Monday, March 12, 2018

Amma's Kitchen and other Indian food updates

Over the past few weeks, I've been slowly chipping away at the list of Indian restaurants I have or had not been to so as to keep my Indian food in Taipei list as personally vetted as possible. With that in mind, I went out of my way to eat at Amma's KitchenJai Ho (Tianmu - by the owners of the erstwhile Fusion Asia) and Masala Art (Maji Maji in Yuanshan).

I've also added Moksha and Azeez Indian to the master list, although I haven't been to either.

Masala dosa from Amma's Kitchen

I especially want to plug Amma's Kitchen, so here's my review copied from my main review page fro your convenience:

Amma's Kitchen
Roosevelt Road Sec 3. #100-93, 2nd floor

I think this is one of my new favorite Indian restaurants! It's absolutely tiny (enough room for one row of maybe 5 tables) in a decrepit old building that looks half-abandoned, down a creepy hallway you get to by climbing some creepy, dirty stairs.

That sounds horrible, but it's actually great. Because I say so. When you enter this restaurant that is little more than hallway-sized in width, it's clean, friendly and inviting. Run by a bunch of South Indian guys (if the name "Amma's" didn't tip you off), and has the best - and cheapest - South Indian menu in Taipei. Yes, idli, yes vadai (two kinds - medhu and masala - I like all vadai so that's great). Uthappam! They have uthappam! And guys - samiya pasayam (I love payasam). And yes, dosa. A variety of dosas in fact. And "Chettinad chicken", which they say is their specialty (haven't tried it yet but will soon). I love a good South Indian curry beyond the usual idli-dosa, so that's just...I mean it's great.

The food reminds me of home cooking. You aren't going to get Udupi restaurant-quality dosa here, and the sambar also tastes homemade (I love whatever it is that they do to the coconut chutney, though - I think it's a mix of coconut and tomato). It's South Indian home food for South Indians, and I am totally on board.
These guys run a small operation but they run it well. Go give them your business.

* * *

That aside, recently I've been struggling with the Indian food writers' dilemma of late - namely, do I tell them the level of heat I want in my food or do I see what they bring me without special instructions, to find out how they envision their own food? 

Amma's Kitchen

As you know - and if you don't know stop reading my blog right now and go jump in a well - different Indian dishes have different levels of spice that are appropriate for the gravy and whatever's been cooked in it. A vindaloo should be so hot it gets you high, with a nice vinegary kick. Channa masala has an afterburn created by a mash of hot green chilis at its base. Butter chicken should be warming but not too hot, balanced with creamy sweetness and tomatoey..ness. Almost like you caramelized the tomatoes before adding the cream. Any sort of methi-based curry (methi paneer, aloo methi) should have appropriate heat to balance out the strong flavor of methi leaves. Actually anything with potato must be good and hot - a good aloo gobi is a bit dry, just a nice coating with the potatoes just giving you a mouth-gasm because they've been fried in ghee, and the cauliflower not too crunchy, but cooked and maybe a bit charred hear and there. Just enough spicy gravy to have something to sop up with rice or naan. A good shahi paneer or malai kofta is warm and creamy and nutty, not too hot. My personal favorite home curry - a Bengali concoction of coconut milk, mustard seed, mustard oil, fried green chilis and heaps of coriander - heats you up from several sources of spice.

Every curry is different, but you should always leave an Indian meal with the feeling that you've been warmed to your bones. 

So, the question remains - do I ask for that, or do I see what they bring me? Do they understand? Do they have The Knowledge? I used to go with the latter - seeing what came - because I want to know what the chef is thinking when she or he creates. It's a great window into how seriously they take their craft. But recently I've been going with the former and being explicit about what I want, because I feel I ought to give any place I review the chance to do as well as possible. Bias for best and all that. If a place can deliver based on instructions you give them, that's good enough. Anyway, I simply must accept that I live in a country where - whether true or just a long-standing urban legend - people simply do not like their Indian food spicy. Restaurants can and will tone it down for the local market, so I have to be extremely clear that I am not the local market, don't feed me that. That won't warm you. That's just normal food with like a few extra flavors in it. It won't make you understand. 
The (very good) samosas at Masala Art

With that in mind, I have to say that while both Jai Ho and Masala Art are fine...the food was well-made, they have great stuff on the menu like paan kulfi and homemade gulab jamun (at Jai Ho) and falooda (at Masala Art - which is good because they don't have beer) - the food is just not spicy enough.

I'm sorry, it's just not. The flavors are balanced. The ingredients are quality. Whoever is back there knows what he or she is doing. But it's not spicy enough. 

I wouldn't be bothered about this, except I specifically asked them to make it good and hot for me. Told them I used to live in India (I studied abroad there - close enough). Told them everyone at the table could handle real heat. We'd all been to India and liked it at that spice level (which won't burn your tongue off, contrary to popular myth. As above - every gravy is different.) Told them not to hold back.

In both just didn't get there.

I don't know about Masala Art - if anything, the butter chicken was hotter than the channa masala, which is odd, and the butter chicken was great. The samosas were too. Big fan of the falooda. The channa masala was the only thing lacking (well - and the garlic naan was made with garlic powder, not fresh garlic, but I liked that it was thin). But at Jai Ho I said something about it, and the waitress admitted she'd just put in our orders for "medium spicy" (which by Taiwan standards means "not freakin' spicy at all"). Which would have been an excusable mistake, except I'd very clearly specified that that was not what I wanted.

I think the chefs at both restaurants know how to make a good curry. I just...

...well, I hope they listen to me next time. And yes, there will be a next time.

If you're reading this, Jai Ho and Masala Art - when we say hot, we mean it. You probably didn't know this when I ate at your establishments, but I can quite likely match your own chefs curry for curry from my own kitchen. I don't mean "oh I can make a daal", I mean I see your butter chicken and raise you a Hyderabadi mutton biryani. I see your aloo gobi and raise you pumpkin in tamarind-sambar gravy. I see your channa masala and raise you a Bengali shorshe murgi. I only go out for Indian so I can keep that master list updated - think of it as a community service - and so I don't have to do it myself if I'm feeling lazy. If I say hot, I mean hot

Paan kulfi at Jai Ho

Make it appropriately hot for the dish - that's how you get to the top of the list. (Mayur is at the top because he and his chefs do a good job with this.)

(But seriously I really liked the desserts at both places. Keep it up.)

Onion uthappam at Amma's Kitchen

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