Saturday, September 13, 2008

Exotic Masala House

So we finally tried Exotic Masala House last night, just as the typhoon blew in.

Exotic Masala House: #19 Lane 13 Pu Cheng Street Taipei (turn off Shida Road at Red House pub and it's a ways in on the right).

We went for an almost entirely South Indian spread - idli sambhar, masala dosa, Kerala fried fish. We also got samosas just because, and several cups of masala chai each.

The verdict? Not bad. Not perfect. The only two times I've had idli-dosa outside of Tamil Nadu that really tastes exactly like the tiffin there have been in Singapore (Little India - one of those tiny spots with card tables and aluminum plates and tumblers) and Amma Vegetarian Kitchen in Georgetown...and even Amma sometimes spiced its sambhar a little too mildly. Singapore was my favorite because the feeling of the place we went really felt like a tiffin joint in Madurai. Tamils, hair dripping with coconut oil, sitting around shoddy tables with metal cups, talking shit and eating, pouring foaming hot chai between two cups to cool it down. Amma us good but it feels like an actual restaurant, which is just not right at all.

Update: since this was published, we've eaten at Exotic Masala House a few more times. According to some others in the Indian community in Taipei, the owner (a woman from Kerala) left for awhile, the quality went way downhill and never quite recovered. We've also noticed a downturn in quality there, and aren't as enamored of it as we used to be. I love idli-dosa so I'd like to see this place get better again, but at the moment I can't give it a wonderful review. It's not terrible, but there are better choices in Taipei if you are happy with north Indian fare.

But back to Taipei. Exotic Masala House's idli-dosa satisfied a craving. Scratched a culinary itch. The sambhar was good but not quite as laden with lentils as it ought to be (and no drumstick). The idli was just fine, if a little crumbly. But that's alright, idli in India isn't always fluffy either.

My favorite dish was the masala dosa - it was small compared to what one normally gets and the dosa was definitely closer to ghee dosa (not paper dosa at all), but the potato masala inside was delicious and spicy. It wasn't the bright yellow potato curry I'm used to; it was more reddish, almost like a chutney dosa. I'm OK with that; a variation that is also present in India.

I liked the chutneys, but wish that with the sambhar they'd serve pure coconut chutney (white with black mustard seed), not the green kind that includes extra cilantro and green chili.

The Kerala fish curry was a bit disappointing, more like a fish fry. It was good enough, but my memory of Malayali fish is a massive white filet encrusted with spices and sauteed in coconut or just grilled. If they'd serve that, I'd be in heaven.

The samosas were...samosas. Good. The wrapping was a little different, but a totally acceptable variation. But they were no better or worse than samosas at any other Indian restaurant in Taipei.

But then we come to the masala chai. Ahh, the masala chai. It was...superb. We drank it as dessert, since they didn't have any on the menu (no big deal - many restaurants don't offer Indian desserts because they are not popular with the locals, and even when they do they come out of a can). It would have been nice to get some gulab jamun, samiya payasam, khulfi, burfi or kheer...but no such luck.

But that chai. If you go for anything, go for the chai. It's laden with cardamom - as in, positively reeks of it. It's spicy and cinnamony and milky and sweet. Heaven in a cup, served so hot that you have to sit there and smell it for about 10 minutes before it's drinkable. An orgasm in a cup.

We drank two cups each and I was considering a third, and the friend who met us there just for the tea raved about it.

Some other notes - this place doesn't seem to be getting much business, but then we went just before Typhoon Sinlaku blew in, and none of the Shida restaurants were raking in the cash that night. Just because they make idli and dosa even possible in Taipei, it really deserves to stay afloat.

The prices are great. Nothing we ordered cost more than 150 kuai, and many were closer to 80. A huge meal for two and tea for three didn't even reach 1000 kuai; a strange occurrence in a Taipei ethnic restaurant.

The music is great; it's all MS Subbulakshmi and Dr. Yesudas with others thrown in. Very relaxing, very atmosphere-appropriate. The restaurant is decorated in saffron orange and is warm and welcoming.

Brendan and I sat around in the table by the window reading the paper and chatting. We were comfortable - practically fuzzy - from the tiffin rush, the soft undulating music, the warm colors and the amazing chai. The three of us ended up hanging around a lot longer than was strictly necessary before giving up on a typhoon movie and deciding on typhoon Belgian beer at Red House, drunk giddily on the terrace as Sinlaku began its rainy rage.

The waitress came up and asked - hao chi ma?

"Quanbu dou hao che...nimen de masala dosa zuihao laaa. Zhe bei cha ye feichang hao he oh!"

The waitress goes to the back, where a plump Dravidian lady with a massive nosering was standing around.

"They said it tasted good! They especially love the tea and dosa!"

The woman squealed delightedly, sounding younger than her age, happy that her customers enjoyed her food.

I don't know why, but that was quite heart-softening.

Is it exactly like Madurai? No. Is it worth going back frequently? Definitely!


Prince Roy said...

I hadn't heard of this place before. It's a shame, because I started going to Red House pub right before I left Taiwan. Idlis, dosa, sambar and Belgium beer would have been an interesting experiment.

If you go back, it would be interesting to know where the Dravidian lady is from. I can only hope that Tamils and other south Indians open up some places in Taipei.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

You haven't heard of it because it's brand spankin' new. Just opened maybe 3 weeks ago. It's across from the Tibetan restaurant that serves alcoholic macaroni for dessert.

I had Malheur 12% at Red House after the meal. The heaviness of the beer was right at home with the sweet, spicy heaviness of the chai earlier.