Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fijian Indian Food

To tell you the truth, I never really cared for Indian food when I was younger.   I ate it.   But I was never really fond of it.  First of all, I am famously not a fan of beans.    I don't like the starchy powdery texture that beans, legumes, and lentils all have.   Indian food, it seemed was just about all various forms of legumes and lentils.  When ordering a plate, I would have some rice, and maybe 4 different dishes, each of which seemed like a different color of baby food.   It all looked like mush to me, and didn't even have a nice creamy texture, but one of mashed beans.  Suffice it to say, I was not impressed.  It wasn't until I was much older that I found out what I was eating, was Indian fast food.   Very poor Indian fast food at that.  The real thing is totally different, and is a cuisine filled with different colors and textures, and dozens upon dozens of different spices.

The first time that I ever had really good Indian food, where I found myself really adoring Indian food, was one the epicenters of Indian cuisine.   London, England.    Wait, London, England?   Aren't the British notorious for bad food and the most unadventurous palates on the planet?   Well, yes, but for centuries, the British Empire had colonies that stretched around the globe (thus the phrase, "the sun never sets on the British Empire").   The crown jewel of the British influence in Asia, was of course India.  What people don't realize, is that although the British were there as a colonial power with their heal down on the Indians, there was a backwash of Indians that came to London.   A very big population in fact.   So it should be no surprise, that Indian food is done really well in London.

There I was in London, England, the first stop on a long European tour with my sister.  We were only spending one day in London, so not very much time to explore.   Naturally the tour serves us some really awful food.  It was an extremely bland and dry chicken.   It was so tasteless, that I feared for the food on the rest of the trip.   Unsatisfied and hungry later that night, I decided to sneak out of the hotel in search of some real food.   It was 11:00 PM, but the sun was just beginning to set.  So we were walking around in essentially late afternoon sun, and we came across a little Indian place.  Feeling curious we bought some and brought it back to our hotel.   It was simply amazing.  To begin with the bread was unlike any other unleaven bread I had ever had.   It was crispy on the outside, and the thin inside was chewy.  Much chewier and doughier than any pita bread I had ever eaten.  But the thing that I just adored was the lamb masala.  Spicy couldn't even begin to describe the number of different spices I could detect.   It was peppery.   It had so many distinct nodes of flavor.   The lamb itself was really tender, slightly gamey (with that distinctive lamb taste), and oh so delicious.   I didn't think I would ever taste Indian food like that again.  But I was wrong.

During a rather unpleasant stint I had in Seattle, when my Po Po was there for medical treatment, we decided to wander around the area near the University of Washington.   For me, walking around was more about clearing my head and dealing with my Po Po's illness, than it was about exploring and seeking new things, as is my usual modus operandi.  But we found our way into a little Indian restaurant, right outside of UW, and I found myself having a plate of that very lamb masala over jasmine rice.   Somehow the spices and the flavors put a little spring back in my step.   It wasn't at all what I would call comfort food.  But somehow, it was comforting enough, that I could refocus on supporting my Po Po.

When I got home, I was determined to find some place that I could enjoy Indian food here.   I would no longer stand for having lousy Indian mush passing itself on as real Indian food.   But at the same time, I really wasn't familiar enough with Indian cuisine that I could walk into any restaurant and know how to order the good stuff.   Unlike with Korean food, I didn't have Indian friends to take me to try their authentic favorites.   So I searched and experimented, and finally I found a place that made really good Indian food, accessible to everyone.  But the key was to go on a Friday or Saturday night, when they would offer an Indian food buffet.   The place was right on the edge between Chinatown and Downtown Honolulu, on the corner of King St. and Smith St., simply called Zaffron.

Lunch Buffet at Zaffron
The owners of Zaffron, are Indian, but they're not from India.  In fact, they're from Fiji.   Somehow, this didn't phase me, as one of my best Korean friends spent her childood in American Samoa, and I am a little Chinese boy from Hawaii.   The fact that people are away from their source countries, tends to make them cherish and celebrate their culture more.   Besides that, like Keo's did with Thai food, I was perfectly satisfied that the Indian flavors presented there, were based upon the family recipes of this particular Indian family (from Fiji).  But the moment I tasted their lamb masala curry, it brought me back to London, and to Seattle.   It wasn't exactly the same.   It was a little milder than the incredible melange of spices in London, but it was just as savory.   It was my favorite thing on their dinner buffet.    Recently, they have begun offering a full lunch buffet as well, in which the lamb masala does not appear.   But it does have a wide variety of other tasty things.

Naan Bread at Zaffron
To begin with, they offer you a piece of that wonderful naan bread that I remember from London.   It is crisp on the outside, and nice and chewy on the inside. It is the perfect for tearing off pieces and using them to pick up your food, no utensils required.

Lunch Buffet at Zaffron
They have quite a selection of vegetables.   Yes, they still have many of the lentils that I wasn't so enamoured with to begin with.  But they've also got leafier vegetables and things with more texture and crunch.  They have a very nice okra dish that has beautiful wheel shaped cross sections of okra.   My favorite is their cabbage, which like kalua pig and cabbage or corned beef and cabbage, retains the crunch of the cabbage while absorbing the savoriness of whatever it's cooked with.

Buffet Plate at Zaffron
They've got a good selection of curries.   Of course they've got a good chicken curry, but what always surprises me is their fish curry.   I've never really thought of Indian food as utilizing a lot of seafood.  Lamb, beef, and chicken, yes, but I never really associated seafood with Indian food.  To my surprise, the fish curry at Zaffron is one of the best things there.  Somehow the tenderness of the fish absorbs the oils and spices in a way that the other meat and foul do not.  The other big surprise is their egg curry.  The eggs taste almost like an omelette that my Po Po used to make.  Sort of an Indian variation on egg fu yung.   It kept me wanting more and more.

Plate of Seconds at Zaffron
Of course you must top off any Indian meal with a cup of chai tea.   Chai has become so popular now, you can pick up a cup from any Starbucks on the corner.  But the difference with getting it at Zaffron is the intensity of the spice mix.  It's a sweet, milky, cinnamony pleasure.   For some reason though, drinking chai always reminds me of Christmas.  It's probably the cinnamon, or the combination of sweet and milky.  But the precise spice mix used in good chai, always reminds me of holiday spices and the smell of baking desserts. 

Chai Tea at Zaffron
Buffets are usually not the best quality for food, since they sit there and get cold or overcook, and many places pass off quantity for quality.   At Zaffron, however, the buffet is a wonderful way to expose yourself to something new, to try new flavors and taste sensations, and explore a different culinary culture.  I can't attest that they're the most authentic Indian cuisine, but somehow you can taste the family, the ohana, in their recipes.

No comments:

Post a Comment