Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bollywood Bliss

Having developed a taste for Indian cuisine, I was determined to find the best, most authentic Indian food on the island.  My quest brought me back to the University area, around Puck's Alley, and McCully, where you will find the greatest congregation of Indian places in town.   My hypothesis for this phenomenon is twofold.   Firstly, college students are usually the most adventurous eaters, just beginning to spread their wings and explore the world around them, and since the Beattles free love era, Indian food has been a favorite alternative cuisine.    Secondly, and probably more significantly, our biggest Indian population in the islands is probably comprised of the Indian foreign exchange students who come to UH and HPU, seeking a technical education and the prospect of a better life.   This population was most affected shortly after 9/11, when the government began restricting visas from Muslim countries, something that immediately affected UH and HPU considerably.  Luckily since that time, the Indian students have been returning and with them the demand for good Indian food.

Spice Display at Cafe Maharani
Although there are quite a number of Indian places in the University area, not all of them are good.   Indeed, it is in this area, that I had first tasted Indian food, and found the various forms of baby mush they served so unappealing, that I almost never tried Indian food again.  Luckily after experiencing the spices and textures of really good Indian food, I was compelled to seek out the authentic good stuff.   This search for spices, lead me to a tiny little place called Cafe Maharani.   Cafe Maharani is a very small little hole in he wall, next door to Down to Earth on King St.   Being so small, and being such a popular place with the University crowd, every time I've been there, there's been a considerable wait both for a table and for the service.   But the food there, is worth the wait (just be sure you're prepared for a nice leisurely 2 1/2 hour dinner).  While you're waiting, you can watch the insane, colorful, kooky Bollywood videos on their various TVs.  As a child of the '80s, and therefore a big Michael Jackson fan, I just can't help but be fascinated by the over the top choreography, and beautiful, exotic, bejeweled and veiled women in these outlandish musicals.  Their decor is filled with exotic wood carvings, ornate rugs, and intricate bronzeware.  Even their glasses are metal goblets, instead of glassware, something I really like, because the water somehow tastes colder and more refreshing coming from a chilled bronze goblet.  Some videos, pretty India decor, and good conversation pass the time as you wait for the intoxicating spices which compell you to stay.

Naan Bread at Cafe Maharani
The most essential component of any Indian meal is the bread.   We aren't talking about the many fluffy soft breads of the French Boulangiers, but several forms of unleaven bread that make pita bread seem like cheap fast food fare.   The Indians, have naan, chapati, roti, and several others each with their own textures.   Big huge rounds of naan, which are roughly the size of a small hand tossed pizza, are my favorite.   The I love the crisp texture and chewy interior of the naan bread, and the one at Cafe Maharani is better than almost any other I have ever tasted.   As per true Indian etiquette, this bread is big enough to tear off pieces, which you can use to pick up your food in lieu of utensils.

Roti Bread at Cafe Maharani
Roti bread is excellent as well.    The texture of this bread is a little tougher, a little less chewy, and has more of a whole wheat grain taste to it.  What really makes this bread nice though, is the garlic they bake into it, and the butter that they glaze it with.  It make it distinct from the naan, but just as delicious.

Saffron Rice at Cafe Maharani
Besides the bread, being in Hawaii we pretty much must eat rice, or it isn't a meal.   Since my Po Po's time, all other foods are basically meant to accompany rice, and not the other way around.  But the rice served at an Indian restaurant is not the soft white calrose rice that we're so used to.  Nor is it the sticky rice of Thai restaurants that shares kinship with Japanese mochi.   It is a lightly scented, lightly oiled, saffron rice, that is in of itself something different and intriguing to us locals.

Lamb Masala Curry at Cafe Maharani
The first dish that I must try whenever visiting any Indian restaurant is the lamb masala curry.   As I've mentioned before, it is the dish that really made me first love Indian food, during a midnight munchies run on the streets of London.   To me, it is the quintessential Indian dish, representative of everything that makes Indian food so enticing.  Although we call it a curry, curry powder is but one of the myriad of spices that comprise this heady melange.  Lamb masala is like a perfume, with different, distinct nodes that follow one another.   The top node, or first node, is a flash of black pepper and other spices that hit the tip of your tongue waking up the rest of your taste buds.  The second node, is that tender, savory, lamb flavor.  To some people, the gaminess is off putting, but to me the gamier the better.   If I'm eating lamb, I want it to taste like lamb, distinct from beef, and full of lamb flavor.   The bottom node, is the gravy that lingers and warms your tongue with the savory oils and fleeting spices.   Although the curry I had in London is a favorite that is forever etched in my memory, the one at Cafe Maharani is very similar, and easily as classic.  If you're in the mood for something even spicier, the vindaloo at Cafe Maharani makes the masala even seem bland in comparison.

Prawn Malai Korma at Cafe Maharani
Bringing kids with you to eat Indian food is somewhat daunting.   While the allure of the dozens of spices is irresistable to me, they are nearly overwhelming to a younger palate.   Of course, this always leads me into a discussion with my dad about what the little kids in India must eat, and if a spice preference (or tolerance) is really a matter of exposure and environment.   In any case, our server told us that the prawn malai korma is the most popular dish for younger guests at Cafe Maharani.  After tasting it, I can see why.   It is an incredibly mild, somewhat sweet, coconut milk based sauce that is almost the exact opposite of the intensely savory masala.   With the addition of a few sweet raisins, the dish is very kid friendly.   In fact, with the slight tomato taste, a few black olives, and the very mild Indian cheese (which is almost like cottage cheese in taste), it is almost reminiscent of a slight pizza flavor.  While that sounds disconcerting, it also explains the appeal to kids.

Vegetable Navrotten Korma at Cafe Maharani
The vegetable navrotten korma, may look similar to the prawn malai korma, but actually tastes quite different.   Here is the return of the dozens of spices, and in fact is a bit hotter than the masala itself.   But this korma brings with it the contrasting flavors of the sweet raisins and coconut, as well as all the contrasting textures of the mixed vegetables.  While I very much enjoy this dish, I prefer the aloo palak, which is a potatoes and spinach mixture reminiscent of creamed spinach or squid luau in texture.   However, while similar in consistency, the aloo palak lacks the fatty cream taste of a true creamed spinach like the one at Ruth's Chris', and replaces it with more spices.  Somehow the dark green of the spinach, better offsets all of these gravies and sauces.

Tandoori Chicken at Cafe Maharani
Probably the best dish at Cafe Maharani though, is their incredible tandoori chicken, baked in their authentic tandoor oven.   Now, in the past, I have really disliked tandoori chicken, because at the other places I've tried it, the chicken is remarkably dry and tough, and somewhat bland, indicitive of vast overcooking.  Just because it is bright red, does not make it flavorful, and being incredibly dry is just about the worst thing you can do to a chicken.   The tandoori chicken at Cafe Maharani changed all of that for me.   For the first time, I understood what tandoori chicken as all about.   Here was a whole chicken, which was juicy and tender, and almost reminiscent of a good huli huli chicken in texture.   But instead of the subtly sweet and smokey huli huli sauce, you've got a barrage of no-nonsense spices and slight lime kick.  As you tear into this chicken with your fingers, and wrap it with naan bread, you can't help but lick the spices and juices running down your fingers, feeling like a Sikh warrior, feasting before an elephant mounted charge up the Khyber Pass. 

Mango Lassi at Cafe Maharani
All of these spices can get a little overpowering, especially for my wife who really doesn't usually like a lot of spices in her food.   So whenever we go to Cafe Maharani, my wife frequently cools her tongue with the sweet cooling yogurt of an Indian lassi.   You can get them plain, or rose-water flavored, but being a local girl, the mango flavored lassi is definitely the way to go.  

Not since the sandworms of Planet Arrakis, has spice been as all encompassing and all enticing to me as at Cafe Maharani.  The spices there are both the mark of allure and authenticity.

No comments:

Post a Comment