Fifty years ago, most Americans had no idea what Indian food tasted like. Some say we still don’t. As analyzed by historian Lizzie Collingham in Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors, the menus of most Indian restaurants in America describe a highly hybridized cuisine, primarily made of feast dishes of the 17th-century Mughal empire (chicken korma, lamb biryani) mixed with northern Indian dishes brought to the UK and then the States by Bangladeshis and Punjabis from northwest India and Pakistan.
The tandoor originated as a communal clay-walled pit oven in the Punjab—a region that occupies the northwest corner of India and a massive chunk of Pakistan—but it has since become a required element of Indian restaurants in this country. And while the bulk of the dishes we’re most familiar with—karahi chicken, eggplant bharta, mutter paneer, chicken tikka, naan—are from that same region, generations of restaurateurs have revised these dishes thousands of different ways, incorporating Western ingredients and readjusting recipes on the fly.
Garam Masala, a four-month-old restaurant in the U District, strips out some of the cultural hodgepodge cluttering the hybridized Punjabi dishes we think we know best. Owned by Shahid Anis and his wife, Saima, whose family runs the Seattle International Market on Roosevelt Way and Northeast 123rd Street, Garam Masala bills itself as “Exotic Indian Pakistani Cuisine.”
The menu is heavily salted with hearty, homey, less-familiar Pakistani and Punjabi dishes, prepared by cooks from the region. And while the kitchen may not be producing evenly wonderful food, it has a gift for grilled meats, puffy flatbreads, and oily, straightforward curries redolent of onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and the spice blend known as garam masala.
One more selling point: It’s damn cheap.
Garam Masala is identified only by a banner nailed above the door. If you’re passing too close to the exterior to read it, just look for the gold glowing out the window. The color of a turmeric jar, Garam Masala is just as small and basic as its student-friendly neighbors, decorated with marble-inset wood tables and a drinks case.
The customers are a sparse mix of college students, strapping Pakistani guys in their 20s pinching bites of roast meat between chunks of naan, and groups of veiled women marshalling their small children. (The meats are halal, slaughtered in accord with Muslim law.) The smell of smoke, browning onions, and spice wafts from the kitchen window. Beyond, a big guy pats dough rounds onto a cushion, preparing to stamp them onto the walls of a tandoor. Every now and then, the appealing incense of food and fire is interrupted by a whiff of airport bathroom, courtesy of an air freshener above the cash register.
The tandoor plays a role in most of the restaurant’s best dishes. Each entrée comes with a plate of rice, but there’s no shame in ordering a teardrop-shaped naan as well. The bread bakes on the wall of the oven until the bottom browns and turns slightly shiny, with crackly, black-walled bubbles inflating here and there.
If you’re ordering to go, skip the naan, which toughens quickly, and order one of the kulchas, stuffed with golden spiced paneer and peas or ground lamb. Not only do the kulchas hold up better, they’re beautifully constructed, with miraculously thin exterior layers in the center and an evenly blistered ring around the circumference. (Warning: The Peshawari naan is pretty much a dessert, stuffed with chopped nuts, coconut, and Maraschino cherries.)
The tandoor also produces moist seekh kabobs, ground beef and onions molded around an iron rod and quickly barbecued. Coriander seeds crackle and spark between the teeth as you bite into the cylindrical meatball. For the chicken tikka, the cooks make deep cuts in a bone-in breast and marinate it in yogurt and spices before feeding it into the oven. The chicken splits into diamond-shaped chunks as it quickly cooks, the exterior tangy and black, juices still trapped inside. The oven also smokes the eggplants used in the eggplant bharta, which is then pureed and enriched with ghee and spices. It’s like a baba ghanouj dressed up to hit the Emmys.
Pakistani and Punjabi food is notorious for its quantities of ghee, or clarified butter. A few of the vegetable dishes that I tried could barely contain all the butter the cooks were trying to fold into them. It bubbled out of the surface of the palak paneer, a rich but dull-green purée of spiced spinach, and thickly coated the vegetable jalfrazie (mixed vegetables sautéed with darkly browned onions and spices). Okra masala was simply stir-fried in butter, onions, and a little spice. Half of my table loved the way the dish preserved the vegetable’s fresh taste, the other half found it indistinct and greasy.
Many of the curries are based on a trinity of garlic, ginger, and onions, cooked down until they merge. Tomatoes, chiles, and a little garam masala are often added for a rather basic sauce, like the simple, chunky purée on the Bombay fish curry or the ruddy sauce on the karahi chicken, brightened with large chunks of ginger. Chickpeas and chicken get tossed in for the murgh cholay, peas and cubes of cheese for the mutter paneer. These curries come out hearty, roundly spiced, and occasionally indistinguishable from one another.
The best of the curries I ate at Garam Masala use the trinity as a base for ornate towers of flavor. In the bhuna gosht, the cooks stew down lamb with tomatoes, spice, and peppers into a dense, dark-red purée, while for the lamb dopiaza they add spices by the fistful, topping the aromatic sauce with a little yogurt to give it a slight tang. Drawn back again and again by the $7 entrée prices and the gutsy food, I paid four visits to Garam Masala, probably ingesting as much butter as it would take to bake two dozen croissants and enough chiles to make my gastroenterologist blanch.
That said, I didn’t discover two more Pakistani classics, nihari beef shank and haleem (ground lamb cooked down with seven kinds of lentils), until I read the menu’s fine print while typing this review. By the time you read this, I’ll have corrected that mistake with visit five.
Price Check Plain naan: $1.50 Paneer kulcha: $2.50 Chicken tikka: $3.95 Eggplant bharta: $6.95 Bombay fish curry: $9.95 Karahi chicken: $6.95 Lamb dopiaza: $7.95