[This is the third post in a series about my Indian buffet adventures in Sunnyvale, California. In the first post, I reviewed Indian buffets and provided a recipe for garam masala. In the second post, I provided a recipe for the Indian buffet classic dish butter chicken (murgh makhani).]
When I tried Indian food, and specifically Indian spinach-cheese curry (palak paneer) for the first time, I was a college student in the Bay Area and Naan & Curry had just opened up on Telegraph Avenue. Although I balked at spending more than $3 for a slice of pizza at Blondie’s or a sandwich at Cheese & Stuff, the heady smell of charred meats drew me in to Naan & Curry. This Pakistani-Indian hole-in-the-wall was about as bare-bones as you could get. Waiting inside the warm, sparsely-decorated dining room, my eyes would water from the intense heat and odor of the frying spices. Once my food was finally delivered, fiery hot, I would dip the freshly-baked naan into the spicy curries, tentatively at first, and then with more braveness, and I would down glasses of water and cups of warm, milky chai until I could quench the heat just enough to allow me to keep eating. After closing out my bill, I would step out into the sunshine, taking my first cooling breath in an hour, stomach uncomfortably full, mouth still on fire. That was the first time I tried palak paneer.
[This is the second post in a series about my Indian buffet adventures in Sunnyvale, California.]
My craving for Indian buffets is tied directly to how much I’m longing for one dish–butter chicken curry, or murgh makhani. It’s probably one of the most universally-loved Indian buffet dishes. During my Indian Buffet Adventures, I rarely found a restaurant that really messed up butter chicken…but it was also notable when I found a truly fantastic version. The sauce has to be just right: hot enough; layers of spice, rather than predominantly salt, cream and tomato; not too sweet. And the chicken has to be done well: charred, fresh-tasting, not repurposed from several-day-old leftover tandoori chicken.
I researched and tested several recipes to find the version that most reminded me of my favorite Indian buffets. In the end, I determined that there were several necessary elements:
Homemade Garam Masala
Sunnyvale, California is a small, sleepy city in the San Francisco Bay Area, right next door to San Jose, that is rife with expensive housing, young software programmers, and, best of all, a really great Indian food scene. So when my husband had to relocate for work to Sunnyvale for a year, I was not too displeased. I was sad to leave Los Angeles, but I was also excited about the prospect of exploring Indian cuisines in Sunnyvale. As it turns out, the variety, quality, and amount of good Indian food was indeed very impressive. For example, if I didn’t like the dosa place around the corner from my apartment complex, all I had to do was walk a block to the next dosa joint.
Because I often myself craving Indian food while my husband did not, I realized I had to secretly eat most of my Indian meals at lunchtime. This provided me with a perfect opportunity to sample the Indian buffet options in the area. It was time…for an Indian Buffet Adventure!
Sometimes I’m reminded that my husband and I are very different people. He enthusiastically springs out of bed at ungodly hours in the morning, while I pull the sheets over my head until I absolutely, positively, will-be-late must wake up. He’s loyal to Pokémon, while I have rarely ventured outside the realm of Mario and Luigi. And he likes his banana pudding thick, dense, and sweet, covered with swirls of toasty meringue, while I prefer mine light and fluffy, topped with a cloud of unsweetened whipped cream.
Is it cold this week in your corner of the world? If so, you should make this intensely satisfying pasta dish that tastes so light and fresh, you’ll be reminded that spring is coming soon.
I can’t remember the first time that I tasted a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, but it definitely happened when I was a teenager. In between memorizing all of the lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, collecting Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, and directing my teenage angst toward my parents, I was also a prolific snacker–and when I discovered Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, my world changed for the better. I could channel my mild case of rebellion into eating snacks so outrageously spicy, salty, and devoid of nutritional value that no self-respecting Asian parents would ever willingly purchase them for their pantry. “ZOMBEYYYYYY!” I would shriek in my room along with the Cranberries, my tongue a fluorescent red, the roof of my mouth burning.
My love for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos persisted throughout adulthood, but it had been a while since I had permitted myself to purchase a bag. So I was shocked one day to wander into the snack aisle of my local supermarket to spot a bag of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns. What?! There were Flamin’ Hot products other than Cheetos?
Every party features certain characters, and whenever I go to a party, I’m the hungry wallflower. I make my awkward entrance, quickly scan the room for people I know, and desperately try to locate the food table. I spend the next twenty minutes or so trying to not look too obviously antisocial as I attempt to slink along the shortest route to the food table with the fewest people I will need to talk to along the way. With all the slips, dodges, and potential pitfalls located between me and my goal, I often feel like I’m playing a video game.
For my efforts, sometimes I’m rewarded with excellent junk food like DiGiorno’s pizza. (Once, late at night, in a strange mood, I baked a DiGiorno’s pepperoni pizza with kale on top. Don’t knock it till you try it.) Other times, I find myself happily scarfing down warm bread with salami and cheese. And occasionally, I get extra-lucky at parties and I find myself eating food that the host has prepared, the recipe for which the host is willing to share with me so I can recreate it to satisfy cravings at home.
“My favorite dumpling is a hot dumpling,” my friend Chris observed the other day, after we had each wrapped and devoured dozens of potstickers.
Prior to that day, I hadn’t wrapped a single dumpling in years. But growing up, my siblings and I would regularly find ourselves gathered around the kitchen island, helping my mother make dumplings for dinner. She’d throw vegetables, meat, and spices in her food processor–a bit of this, a bit of that–tasting along the way. (Note: my mom insists this is safe, but I recommend microwaving a little bit of filling instead!)
My mother would call us to action once the filling was ready, and the table would quickly become littered with rice bowls of water for sealing the dumpling wrappers, thickened and opaque from flour-coated fingers; packets of premade dumpling wrappers, about 30 to the bundle; and, eventually, dinner plates stacked full with finished dumplings, ready for boiling.
I grew up eating Japanese milk bread, except I never knew it as such. I always thought of it as a Chinese specialty because weekly trips with my mom to the Chinese bakery featured milk bread in various iterations: pineapple buns, hot dog buns, pork floss buns. But the foundation of my school lunches was the milk bread baked into the shape of a square Pullman loaf, then partitioned into neat slices. Untoasted, the square bread would pull away in soft, cottony chunks, tender yet slightly chewy. Toasted, the square bread took on a whole different quality: the outside would form a buttery-crisp crust, which would yield immediately to the pillowy insides. If all you’re familiar with is supermarket-quality white bread, this square bread will transform your life.
“I don’t make this dish the correct way,” my father-in-law mused to me as I stood by the stove, watching him vigorously stir the milk rice.
“What do you mean?” I responded, confused. I had only ever eaten his version of kiribath — Sri Lankan milk rice — so I was unable to visualize any other way in which it could be prepared. His rendition seemed plenty tasty to me. A mellow, milky, unseasoned rice pudding, my father-in-law’s version of the dish is utterly comforting and a nice way to start the day.