Can-Am and Inchin's Bring Indian Flavors to Chinese and Italian Staples

The results are sometimes great, sometimes "whaaa?" but definitely worth a whirl.

Explaining Indian pizza to the uninitiated is about as easy as fielding your 4-year-old's questions about where Fluffy went after you put her down. "So...it's naan with some curry on it?" one co-worker asked after I announced that I was going to bring some into the office. "No, it's pizza with Indian toppings," I said. "But what do they use for the crust?" asked another. "Pizza crust," I tried again. "With cheese and things like tandoori chicken on top." That didn't clear up the puzzled looks. I suddenly knew how the inventor of the taco salad must have felt the first time she described her masterpiece to her bridge club. I guess you just have to taste Indian pizza—Can-Am Pizza's Indian pizza, to be precise—to get it. Same with the Indo-Chinese cuisine at Inchin's Bamboo Garden in Redmond. Both are familiar foods designed for South Asian palates. To my own palate, the results are sometimes great, sometimes "whaaa?"—but definitely worth a whirl. Indian is but one of the multicultural pizza varieties at Can-Am, which has seven branches in greater Seattle. The chain also advertises Mexican, Greek, and bacon double-cheeseburger pies, not to mention gyros, spaghetti, and ribs. Franchise founder Amarjit Cheema and his extended family have been in the pizza business for a couple of decades (they started up in Canada), but it wasn't until Cheema moved to Kent in 1999 to open the original Can-Am that he started playing with South Asian flavors, first adding tandoori chicken, then a sprinkling of cilantro and ginger, and going from there. Though all the locations have been trained to make the Indian pies, only the Kent store, which he runs, and his cousin's Bellevue store do the full range right, he says. (Indeed, if you're looking for pizza, avoid the U District branch, where I got a soft, barely passable Pizza Hut knockoff.) Indian pizza is surreal not just in its foreignness but in its familiarity. Evenly spongy, Can-Am's thick crusts were oiled enough to stay crisp all the way home. Smeared on top were a nondescript tomato sauce and enough cheese to bubble, but not so much that it formed a fat pack. The tandoori chicken and paneer pizzas (paneer is a pressed fresh-curd cheese with the consistency of tofu) were simply American-style pies with tomato sauce, cheese, bell peppers, and onions—except instead of sausage or artichokes, the pies came with spice-rubbed, red-tinted Indian ingredients. Of the two, I preferred the paneer, whose gingery marinade soaked deeper into the cheese, to the dry chicken-breast meat. They were fine, but not revolutionary. The butter chicken pizza, however, converted my co-workers to the cause. It had the same onions and peppers, the same crust and cheese. But the cooks slathered on chicken braised in a rich, tomatoey curry sauce that prickled the tongue with its heat, absorbing the aromatic crunch of the onions and peppers into its kick. After a few bites, you can't think why you've never eaten Indian pizza before, and why you shouldn't order another one next week. Which was my resolution after I called Cheema to ask about Can-Am and he mentioned a new palak paneer (spicy spinach) pizza, with extra cucumber-yogurt sauce to drizzle on top. The Indian-Chinese connection at Inchin's Bamboo Garden (not to be confused with Bamboo Garden in Bellevue, which I reviewed April 11) seems just as logical: Stir-fries with cauliflower and eggplant. A yen for chiles. Soupy sauces meant to be mixed into rice and eaten with the hands. Calcutta, whose Chinatown is several hundred years old, is where the cuisine is supposed to have originated, but like General Tso's chicken from New York, Indo-Chinese food has spread across the subcontinent. Now Indo-Chinese restaurants have begun to appear in any American city with a decent South Asian community, and Inchin's is doing its part to proselytize, with franchises in a half-dozen cities, including Redmond. A strip-mall bistro gussied up in paprika and mustard, the Redmond Inchin's seems to want to be both a casual restaurant and a destination for its mostly South Asian customers. It's the kind of place whose menu weighs more than my dictionary and whose paper place mats are custom printed with feng shui and Chinese astrology tips. A cocktail menu lists mango martinis and "love potions," though the waitress may not be able to tell you what goes into them. A number of the restaurant's tables are sized to fit large families; the booths along the edges were filled with younger couples eating after work (or during—one poor woman across the room from us was glaring into space as her companion gazed devotedly at his laptop screen). Coarsely chopped garlic, ginger, and chiles were the unifying theme here, showing up suspended in the cornstarch-thickened plasmas that bathed every dish. Tangy tomato and extra chili powder tinted the plasma coral-colored in the shrimp tobanjan, contributing little—besides throat-clenching levels of heat, of course—to justify the $15 price. The glossy Orange Crush–colored gloop on (around? below? there was so much of it) the sweet-and-sour chicken brought back the Indiana-Chinese meals of my 1970s childhood. "Manchurian" on South Asian menus is the equivalent of "chop suey" on American ones, and here, soy sauce gave a cola cast to the Manchurian vegetable coins. Though the sauce was soupily nondescript, the vegetable coins I dredged out of it—koftalike vegetable fritters the size of Oreos—were strange and enjoyable, especially when eaten with spoonfuls of "burnt garlic chili fried rice," a simple fried rice flecked heavily with toasted bits of garlic and pepper flakes. In fact, everything fried appealed to our table. The spicy, full-flavored Drums of Heaven (chicken wings battered, fried, and then glazed with a chile-onion glaze) and lachew cauliflower (deep-fried florets tossed with big chunks of garlic, ginger, and chiles) both tasted like bar snacks I'd love to see more of. Truth be told, I'm not sure how much of Inchin's Indo-Chinese will appeal to people who aren't ordering it for nostalgia's sake. The "lamb chili mustard"—frilly slices of lamb in a mustard glaze—tasted like a minimalist curry, or a baroque stir-fry. Long after my companions had decided they didn't like it, I found myself picking bits of meat out of the 24-karat-colored sauce, musing over the strange path they had taken to find me. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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