Story by Barbara and Manos Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
327 Franklin Ave,
Wyckoff, NJ 07481
Indian food is as varied and diverse as the geographic regions that comprise the Indian subcontinent. Because of different ingredients used in recipes and seasonal availability, East, West, North and South, each has dishes not found in any of the other areas, as well as dishes that are found throughout the country. India's diverse climate, ranging from deep tropical to mountainous and very cold, has also made a broad range of ingredients readily available to its cooks. Additionally, much of the highly regionally specific blend of cuisines has evolved through interactions with ancient and modern Persia, ancient Greece, Portugal, Mongolia, Tibet, Britain and China to name but a few of the country’s cultural influencers.
New World ingredients, such as chili peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes, were introduced by Arab and Portuguese traders during the sixteenth century and European cooking styles introduced during the colonial period, added to the diversity in the kitchen. The common thread throughout the centuries remains the mixture of spices that invariably give Indian cuisine its flavors and aromas. Some foods are mild and sweet while others are spicy and hot. Indians from the North eat flat breads like chapati and naan, while Southern Indians eat lots of rice and coconut. The term “Indian curry” is given to a multitude of stew-like dishes and is derived from the Colonial British interpretation of Indian cuisine. Curry powder is also a British creation; a blend of Indian spices that were assembled by colonial cooks to titillate the palates of the “sahibs”.
Additionally in India, the population has diverse cultural identities heavily influenced by religious regional peculiarities. Ayurvedic teachings have exerted an influence over Indian cuisine, dictating ingredient pairings and cooking practices. Approximately one-third of India’s population is vegetarian, due to their Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist faiths. There are many Moslems in the North; the separation of Pakistan from India was the result of religious intolerance between the Moslem and Hindu populations. There are even descendants of Persian refugees called Parsee that still practice their 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian faith. Depending on the dominant religious beliefs of an area, the cuisine in a particular region may omit or add certain ingredients to comply with religious restrictions.
I have developed my cravings for Indian food in the years I spent in London in the early ‘60s.
I've been hearing about Benares Restaurant in both New York and New Jersey for awhile, so I decided to try a meal in the New Jersey restaurant near me. The restaurant has outdoor seating under canvas, so one can practice distancing and other common sense requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Benares is known for vegetarian cuisine, the kitchen under the capable hands of chef Anil Gonsalves also creates aromatic meat and seafood dishes. The mains part of the menu is a medley of classic Indian recipes, mostly from the Western part of the subcontinent. The desserts are mostly a product of the Eastern Indian cooking tradition.
We started with a wide variety of appetizers but requested small portions so that we can try as many as possible. So, if the amount of food on the images looks small, it is by design. The actual portions, as we saw at other tables were quite ample.
The two initial appetizers were Crab Chettanadu, lump crab meat with garlic, ginger roasted coconut and spices, a rather spicy house special that I have not seen at any other Indian eatery. It was a very nice way to start. Following were crispy mixed Pakora fritters made of eggplant, yams, spinach and chili.
The next were Banarsi Kachori, crispy flour puffs made with tomato salsa, potatoes and chutney; we were also served Kashmiri Tikki, vegetable cakes of beets seasoned with ginger, fennel and spices, served with mint relish and lotus.
Following were two other appetizers that we thought were exceptional: Fish Malai Tikka, fish fillets marinated in yoghurt and cheese and flavored with cardamom and spices then cooked in the tandoori oven as well as a classic Chicken Tikka that was also cooked in the tandoori.
Then, main courses were brought to the table: Lamb Biryani, Cucumber Raita, Murgh Khubani, Saag Paneer, Yellow Dhal, Peas Pulao, and garlic and rosemary Naan bread.
The Lamb Biryani was a classic, with origins among the Muslims of India. Biryanis encompass a category of highly aromatic, long grain rice and meat dishes, typically served during special family occasions; the emphasis lies in carefully building up layers of aromas and flavors and combinations of textures and colors. In the Benares version, the casserole is flavored with spices, saffron & a hint of mint, plus I think rosewater. A Cucumber Raita, is many times served as a side dish and I always order it as it is a bit similar to Greek tzatziki, a yoghurt/cucumber sauce I’m very fond of; it also works well to lessen the spiciness of the meat part of the dish. In this case the Biryani came in an interesting-looking clay pot, with a cover of cooked bread-dough that was used to seal the pot. When the dough was broken with a serving spoon, the aromas of the Biryani were released to enchant us. It was a really a spectacular version of the dish!
Murgh Khubani is an interesting grilled breast of chicken, served on top of a spiced apricot sauce with dried apricot slivers on top. A lovely sweet and spicy dish that makes my taste buds jump for joy every time I have it! If there is one Indian dish that loudly proclaims its Persian roots; this is the one. Murgh Khubani is a Parsee dish. Parsees are descendants of refugees who fled to Gujarat (Northwestern India) after the Arab conquest of Persia to save their Zoroastrian faith and to avoid religious persecution by the Muslims. The traditional spice blends that characterize Parsee cooking and have been widely adopted by the rest of the Indian cuisine are: Garam Masala (ubiquitous throughout the country), Sambhar Masala (mostly Southern India) and Dhansak Masala (mostly Gujarat, Western India).
To accompany the main courses we had Peas Pulao i.e. basmati rice with fresh green peas; Yellow Dahl, a Northern Indian dish served with rice and flat bread that is made of lentils cooked in an stew like consistency with cumin seeds and a good amount of turmeric, plus chili and garlic. The pièce de résistance as far as Barbara was concerned, was the Saag Paneer; a dish of fresh spinach cooked with cottage cheese, cumin, ginger and garlic. It is usually a vegetarian dish and she loved it!
And now about the wine I brought with me to pair with Benares’ food. It was a bottle of 2016 Cyprès de Climens, a delightful Barsac wine from the Bordeaux region. The 2016 vintage rates better than any other Cyprès vintage up to now due to the wine quality; what was in the second label bottle was much closer to the quality of the wine in the first label (Grand Vin). Usually, the second label is rated at 89/100 to 90/100 points when tasted without food, and that rating is for a second label that rarely has in the bottle wine as good as the first label. I believe that a good wine when paired with the right dishes will surpass the rating given it when tasted alone. And this wine certainly did not disappoint! Paired with the above dishes, I rate it at 95/100 points -- but that is only for this exceptional vintage.
But, our spectacular meal was not finished just yet! Dessert came in and, even though we were full to the gills, we just could not refuse... Orange Kulfi and an “Atom Bomb”. If you like desserts, both are spectacular and very unusual. Just make sure to eat the orange rind that is part of the Kulfi... the slight bitterness of the rind and the aroma complement the sweetness of the ice cream. As far as the “Atom Bomb” is concerned, the rich chocolate volcano cake, countered by the rose petal ice cream made in house ... you have to taste it to believe it.
Thanks to Ranbir Bhatia, general manager of Benares, who guided us through this spectacular meal!
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