329 Market Street, Downtown San Diego
Samurai Jim confessed recently he’d never eaten Indian food. Curries, yes — his mother cooks them Japanese style. But he didn’t know a Samosa from a pakora, a poori from a naan.
Well, we can’t have that, can we? Not in my posse! I started looking around for an interesting Indian restaurant, and the universe responded with a scattering of favorable reviews and blog postings for the Gaslamp’s Royal India. It’s owned by a pair of Sikh brothers, Sandeep Singh and Jagdeep Singh. According to the website, they learned to cook at their mother’s knee, and they oversee every aspect of the restaurant’s cuisine. They also own two Royal India Express fast-food stalls in Horton Plaza.
It’s a handsome, medium-sized spot in a historic building, with portraits of rajas on some walls, nooks with antique-looking Hindu sculptures in other walls, nice medium-bright lighting, and white tablecloths — and a shaded street-front patio that we couldn’t resist on a soft summer night. The waitstaff are young, smart, and universally gorgeous, all of them camera-ready for a Bollywood musical but for the gauzy costumes. Service proved excellent, too — professional and thoughtful while free of that annoying Gaylord’s-style arrogant/servile hovering. (Pax, Bob Dylan, they speak good English, but they don’t invite you up into their rooms.)
But when I opened the menu, my heart sank. Aside from a mango soup, it’s the North Indian Regular Menu, same as it ever was, same as nearly every other Indian menu in town — all those Punjabi Raj classics, déjà vu all over again. And, we soon found out, they would be cooked mainly to the most naïve American tastes. This wasn’t going to be college-level Indian Cuisine 101 after all, but middle-school Indian for people raised on burgers and McNuggets — Gaslamp Indian Cuisine for Dummies.
Pappads (deep-fried cracker-breads) come to the table gratis with two dips: a very sweet tamarind colloid and a spicy cilantro salsa. We started with a couple of plates of veggie appetizers, each topped with another pappadum covering one Samosa, a few pakoras, and a handful of bhaji. Samosas are triangular stuffed pastries. “These are so popular,” I told Jim, “they’ve even become staples in the Horn of Africa — Ethiopians and Somalians call them sambusa. They can be stuffed with almost anything — ground lamb or chicken, potatoes, veggies — I’ve even had Somalian dessert versions stuffed with melted cream cheese and fruit.”
Usually, Samosas are baked. Royal India’s, with a flaky pastry, were apparently fried. We bit in. The filling was mashed potato and peas. Joining the posse for the first time was Anton, a young Chinese-ethnic Indonesian, accustomed to high spicing (“when my mother cooks Indonesian-style”) at home. “I thought Indian food would have more seasoning than this,” he said. “Are these always so bland?” “No,” I answered in a hollow tone resembling the little “thud” my computer emits when it’s about to crash to blue screen (or used to, anyway, before XP). “Why don’t they cook it the authentic way?” he continued. “Do they think Americans won’t like it?” “Maybe,” I said. “Maybe in the Gaslamp, they assume most people won’t know any better.”
Instead of a pervasive, ground-spice mixture (e.g., turmeric and other powdered spices), the mashed potatoes were lightly studded with whole spices — coriander seed, cumin, black and yellow mustard seeds, and perhaps a few cardamom seeds...or were those nigella? Just then, Michelle remarked on the effect: “I’m biting into little solids that turn into sand in my mouth. Is that typically Indian?” “Yes,” I told her. “In the north, especially, Indians enjoy whole spices to bite into for a sudden full hit of the spice flavor.” That’s fine with me — but I missed the whole warming, mystifying blend of spices that I’ve come to expect in Samosas.
Glancing through the restaurant window, we spotted a family of Sikhs at a table, and I remembered my years as a civil servant in San Francisco, eating scrumptious home-cooked Sikh Samosas at all the holiday potluck office parties. Those had the full spice blend. (Where’s chief clerk Sarwan Singh Boparai’s sainted great-cook wife when you need her?)
Bhaji are deep-fried onion slices, like American onion rings but in a lighter, cleaner batter with more interesting spicing. They were greaseless, simple, but good. Pakora are vegetable fritters in another light batter. Most of them seemed to be filled with cabbage and onions, while a few, disc-shaped, contained circles of plain-cooked solid potato. All just okay.
The most interesting starter was a thick, sweet mango soup. “I’d like to spread this on a peanutbutter sandwich,” said Jim. It came with a wedge of lemon. For the second go-round, I gave it a heavy spritz. It was better then — more balanced and interesting, less viscous.
When ordering entrées, the question of how spicy to order them was a dilemma. Anton and I could both handle authentic heat. Jim, maybe. Michelle, from small-town Pennsylvania — probably not. I hedged our bets, ordering most dishes “medium” but asked for the Madras curry “eight on a scale of ten,” assuring beautiful Liya, the waitress, that I’d spent some time in Kerala and Chennai (Madras) and really meant it.
Well, the Madras curry arrived at a heat level of maybe 2.7. “But this isn’t spicy at all,” I said, tasting. Liya overheard and hastened to bring some table hot sauce, but that’s not the same as having the spice properly cooked into the dish from the start (and she knew it, too, and commiserated). Curries are typically cooked in flavor layers — first you sauté a select group of aromatic spices; next into the skillet go garlic and/or ginger (if using) and hot peppers and perhaps more spices. Then you start adding heavier ingredients — onions, other aromatics, later meat and veggies. You get the idea. Hot pepper (whether fresh or powdered) typically goes in early, and in sufficient quantity to play a strong but integrated role among the flavors. It’s not hot to be hot; it’s hot to taste fabulous combined with everything else. So a mild Madras curry isn’t a Madras curry, it’s a San Diego curry. Adding hot-pepper paste after it’s cooked does it no good at all.