Masala Indian & Fusion Cuisine

Masala Indian & Fusion Cuisine

The thing about living in Chicago proper is that having a car is a wasted expense. If you are like me, you take public transportation everywhere because of two factors: a want for avoiding snow during the winter and a loathing of construction epidemic when it’s not snowing. Because I rarely drive, I venture out to the suburbs when I go for a spin. So, after driving the obstacle course of potholes, lane closures, and drivers who don’t use their indicators, I managed to venture out to the West Suburbs. And after a while, it was necessary for me address a certain issue: my growling belly. Ah, but there was an Indian restaurant in sight — Masala Indian and Fusion Cuisine at 801 E. Butterfield Road in Lombard. Talk about serendipity.

Mango Lassi

Mango Lassi

I was in a mode of wanting to deviate just a little, but not completely. Instead of the usual samosas, I ordered aloo papdi chaat. In India, you will find this dished out in some container from any number of street vendors. It is the best. And Masala applies a bit of that tradition to the aloo papdi chaat that they serve. The crispy pastry, chopped potatoes, and onions served with cilantro and tamarind chutneys and yogurt make for an incredible snack. After devouring samosas, papadum, aloo tikka, and pakoras all the time, I had forgotten how much I was a fan of something as simple as chaat — which still has a complex flavour.

Aloo Papdi Chaat

Aloo Papdi Chaat

Aloo Papdi Chaat

Aloo Papdi Chaat

It is rhetorical for me to say that I had an insatiable appetite. I ordered an entree of chicken tikka masala, an entree of chana masala, basmati rice, and bhatura. With the temperatures having a bit of a nip, one way I knew would give me enough heat to deal with the continuing drop in temperatures outside was to get the dishes spicy. Heat rising from my scalp, a ring of fire around my lips, and my belly welcoming each swallow, it was a scene of sheer enjoyment. It helped that I had a mango lassi to quell a bit of the fire from the spiciness. Not only was the chicken tender in the chicken tikka masala, but the gravy had a hint of makhani to it, and I love makhani. The chana masala had a different taste to it. However, it was still an outstanding dish and I used the bhatura for my eating utensil to gobble the spicy chickpeas in gravy.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken Tikka Masala

Chana Masala

Chana Masala

I figured traffic going back towards downtown Chicago would be taxing on my nerves, so I opted to sit and let my food settle. Now, there were a few people who had come into the restaurant and ordered masala chai for take-away. When patrons come to Indian restaurants for chai, it may be a good idea to follow suit. I barely had the cup to my lips when I realized why the chai was so popular. It tasted like what you get down the alleys in India. Well, for those who are daring and will partake of street food and masala chai from street vendors, they know. And if you get a cup of masala Chai from Masala, then you, too, will understand the draw.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

Masala Indian and Fusion Cuisine is authentically Indian. The exterior can be deceiving, as it looks like the frontispiece for a vacant building, especially if the parking lot is scant with cars. But once you enter, you’re in a Wonderland that caters to palates that enjoy Indian food with all of it flair. They have a buffet daily. I shall return in the near future to partake of the buffet offerings, since you can never go wrong at an Indian buffet. Having eaten from the menu, I will admit that I am indeed a fan of Masala. As to the fusion aspect of their menu, that may be something given in the name for an attraction because this restaurant screams authenticity in some of the best Indian dining. And it begs you to make the drive out to Lombard to find out for yourself the flavour of love.

Masala, Indian & Fusion Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Exhaling Curry, Mughal India

Mughal India Restaurant

Shortly after I joined a company in the West Loop, my colleagues wanted to go to a nearby Indian restaurant. Let me just say that I love Indian food. So, I put my antisocial disposition aside — actually, I’m only antisocial until I’m not longer working with someone — and I joined the troop for lunch. Buffet and mild for the American palates that flooded the restaurant. Slow clap, twice. Well, one thing I have noticed about many of the Indian restaurants very close to the Chicago Loop is that the buffets are indeed for quick bites and incredibly mild. No Indian restaurant should serve its food mild. It MUST come to the table spicy. And I learned later that going back to any of those restaurants for dinner is when you get to see that they can shine with food so full of flavour that you continue to return.

Papadum

Papadum

Well, I returned to Mughal India Restaurant at 560 W. Van Buren Street for some non-work day delight. I had gone back recently for take-away. When I got home and started gobbling my purchases, I knew I had to return for a proper blog. I also made a note to myself that I was not going to indulge any more Indian buffets in the downtown area. It is necessary to go away from The Loop to get authenticity in my Indian buffets. Now, I’m not a stickler for decor since I’m more concerned about flavour than I am about whether the cushions are plush as opposed to crushed velvet. A few whiffs of the air and I was ready to work my fork on some curry dish.

Jeera Aloo

Jeera Aloo

Because Indian food can be heavy, I skipped having an appetizer and decided that I would have two entrée selections. I ordered jeera aloo and fish tikka masala with basmati rice and poori. Ordering the entrées spicy made the dishes that more appetizing. The jeera aloo was bursting with whole cumin seeds and other various spices — no bland potatoes for me.  This was what I considered my “dry” dish since it was not in a gravy. The spices compensated for the absence of sauce. The fish tikka masala was incredible. Boneless fish marinated in yogurt and spices, and then served in a spicy masala gravy. If I was not a seafood lover already, I would have been after indulging this entrée. The rice was good for taming the flame of the spices and the poori, which is my favourite Indian bread along with bhatura, was my eating utensil. Yes, I eat Indian food using bread for my utensils, which may explain why my hands have an everlasting curry smell to them.

Fish Tikka Masala

Fish Tikka Masala

After I had finished the meal, the server did not rush me. So, I took a little time to let the food digest before requesting a masala chai. The beauty of having a masala chai at an Indian restaurant is that you are guaranteed not to have them serve you that concoction from a carton that is all the rage at coffee houses. What murder. What horror. What crime. Oh, and if the masala chai is really good, you won’t require any sweeteners. Such was the case with the masala chai at Mughal India. For all those international coffee commercials that used to come on with the women taking a sip and whimsically imagining all being good and well in the land, imagine someone smacking their cups from their hands and offering them some masala chai. Those women would skyrocket straight to the stars.

Poori

Poori

Now, I can’t say that I will ever return to Mughal India Restaurant for their lunch buffet. They raised the bar with their dinner and Saturday lunches. Oh, let me not forget this. My in-house dining bonanza was on a Saturday afternoon and they served from the menu only. Let’s just say that they curried favour with me in a way that has moved them high up on my list of recommended Indian restaurants. Considering I get to see the Indians in the open kitchen preparing love for the plates, it is authentic in a major way. Mughal India Restaurant will be one of the main reasons why my pores, according to my highschool sweetheart, seems to exhale curry. And I smile.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

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Cumin to a Neighbourhood Near You

Cumin

Chutneys

Chutneys

It was Friday mid afternoon and we were allowed to leave work early. It was the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend and many companies downtown were rather anxious to start the weekend. Everyone wanted to leave work in a rush to avoid being stuck in traffic or crammed on public transportation en route to home — or wherever they were going. As for me, I opted for a casual subway ride from downtown to Wicker Park with intentions of going to a Nepalese-Indian restaurant. It was late enough that the lunch crowd would have thinned and the after-five crowd would have considered an early dinner an affront to their evening drinking agenda. I arrived at the door and saw that it was dark. Ras! The hours off business are 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM and 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM. Nevertheless, Wicker Park is only the neighbourhood south of Logan Square, where I live. So I went home and dropped off my attaché case, sat for a spell, and then headed back out for the 5:00 PM opening.

Aaluko Achar

Aaluko Achar

Found on the stretch of hip Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park at 1414 N. Milwaukee Avenue is Cumin, one of Chicago’s few Nepalese restaurants that is not tucked in between a host of Indian restaurants on Devon Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Restaurant atmosphere with a lounge kind of feel to it, I arrived at the restaurant while there were only two tables of diners. I had my pick of seats. Having received a recommendation from a colleague about how outstanding the food was at Cumin, I had slightly high hopes, but I moderated them just a bit. I have found that Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese restaurants that are not on Devon Avenue tend to appease the American palate more — that is, the food is rather absent of spices, especially the spices that burn the tongue.

Aalu Tikka

Aalu Tikka

During review of the menu, I noticed that the Nepalese bill of fare was considerably smaller than the Indian menu. The vegetarian options were also limited, surprisingly. Indian restaurants are quite dominant in the city, so I decided that I would focus on the Nepalese menu, specifically, perhaps with one exception. I saw a few vegetarian items on the menu. However, I deferred to the waitress for recommendations. I told her that I was primarily vegetarian and wanted something that was authentically Nepalese. Staying away from the usual menu items like samosas, pakoras, and curries, I simply handed the menu to her and told her that I wanted two appetizers and two entrées. With the vegetarian fare being lighter, I entertained one Nepalese appetizer and one Indian vegetarian appetizer. The entrées were Nepalese proper. Seeing that I was pulling my cameras from my bag, the waitress asked me if I wanted my food all at once or if I wanted it linearly so that I could photograph each dish without having the shuffle plates around on the table. I agreed to have each plate come individually.

Basmati Rice

Basmati Rice

The Nepalese appetizer to come to the table was the aaluka achar. Visually, this is every food photographers’ dream, stunning in presentation and well placed for your viewing pleasure. Taste-wise, these baby potatoes and cucumbers, diced and picked with sesame-lemon paste, tempered with fenugreek seed, red chillies, and tumeric powder were heaven served with the restaurant’s signature crispy flattened rice. This dish was so fantastic to the palate that I just knew the rest of the food I had ordered was going to be highly disappointing. And then the Indian appetizer of aalo tikki chaat came to the table. Not only was this appealing to the visual senses, but my taste buds had a party with every bite. This was a mashed potato cake under a cornucopia of boiled chickpeas, chopped onions, yogurt, chaat masala, and tamarind-mint chutney. My mouth went Wow with each taste and understandably so. What made this appetizer even more delectable was the fact that the tartness of the yogurt was balanced out nicely by the sweetness of the tamarind-mint chutney. The aaluka achar and aalo tikka chaat were so expressive in my mouth that I was then certain the appetizers were the best on the menu and the entrees were going to be the complete antithesis.

Palungoko Saag

Palungoko Saag

And when the first entrée came to the table, it was quite evident that I am neither a gambling man nor one who operates on first impressions setting the expectations bar. The baalungoku saag that I had is a traditional Nepalese dish that I can understand why it is favoured so well. In the bowl were fresh spinach leaves sautéed in cumin seed, mustard seed, fenugreek seed, dry red chillies, and fresh garlic cloves. Pa-pow-pow went the insides of my cheeks with each forkful that I placed on my tongue. The spinach had been cooked such that it was not bitter and spiced just right with the red chillies that there was a kick without a need for several swallows of water thereafter. The second entrée was parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Yet again, this was an amazing dish of potatoes, bamboo shoots, and black eyed peas cooked in delectable Nepalese spices. Recommended per the waitress as a traditional vegetarian dish in Nepal, I can say with brutal honesty that I do not want black eyed peas in another fashion than as a dish of parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Not to omit any items, but the basmati rice and roti that came with the entrées rounded out my meal very nicely. The nods of appreciation, the smiles of rapture, and the silence of my growling belly were all evidence that Cumin had done a fantastic job.

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

I knew that I would be able to finish the appetizers without incident. As to the entrées, I ate enough so that I could engage the waitress about the dishes, their preparations, and their cultural significances in Nepal. While getting the remaining entrées prepared for take-away, I had a chai. Naturally sweet and certainly not prepared like that sugary madness you get at Starbucks and other coffee houses, this chai reminded me of that which I partook of in Bangalore, Delhi, and Bombay, just not as peppery. I was quite satisfied and was thrown for a bit of a quandary when I saw the bill. I was quite certain that the waitress had left something off — something that happens often at restaurants where I go. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the appetizers, entrées, and chai that I had ordered were present and accounted for. It was just that the prices were not so above the clouds that the cash register sounded off in stereo with “cha-ching” when the waitress cashed me out.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

For a first visit, I found Cumin to be a restaurant that I would recommend highly. From the inviting welcome, to the delicious factor of the food, to the price, Cumin is a package that is hard to shirk. As mentioned earlier, the Nepalese menu is small in comparison the Indian menu, and I will have to return in the future to sample what the Indian portion has to offer. With Cumin also being a few stops away from where I live or a bus ride away, I will not have to venture north of where I live to Devon Avenue for some Nepalese food fascination. In the meantime, I will polish off the remaining baalungoku saag and parvate aalu tama ra bodi while reminiscing of how great my experience was on this particular early Friday evening.

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