The Indian Buffet: The Ultimate Lunchtime Steal

 

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With each step, my shoe adhered to the tacky linoleum floor. Although bright, the lights somehow cast an unappealing shadow on the mass of bland, watery food before me. The sharp smell of Pine-Sol shot through my nostrils, culminating in a pounding headache. An enormous, grungy, tee-shirt wearing family excitedly pressured the line to move forward, ravenously awaiting the diarrhea-inducing platefuls of empty calories. I tentatively reached out for the unsanitary spoon used to transport the powder-made scrambled eggs onto my plate. What a waste of seven dollars and 99 cents.

While writing this article, I was forced to relive the food nightmare I experienced at a breakfast buffet I went to off of I-95 in South Carolina. This restaurant, along with many others that carry the tagline “all-you-can-eat,” have besmirched the tradition of the buffet! The Swedes first introduced the “Smörgåsbord” to America during the 1939 World’s Fair. When the Swedish presenters arrived in New York, they employed the Smörgåsbord table (similar to French-style “buffet” furniture) which adequately showcased the prized appetizers, entrees and desserts of their culture. Nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find a sanitary buffet that offers both mass quantity and quality. Fortunately, however, buffets have made a comeback during lunchtime at most Indian restaurants. One may ask:

What are the advantages to eating buffet-style Indian food?

First of all, buffets are huge money-savers for restaurants because very few waiters are needed, the food served usually takes less time to prepare, and the tables turn very quickly. Therefore, meals at decent Indian restaurants, which usually cost around $30 per person at dinner, go for around $12 at a lunchtime buffet. On top of the awesome deal, buffets offer a window into the unique food culture. Indian people often use buffets at weddings and other social events. The actual dishes served at an Indian buffet hold very well over a long period of time. Infact, the spices in the curry continue to marinate, allowing for a homogenous, persistent spice.

As a person who has grown up under the influence of an ‘Indian grandmother’ (my Sikh neighbor who often cooks meals for us) and has lived in London, I would say I am knowledgeable about Indian food, despite its vast diversity. Although some buffets may offer dishes originating from each of the four regions (North, South, East and West), most of the common items hail from the northern region (Punjab and Haryana states), and are a mix of sour, sweet, salty and spicy.

How does one approach the Indian buffet?

To any newcomer, the Indian buffet can seem overwhelming. There are so many combinations of rice, appetizers, curries, meats and condiments. Upon first look, it is probable that everything blends together since many of the dishes are simply slight variations of each other. Don’t worry! The point of the buffet is that you are supposed to go through multiple rounds, each time trying a new combination of flavors. The buffet also follows the more traditional Indian style of eating without utensils. It is truly a messy, taste bud-exploding experience.

What are the staples of a traditional Indian buffet?

First off, replace all knives, forks and spoons with naan bread, a wood-fired flatbread usually cut into triangles to make scooping easier. The beginnings of any plate start with plain Basmati rice, an aromatic long grain rice that acts as a canvas for the real substance: the curries.

The most common curry based dish is the famous Chicken Tikka Masala (actually created by Indian chefs in England): small bites of chicken marinated in lemon, yogurt and cooked in a tandoor oven. The chicken is covered in a creamy tomato-based curry with onion and spices like cumin, masala and ginger. The Tikka Masala shares the same base as butter chicken and shahi curry. The best Chicken Tikka Masala I have ever had came from the lunchtime buffet at Kahdai in downtown Bethesda because the texture of the curry was smooth and creamy, and the sauce has a relatively mild but sustained intensity.

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Another must have is the tandoori chicken, an unmistakable, bright-red delicacy. This chicken, similar to the Tikka Masala, is marinated in yogurt, lemon juices, paprika and onions, and then baked in a tandoor oven to achieve a spicy taste.

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On the vegetarian side lies the famous Aloo Gobi. More widely known for its appearance in the soccer (football) movie Bend it Like Beckham, Aloo Gobi literally translates to cauliflower and potato, and is one of the spiciest items in a buffet, with the exception of perhaps the vindaloo (either pork, lamb or duck bathed in a fiery, tangy cayenne-pepper curry) and daal (curried lentils).

When my tongue cannot handle anymore of the spiciness, I resort to the more mild side of the Indian buffet, scooping ample spoonfuls saag paneer (a soft cubicle cheese made from curdled cow milk and covered in various greens). Another balancing flavor or spice-diffuser is Raita, a cool refreshing yogurt-based dip that will lower the spiciness level of any dish by a full power of ten. Raita serves as the main condiment that complements any item.

Usually most people “throw in the napkin” after an appetizer of samosas and three rounds of curried deliciousness. However, the hard core Indian buffet-goers often save a small bit of room for dessert. Although the most common desserts are Kheer (a thinner rice pudding with pistachios) and Gulab Jamun (fried doughy balls soaked in syrup), my all-time favorite is a sweetened shaved carrot dish, Gajar Halwa, which I first tried 14 years ago at my favorite buffet, Tiffen (a restaurant named for an Indian-style lunch container).
Following dessert, I usually enter a six hour-long “food coma” where I continue to relive the beautiful dream of the diverse, affordable, all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. Indian food has rekindled my relationship with the buffet after the disillusionment I felt at the breakfast buffet of of I-95. No more soggy waffles and powdered-eggs.

 

 

 

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Sydney Grube

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2 Comments

  1. Nice article! Thanks for sharing it. Glad you are enjoying some good Indian food.

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