Such is the nature of Indian food, whether it be glamorous or humble. There’s something heart-warming about the various aromas and spices—from cardamom and cumin to saffron and turmeric.
It starts with naan bread, a semi-leavened, fluffy, white bread baked in a tandoor oven. Naan is just one of several types of Indian breads, along with paratha, roti, poori and chapati. The naan at Taj Mahal is particularly good, mostly because of the Tandoor Lady.
The Tandoor Lady stands in the back of the dining room. She has a square cooking station that houses the tandoor oven—the traditional, cylindrical clay oven that uses a charcoal fire to produce an effect somewhere between that of baking and barbecuing. All around her are long iron hooks for skewering meat, and trays of dough where nascent naan waits to be formed.
She grabs a round dough loaf and slaps it back and forth from one hand to another, until it grows bigger and flatter. When it takes the shape of a disc, she fastens it onto a round object covered by a white towel. She lowers it into the intensely hot oven with a few motions of the wrist. When her hand comes back, the white towel is there, but the naan is gone. Looking down into the oven, I could see that she sticks the naan on the side of the oven, which gives it that slightly grilled taste. When it comes out, it is brushed with oil for an attractive, glossy look.
The regular naan was wonderful—chewy and curved with air pockets. The kulcha naan, stuffed with potatoes and pungent green herbs, was even more amazing. We used both types of naan to scoop up a plate of the gloriously creamy chicken tikka masala.
Legend has it that chicken tikka masala was invented when a Brit demanded gravy on his tandoori chicken, for which he got a dose of Campbell’s tomato soup and a pinch of spices. Real chicken tikka masala has a long list of spices and no Campbell’s soup associated with it. The chicken chunks in our dish came from the tandoor oven. They were burnished with a characteristic red hue, created by a plethora of red spices, including paprika, turmeric and garam masala (an assortment of spices in itself: cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and the like). The smokiness of the tandoor oven gave the dish a wonderful flavor.
To experience the tandoor method without any “gravy,” we ordered the mixed grill, as well. This featured chunks of lamb and chicken, a shrimp and some vegetables. The chicken pieces were thighs and drumsticks of that characteristically beautiful red. Cooked perfectly, the tender meats were mild in flavor. Only the lamb was a bit saltier and gamier than expected.
On the vegetarian side, we tried the paneer pakoras—cheese cubes coated with flour and deep-fried. Paneer has the consistency of firm tofu or dense cottage cheese and is also mild in flavor. These were light and delicious. The saag paneer dish, cheese cubes floating in a creamy spinach matrix, was heavy and satisfying, with a lingering heat.
Our dinners came with papadam (a spicy, crispy, cracker-like bread) and dal soup. Both of these, I am told, are unconventional in native Indian dining. Dal is eaten as a main entree, and papadam is more like a snack than an appetizer. Our chutneys, too, were a little unconventional. The typical sweet tamarind puree was accompanied by a pureed mint chutney (rather than cilantro) and a pungent garlic-chili chutney that tasted more Chinese than Indian.
Added to these culinary pleasures was belly dancing, which is featured on weekend nights. Belly dancing is most enjoyable when the audience participates. On this particular night, when a few small parties and one large party were dining, many partook—from the shy and the meek to the outrageously unconventional.
Taj Mahal on Arden may not be the Taj Mahal, but it is a fine destination for Indian dining.