delhi. Northern dishes include both Tandoori and Makhni specialties like Aloo Gobi, Chaat, Dum Aloo, Kheer, Naan bread, and Palak Paneer. The districts of Manipur and Hyderabad are well-known for delicious specialties like Biryani and Pork Bharta, while Tripura is known for boiled pork with onions, chilis, ginger, and garlic.

Simran Bakshi, co-owner of Englewood-based restaurant Spice Mantra, says he fashioned his establishment specifically around such northern Indian cuisine. According to Bakshi, this fare tends to have more cream-based dishes compared to its southern counterparts. “All of our sauces are based on the north Indian style, which is a bit more on the rich side,” Bakshi says. “Something very popular is our Chicken Tikka Masala dish made from tomato and heavy cream.”

Moreover, Bakshi says that northern Indian cuisines regularly employ tandoor clay ovens, which requires the chef to use special techniques when baking bread and cooking meats. “We use the tandoor in making kebabs, chicken, lamb,” Bakshi says, “and [to bake Naan bread] they have to actually take the bread dough with their bare hands and kind of slap it against the wall of the oven. It really takes a lot of skill to make the Naan bread, and the kebabs as well.”
Southern Indian cuisine, on the other hand, focuses more on vegetables and seafood such as Dosa Pancakes, Kuzhakkattai (rice dumplings with coconut from Chanai and Tamil Nadu), Vindaloo (from Goa), and Curried Shrimp.

Mona Aurora, the founder and owner of the restaurant The Art of Spice, maintains a balanced menu that includes both northern and southern styles, as well as Mogul-influenced dishes. At the heart of her eclectic menu, Aurora says, was her experience growing up in the cultural melting pot of Bombay (modern-day Mumbai).

“We’ve essentially covered the three major cuisines of India; we are from the north but we grew up in Bombay, a place which is an amalgamation of everybody from all over the country,” Aurora says. “We grew up with all these different cuisines; we have northern Indian cuisine, but also the influence of the southern part of India. And we also have a section that is Indo-Chinese, which is essentially the influence of people migrating from China and bringing their own cuisines and mixing them with our spices.”

Perhaps more than other nationalities, Indian cuisine has been influenced in many ways by religion and spirituality. Adherents of Hinduism consider the consumption of beef taboo, so it is rare in both India and Indian cooking alike. Jainism, a religion that originated in India, promotes a strict form of vegetarianism that opposes harm to living things, which includes potatoes and root vegetables. The idea behind this practice is that when a root is pulled up, organisms that live around the root die as well.

Meals in India were traditionally enjoyed while seated on the floor or on very low stools. Prior to the British occupation of India, it was common for Indians to eat with their hands. But contact with other cultures has affected Indian dining etiquette. For example, the Anglo-Indian middle class commonly uses spoons and forks as is traditional in Western culture. In south India, cleaned banana leaves are used to serve food and then are disposed of.

Immigrants in the Indian diaspora have spread their culinary traditions throughout the world as well, and now Indian cuisine is enjoyed around the globe. Curry’s international appeal has even been compared to that of pizza. Indian Tandoor dishes like Chicken Tikka enjoy widespread popularity, too. The first Indian restaurant established outside of India was the Hindoostanee Coffee House in London, opened in 1810, but, by 2003, there were as many as 10,000 restaurants serving Indian cuisine in England and Wales alone.

Today, Indian restaurateurs are common in the United States, and they are experimenting and innovating with the traditional cuisine. Vinay Kallee, the owner of Kinara Indian Restaurant in Tenafly and Edgewater, has been adding items like octopus and soft-shell crab to the menu, combining the familiar Indian spices with fresh-caught seafood. “The demand [for Indian food] is so high now that we are serving food from different regions and adding these new items to the menu,” Kallee says, who first opened the Edgewater location 16 years ago and served primarily north Indian fare at the time. “We wanted to expand the menu and add some variety, and so these are just different items that many restaurants don’t have.” The response so far? “People love it,” Kallee says.

All of the restaurateurs that we spoke with say that it was quite an experience to watch Americans fall in love with Indian dishes over time. Today, they say, it’s common for people to seek out an authentic Indian experience. “Indian cuisine is now sort of mainstream,” Aurora says. “People are more and more aware of the culture and cuisine.”

According to Bakshi, “It’s becoming a more and more daily part of people’s lives. Here in Englewood, 80 to 90 percent of our clientele are non-Indian; there’s a huge demand for it, even among people of non-Indian descent. People have more access to these things now and are curious about trying different cuisines and being part of different cultures.”

Kallee noted that this wasn’t always the case, but it’s gratifying to see a growing respect for authentic Indian fare. “It’s been an evolution over time … but now there’s this thing that people don’t want Americanized Indian food, but they want the real thing,” Kallee says. And the numbers show the industry is indeed growing. In the United States, there are more than 1,200 Indian food products on the market.

Behind the growing popularity of Indian cuisine is its signature spices and herbs, which are responsible for the explosive flavors: tumeric, saffron, cardamom, and anise are all thrown into the mix to create culinary art as splendid and colorful as a Diwali celebration! “Namaste,” as the Indians say, and enjoy the feast!

Visit one of these great Indian restaurants in Bergen and Hudson counties where you, too, can eat like the Maharaja. (Many of these restaurants have a lunch buffet, giving curious diners an opportunity to try a selection of these delicious, flavorful foods.)

BERGEN COUNTY

The Art of Spice {159 Main Street, Hackensack; 201.342.3444; art-of-spice.com}
Owned and operated by artist Mona Aurora, the Art of Spice proves that Indian cuisine is as much an art as a painting or a song. Joining together in a celebration of Indian cuisine in all of its diversity, Art of Spice boasts choices spanning the northern and southern styles, as well as a foray into Indo-Chinese cuisine.

Diwani {164 Franklin Turnpike, Mahwah; 201.252.2789; diwaninj.com}
Diwani is a celebration of Indian cuisines long and storied history, bringing together the diverse Indian cuisines together with the philosophy of farm to table dining. In addition to the sit-down restaurant, Diwani specializes in custom made orders and deliveries. From the tandoor and beyond, Diwani’s menu has something for everybody.

Kinara {880 River Road, Edgewater; 201.313.0555 and 10 Jay Street, Tenafly; 201.399.7788; kinararestaurant.com}
For many years, Kinara in Edgewater has been offering a fine-dining experience focused on delivering authentic Indian cuisine to its clientele. And now Kinara brings its popular cuisine to Tenafly, offering a fine-dining experience focused on delivering authentic Indian cuisines to clientele. Kinara offers diners a taste of India itself, serving dishes from across all of India, including some innovative creations of their own.

Namaste {1086 River Road, Edgewater; 201.224.9777; namasteedgewater.com}
Namaste offers Indian fusion cuisine, with a nod to Himalaya, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal. It’s open for lunch and dinner every day, welcoming diners to enjoy some unique as well as more popular dishes like tikka masala and tandoori breads. Namaste also features traditional dishes like biryani and samosas. Stop in or order out for a quality meal straight from India. Off-site catering is also available.

Spice Mantra {6 East Palisade Avenue, Englewood; 201.568.1122; spicemantranj.com}
Spice Mantra specializes in the northern Indian style and tandoori recipes. From kebabs to tikka masala, Spice Mantra employs the traditional culinary techniques employed by Indian chefs of yesteryear. Spice Mantra is Englewood’s own personal slice of India.

Khailash {22 Oak Street, Ridgewood; 201.251.9693; kailashindiancuisine.com}
Khailash, currently closed for renovations, opened its doors in downtown Ridgewood in 1994 and has been a fixture ever since. With a dosa station and tandoor specialties with the Chef’s sauce. In addition to Khailash’s homemade specialties, the restaurant also hosts a buffet, as well as a “Sunday family day” each week.

HUDSON COUNTY

DHOOM {217 Route 3, Secaucus; 201.210.2275; dhoomnjny.com}
Dhoom is a Michelin-rated, Bollywood-themed Indian restaurant, bar, and lounge based in the heart of Secaucus that has been reviewed by The New York Times, Star Ledger, NJ.com, and more. Owner Vijay Rao, raised in Nadiad, India, had two big dreams as a child: to one day own a restaurant and to make Bollywood films. In the fall of 2013, Rao was able to fulfill both with the opening of Dhoom, whose menu reflects the cinematic theme made evident by the Indian film awards that line the shelves at the entrance and the collage of posters of Bollywood’s most popular films that fill an entire wall.

Lotus {131 Erie Street, Jersey City; 201.216.9038}
The newly opened Lotus (formerly Blue Lotus) labels itself as progressive indian cuisine with an Indo-Chinese influence. The kitchen is helmed by Chef Joy, who has had a long career in the culinary arts cooking for some of the best restaurants as well as on luxury cruise ships. He brings his diverse talents and fuses the traditional with a new twist… Whether curry is more your speed or you prefer vegetarian, or even if you want to try some seafood, Lotus is sure to please. Catering services are also available.

Karma Kafé {505 Washington Street, Hoboken; 201.610.0900; karmakafe.com}
The Karma Kafé boasts a delectable selection of traditional foods and beverages, as well as catering services for parties and events. From tandoori specialties to veggies dishes, Karma Kafé offers diners a glimpse into Indian cuisine with a taste of Nirvana.

Raaz {Newport Office Center IV, 537 Washington Boulevard, Jersey City; 201.533.0111; raaz.us}
Raaz, literally “a secret,” blends traditional Indian cuisine with a modern dining experience. The restaurant aims to deliver “a perfect blend of the traditional and contemporary way of cooking” to create a complete “culinary experience.” Raaz also offers catering services for parties and events.

By Adam C. Uzialko