now eat this
Bunny was embarrassed as usual when I barged right into the kitchen to see Ram Karki of Nepal juggling frypans to cook several dishes at once, stirring in red, orange, and yellow spices atop the beautiful blue gas flames. Karki’s new restaurant out 280 is a geographical as well as a culinary tour that rivals all the stops he has made in kitchens from San Francisco to Boston, not to mention India, before making it to Birmingham.
You have heard of going to Birmingham from Boulder, but what about Katmandu--haven’t you always wanted an excuse to say that? I bet Emmylou could sing it, too.
So Bunny told me don’t get excited and insisted I start off with a lassie just to cool my jets down. It is an Indian smoothie with homemade yogurt and rose water. At Mughal it was smooth and thick and tangy, not sugared up as is often the danger. And I was glad I got it because the place was packed on a Friday night and Ram Karki was back there juggling saucepans as fast as he could while the room kept filling up.
Our server also brought us lentil crackers with black pepper but the dipping sauce clearly had onion in it. Bunny claims onions make her break out in hives, though I am not convinced it is not psychosomatic, having witnessed the country girl work herself into a froth over imagined occurrences. Nonetheless, the staff went back to the drawing board to find her something acceptable to her palate.
Thankfully she was busy on her phone googling for the contest to find F. Scott Fitzgerald’s one-word contribution to the script of Gone with the Wind (“Frankly”) and also informed me of the most quoted movie line of all time, “Bond, James Bond.” So we were entertained, while we waited, by the Birmingham Weekly.
Mughal also passed out free vegetable pakora, mainly onions (not much to Bunny’s delight) dipped in spicy batter and deep fried to make flavorful fritters, and may have thereby averted a riot from at least one large party on such a busy night. Then came free tomato soup. Bunny used her supersensitive tastebuds to check for onion traces and detected cilantro and mustard seed instead. But don’t expect all this free food when they are not backed up.
Still, we were now getting hungry and Bunny was eyeing the buffet tables at the back of the room that she normally would not approach without a can of Lysol and gloves. Fortunately, temptation was averted since the buffet is only served at lunch, so I can go back then without her and pig out to my heart’s content.
But that gave me time to give her one of my history lessons she loves so much--of course I am kidding. I have learned to specify my tone since the country girl can never tell when I am serious and has whomped me upside the head just for being a little frivolous at times.
But the cilantro got me started because that was the green that filled the Persian piadine I had at Bottega for lunch that day. And little did you realize that the food we have come to know as Indian has its roots in the ancient kingdom of Persia now known as Iran.
The name Mughal is derived, in fact, from the original homelands of the Timurids, the Central Asian steppes once conquered by Genghis Khan and hence known as Moghulistan, “Land of Mongols”. Although early Mughals spoke the Chagatai language and maintained some Turko-Mongol practices, they became essentially Persianized by their conquered subjects and transferred the Persian literary and high culture to India, thus forming the base for the Indo-Persian culture and the Spread of Islam in South Asia. The Persian language gave way to Urdu - which falls between Persian and Hindi, which comes from ancient Sanskrit (which I mention just for the hell of it).
The cuisine is strongly influenced by Persian and Turkic cuisines of Central Asia, often associated with a distinctive aroma and the taste of ground and whole spices.
By the time I was through with the lesson our order started to show up on the table, first the Tandoori Chicken, named for the clay oven in which chicken marinated in yogurt and spices is then barbecued over hot coals. It had beautiful red color and texture. Bunny would have liked it a little spicier, and would prefer a thigh to a drumstick if she could choose.
Then we had a biryani dish - shrimp marinated with spices and saffron, then steamed with basmati rice. It comes again from the Persian word bery, which means “fried” or “roasted.” So that is a little misnomer slightly lost in translation but it still sounds--and tasted--good. And instead of simply steaming, Mughal prepared it more like fried rice.
If you know me the way Bunny and the country girl do, you know I am just stringing you along till I get to the part that is really nice. That was the Fish Goa Curry.
First, a word about Goa, located along India’s west coast along the Arabian Sea. seafood, coconut milk, rice and paste are main ingredients of Goan delicacies. Goan Brahmins, like Bunny, can be considered as facultative vegetarians, i.e. they eat fish and chicken on most days, while eating strict vegetarian (no meat, no-fish diet) food on some days, for religious reasons.
The typical herbs and spices that make Indian food distinctive are these: turmeric, tamarind, cumin, coriander, garlic, and cilantro. The tomatoes in the fish curry were introduced from Brazil by the enterprising Portuguese, who colonized Goa. The most important part of Goan spices, the chilies, were also introduced to Goan cuisine by the Portuguese and became immensely popular.
Mughal’s Fish Goa Curry was a delicious combination of these influences. And it came just as we ordered, medium spicy, which is a little hot when you are going by Indian food standards. Don’t make a cross-cultural faux pas and order extra spicy in an Indian restaurant unless you are wearing an asbestos suit with extra esophogeal protection.
The Goa curry dish at Mughal was a perfect blend of the hot spices, soothing coconut milk, mustard seed, and curry leaves.
Now let me try to clear up a little confusion about curry. Curry as we commonly talk about it is not a spice on its own, but is a combination yellow ochre powder, made chiefly from turmeric, coriander (that is the seed of the plant--the leaf we call cilantro), and cumin, though it can contain many variations of Indo-Persian spices. Depending on the recipe, additional ingredients such as ginger, garlic, asafoetida, fennel seed, caraway, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, green cardamom, black cardamom, nutmeg, long pepper, and black pepper may also be added.
And don’t forget one more common addition, fenugreek. Don’t laugh, this “Greek hay” (Cato the Elder listed it as a crop grown to feed cattle) spread throughout the ancient world and was even found in the tomb of Tutankamen. It is widely grown in India today and used in pickles and curry powders.
To make a fine point by way of aside, in North India, where dishes are classified as sukhi (dry) and tari (with liquid), the word curry is often confounded with the similar-sounding Hindi-Urdu word tari (from the Persian-derived tar meaning wet) and has no implications for the presence or absence of spice, or whether the dish is Indian or not. That is, any stew, spicy or not, would be termed a curry , or rather a tari dish, simply because it is wet.
Just to make sure you stay almost as confused as the country girl, the curry leaves in the Fish Goa Curry at Mughal are something different altogether. They come from the sub-tropical tree in the family Rutaceae, which is native to India. The name itself in Tamil is pronounced ‘kariveppilai’ (literally “curry” (kari) “neem” (veppu) “leaf” (ilai)). Often used in curries, the leaves are more properly named “sweet neem leaves.” But don’t tell the country girl because she can’t stand the aggravation of so much complication coming from me, much less understand it.
In India, the plant that produces the curry leaves--so called, at the end of the day, because they are often added to curry dishes--is variously known as “Sacred Tree,” “Heal All,” “Nature’s Drugstore,” “Village Pharmacy” and “Panacea for all diseases”. In the Middle East it is considered a weed.
Well you can see the twisted ways these roots--both of words and food--creep into our lives and cultures. Sorry if I confused you by going off on a tangent. What I meant to say is the Fish Goa Curry made by the Nepalese chef now claimed by Birmingham is flavorful, savory, colorful, and delicious. Even Bunny agrees.
Mughal Indian Cuisine
5426 Highway 280 East
205 408 1008