I got into Indian food in a seriously roundabout way. My good friend Bob Pollitt made me my first Chicken Curry at Sgt. Pepper’s British Pub in Roanoke about a zillion years ago. So there’s a mad Englishman making a fiery Indian dish for a puzzled American. Funny old world. Since those days, I’ve turned my hand to a fair bit of Indian cooking myself. I make wonderful aloobhujia, my chana masala will bring tears of joy (and pain; I always put in too many chilis) to your eyes, and my chicken curry is almost as good as that first one Bob made me so long ago.
But I’m from Appalachia, not Arunachal. So I’m definitely no expert, but I may have found a few at Nawab Indian Cuisine in Downtown Roanoke. We had called ahead for a reservation on a recent weekend night, and it was a good thing we did. The sixth thing we noticed when we walked in was that even though it was creeping up on closing time, the dining room was packed. The first through fifth things we noticed were the beautiful music, the overwhelmingly beautiful and lavish décor with rich and permeating colors, the glorious artwork with a genesis in one of the world’s oldest living cultures, the sharp and pleasantly pungent aromas, and the ego wall stacked to the ceiling with framed accolades from a certain local lifestyle mag which shall remain nameless.
But before we knew it, we were sitting in a snug booth under a fantastic, panoramic hunting scene, and considering the exotic choices on the menu. While our waiter was off getting me a bottle of Kingfisher (very tasty Indian lager), another kind gentleman brought us a basket of papadums, a sort of crisp cracker or flatbread, with a delicious tangy mint chutney. The tart relish tasted fresh enough to be right out of my garden.
If, that is, you can make delicious things out of crabgrass and good intentions… As we nibbled on these tasty starters, we ordered a Vegetable Samosa, which is a kind of vegetable-stuffed fritter. Very tasty, plated with a tangy sauce and fried to a golden blonde. Being a confirmed potato addict (seriously, I know I have a problem), I also chose an order of Tikki Chole, which was a delicious sort of spicy potato cake with chick peas and a sweet tomato-y sauce. If there was a sour note to the appetizers, it was a sour, soapy taste from a leafy bit of coriander, which Americans are possibly more used to encountering in the de-leafed seed form.
It was harrowing, but we survived. Ah, well, there was more Kingfisher (not to mention a full bar and a quite credible wine list) to chase away the blues. I quickly moved on to an order of Lamb Tikaa Masala, flavorful chunks of lamb swimming in a creamy tomato sauce with blended spices. Rich, delicious and spicy, I’m hoping to find a way to replicate this at home so I can pretend to my friends that I’m actually a good cook. Meanwhile, my wife had ordered the Tandoori shrimp, served with broccoli, carrots and onions in a light creamy sauce. Her one minor grievance was that it could have been more spicy. She did, however, mention that she would never “complain about shrimp of this size.”
When we’d been considering our entrée choices, we noticed on the menu two options that no self-respecting food-eater should go without. First and foremost, there was the assorted bread basket, with garlicky naan, roti and kulcha. They’re all three Indian flatbreads, but they’re all unique and delicious, and served as an excellent delivery mechanism for the sauce in my lamb dish. We also decided it would be downright goofy not to order the assorted condiment tray, which came with raita (cucumber and yogurt sauce), mango chutney, onion and tomato chutney, and achaar. If you’ve never had this last item, be aware that it can be a bit of a challenge. A sort of ultra-spicy pickle relish (and sometimes just called “pickle”), it’s pungent, powerful and lively enough to put a little fire in her shrimp, I can tell you that much.
For desert, our knowledgeable and friendly waiter recommended we try the Gulab Jamun, which were dark-brown fried dough balls, sort of like dense beignets in a honey sauce. We also really enjoyed the kulfi, a frozen dairy treat with nuts and fruit, sort of like an ice cream with a sweet mango sauce. Dining at Nawab was an unadulterated riot of flavors, sounds, smells and colors. The service was wonderful even during the late hours as the operation was winding down, and we were reluctant to leave. A bit of postprandial research (who likes to Google on an empty stomach?) revealed that “Nawab” actually means a sort of demi-king or major noble in South Asia, and the staff certainly went to extremes to make us feel like royalty. However, they also made me acutely aware that I’ve got a long way to go before I can cook like these guys. Bob, get your “Wots yer pleasure, ma’am?” apron on and let’s get to work.