A Passage to India

The Taj Mahal is the extraordinary marble mausoleum completed in 1648 by India’s fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan, in honor of his wife, the Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth 18 years earlier. It’s considered one of the world’s most beautiful works of architecture.A crudely painted portrait of the famous shrine hangs on the plate-glass window of the new strip-mall restaurant in Waldo. The little L-shaped restaurant, squeezed between an investment broker’s office and a Dollar General Store, isn’t exactly elegant, despite its classy name.

But the Taj Mahal is a welcome addition to Waldo, which has several lively drinking establishments, a groovy old bakery, a popular microbrewery, and two gargantuan drugstores — though it isn’t exactly a hotbed of ethnic-restaurant activity (despite such longtime residents as House of Hunan and Waldo Pizza). The Taj Mahal, with its charcoal-burning tandoor oven, formal service, and “Viva Las Vegas” light fixtures, is a happy representation of what America’s melting pot is all about: It has authentic Indian food, a big, well-lit parking lot, Coca-Cola and Mr. Pibb on the menu (along with the more traditional yogurt lassi, mango milkshakes, and spicy masala tea), credit card machines, and carry-out orders in case you’d rather eat your tandoori chicken while watching Sex and the City on the sofa at home.

I was happy to be eating there at a linen-covered table, crunching on a spicy papadum crisp. Our server had brought the light crackers, made of lentil flour and pepper, to the table on a tiny white plate; we dipped them in little dishes of tangy mint chutney and dark, syrupy tamarind sauce.

I was dining with Sally, who loves Indian food, and Robert. Sally has traveled through India and visited the real Taj Mahal, calling it “the most sensuous, feminine building ever constructed.” This was not my first visit to its namesake: I had taken the perpetually fussy Bob on an earlier visit, to the Taj Mahal’s well-laden $7.95 lunch buffet. He had broken off a few pieces of freshly baked garlic naan bread and bravely sampled some curry chicken with rice, but he stuck out his tongue at the idea of something as exotic as aloo gobhi, that beguiling concoction of cauliflower cooked with potatoes, pungent garlic, tart ginger, and spices.

“It’s too weird. Indian food looks ugly and tastes strange,” he pouted, vowing never to return. (But this is the same person who can look at a plate of Leann Chin’s kung pao chicken as if it had just been transported directly from Mars.)

Maybe a passion for Indian food is an acquired taste, like preferring Warhol’s “Marilyn” over a Rembrandt or Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” over, say, “Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki.” Not that Indian cuisine is sophisticated fare. Much of Taj Mahal’s menu consists of hearty peasant food, according to Sally. In India, she ate most meals sitting on the floor, using freshly baked flat breads — like the Taj Mahal’s pancake-like wheat chapati or the puffy, deep-fried, and a bit-too-greasy poori — instead of utensils.

Taj Mahal provides knives and forks, the better to spoon some sticky, sweet mango chutney over a steaming chunk of light, tandoor-baked naan, which was Sally’s choice of an appetizer over the more popular vegetable samosas (potato-filled turnovers) or paneer pakoras (cheese-filled dumplings fried in a chickpea batter).

“The problem with Indian appetizers is that they’re almost always deep-fried,” she said, folding a piece of bread in half and dipping it into the pale green mint chutney.

It was one of those recent blistering evenings — “the better to eat very hot, very spicy dishes,” Sally advised. “They cool the body down.”

According to Sharda Gopal’s book Indian Cooking, Indians “are almost intuitively aware of the medicinal properties of the herbs and spices they use to flavor their food, and they eat not just for sheer enjoyment … but to keep their bodies healthy and well-tuned and to offset the extremes of temperature.”

My own body temperature rose and fell several times throughout that meal. It actually seemed as if steam blew out my ears as I spooned up mouthfuls of the addictive gosht karahi. The dish is made with goat in India, but here it contained tender chunks of lamb cooked with tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh ginger, cumin, and pepper. I cooled down with swigs of iced tea and tart lemonade, which actually is a popular Indian drink, or by eating a piece of bread with chutney or raita, that soothing blend of fresh cucumber and yogurt. The bhindi masala was just as hot, but it was one of the most satisfying ways I’ve found to eat fresh green okra: lightly fried in butter with onion and garlic, ginger, and a dash of garam masala, that fragrant mughal blend of cumin, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

Less blistering was the rich butter chicken, tender roasted chicken sautéed in unsalted butter and cumin, smothered in a creamy tomato, ginger, and cilantro sauce. And Taj Mahal’s large covered dish of vegetable biryani was an aromatic blend of long-grain basmati rice cooked with fennel and cardamom, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, carrots, peas, and crunchy cashews. The luscious dish comes with meat variations and a catch-all version, the Taj Mahal Special, which tosses in chicken, lamb, and shrimp.

Indians are reputed to be insatiable when it comes to sweets, and Taj Mahal offers five desserts, including an Indian ice cream with either mangoes or pistachios. It’s not the super-rich buffalo-milk ice cream that Sally tasted in New Delhi, but it’s certainly an interesting alternative to the supermarket variety. The popular Indian treat gulab jamun (sometimes called gulab jambun) consists of tiny little balls — almost like doughnuts — of fried wheat pastry soaked in a syrup of rose essence and sugar. They’re tasty enough, but after a spiced-up dinner, the light, eggless rice pudding called kheer, flavored with raisins and cardamom, is the menu’s most effective palate cooler.

So the place isn’t as grand or visually sumptuous as the real Taj Mahal, whose name translates roughly as “Crown of the Palace.” But our Taj Mahal is easily the crown of Waldo.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews