Butter Chicken at Adda | Photo: Zack DeZon | Bloomberg
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II’ve suspected this for a number of years and suggested sotto voce to friends, but now I can say out loud: New York City has better Indian food than London.
I’ll say this after a couple of dinners in Dhamaka. The latest collaboration between the restaurateur Roni Mazumdar and the chef Chintan Pandya is the Ras-Malai, the sweet to finish off the meal, which rounds off the perfect Maha-Bhoj or large feast in the city’s Indian restaurants. I can limit myself to one dish that affirms New York’s primacy: the baked rabbit known as the Rajasthani Khargosh.
More on that later. Right now you know that there is nothing like it in London or even New Delhi.
For decades, both sides of the Atlantic have believed that the British capital has better Indian food than the Big Apple. But even when I lived in London in the early 2000s, the overwhelming majority of Indian restaurants served slop: over-flavored, artificially colored curries made by men – and it was always men – who had never cooked a day in their lives until they arrive in the UK. The exceptions to the rule were at the top end of the market, where dinner in Veeraswamy, for example, could cost over $ 100 per person.
Since then, London’s food scene has changed beyond recognition, with a noticeable flowering of offerings from the Indian subcontinent. The large gap between cheap and cheerful curry houses and Michelin-starred gourmet restaurants has been filled with a very satisfactory mix of medium-priced restaurants.
Some London chefs and food writers now triumphantly claim that their city rivals Delhi and Mumbai, not to mention New York – or Tawa-to-Tawa. They point to the evolution of British taste beyond culinary clichés like tikka masala. Londoners have come to love the bowl-shaped rice pancakes called hoppers or appams in Sri Lanka in the southern Indian state of Kerala; her fondness for bright red meat curries has led her beyond Vindaloo to the laal maas of Rajasthan.
Darjeeling Express, for sure my favorite restaurant in London, is a fine example of the numerous restaurants now indulging the adventurous palate. Chef Asma Khan’s menu pays homage to Bengal, where I was born, and Andhra Pradesh, where I grew up. Their shrimp malaikari, a delicate coconut milk sauce, tastes authentically of Calcutta, just like their Khoobani-Ka-Metha-apricot dessert of Hyderabad. A three-course meal costs just under $ 50 per person, which is three times as much variety, quality and price.
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But wait, isn’t this article supposed to argue for New York’s superiority over London?
It is, but you know the competition is near. Gunpowder, another restaurant that specializes in authentic recipes from across India, actually brings the British capital closer to the New York average.
The keyword is “average,” and it’s important to see New York’s mathematical advantage. While London has more Indian restaurants than New Delhi by some estimates, New York has fewer than the subcontinent’s typical medium-sized city. This means, among other things, that the competition for chefs in New York is not so fierce – especially not to the extent that restaurant owners, desperately looking for kitchen staff, hand farmers and construction workers fresh from the airplane aprons.
The Big Apple’s Indian food scene has threatened Londoners since I arrived in the mid-2000s. You didn’t have to travel the outskirts to find it: there were plenty of options on Lexington Ave in Murray Hill. Even the cheap restaurants in Jackson Heights, Queens, were a cut above the curry houses of the equivalent London borough, and I would have bet the food coloring budget in Southall was many times higher.
At the other end of the price spectrum, a small boom in gourmet Indian restaurants has spurred New York’s game. London had Indian superstar chefs in Vivek Singh and Vineet Bhatia, but New York had Floyd Cardoz and Jigar Mehta.
When London closes the void, New York will extend its step. The new Sona reflects an ambition that seeks to do the same for Indian food as Nobu did for Japanese cuisine. Gastronom Maneesh Goyal has given the deep-fried chickpea snack Golgappa glamor, which is served there with avocado tequila.
But it is the overwhelming success of the Pandya-Mazumdar duo that shows the supremacy of New York. I was stopped by cooking at Rahi experimental dining room and was speechless by Adda, who is moving to a larger location in Long Island City this fall. The duo have announced an expansion of their empire, including a kebab house in Manhattan’s East Village in September and a restaurant celebrating the food of Mazamdur’s hometown of Kolkata, Brooklyn.
Still, it’s Dhamaka who brings it home for New York.
The restaurants, to use Mazumdar’s catchphrase, are unequivocally Indian. For some this creates a feeling of tearful, deafening spice, but for me the ingredient that defines authenticity in Indian cuisine is not the masala, but a meat – especially goats.
Goat makes up a large part of India’s standard red meat, although it is commonly referred to as “mutton” on menus outside the continent. Cooks tend to substitute for aged lamb, but few adjust the seasonings so that they are not properly absorbed by the protein, which cooks try to correct by overcooking.
Pandya only uses lamb where the original recipe calls for it, such as the Kashmiri-style fried ribs in tobacco maaz in Dhamaka. But there are goats in all of its restaurants, from the soft bheja (brain) fry in Adda to methi gosht (with bones, with fenugreek) in Rahi and Gurda Kapura (testicles and kidneys) in Dhamaka.
I call that uncompromisingly Indian.
Finally, as promised, the Rajasthani rabbit, the jewel in New York’s Indian culinary crown. It is marinated in a paste of red chillies, turmeric, ginger, garlic, and yogurt for 24 hours and then slowly cooked in a sealed clay pot. The meat falling off the bone comes with fixins’-dal, cumin potatoes, a selection of bread (tip: take the roti over the heavier paratha) and rice. The $ 190 price tag may sound like a lot, but it easily feeds four. It really is a bargain.
Rabbits are rarely found on menus in India or even in grocery stores. Most Indians will not try rabbits in their lifetime. So Londoners aren’t the only ones missing out on this amazing dish. New Yorkers are just very, very lucky. -Bloomberg
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