True story…A couple walks up to the buffet at an Indian restaurant; the excitement on their faces shows they are new to this delicious ethnic cuisine. They approach the nearest food counter with four dishes, all looking like soup. They each fill a bowl with soup, walk to their table and eat a few spoonfuls…the guy looks happy with his choice and the lady looks terribly confused with the taste on her palate; clearly her experience is not matching her expectations.
And here’s why: the guy was indeed having a chicken soup while the lady was actually sampling a popular Indian dessert called, ‘Rasmalai’, which could easily pass off as a creamy dumpling soup for the Indian-food novice.
Few cuisines can intrigue the senses and palate the way Indian food can…having said that, I’m aware that Indian restaurant buffets can have confusing layouts and are filled with choices; delicious ones if you know your way around…if you don’t, the flavors can be an odd mix.
Also worth noting, an Indian meal eaten in the right order helps avoid that sense of heartburn commonly associated with Indian restaurant food. However, I can’t vouch for the overeating that invariable happens at an Indian buffet…even with me.
So here’s a road map through an Indian restaurant buffet, with detour ideas and pit stops to delicious Indian treats…plus buffet landmarks that can easily be skipped.
Destination I – Appetizers (and Soup, anyone?)
Recommendation: My Indian buffet mantra, ‘Skip the soup, hit the kebabs’…
Good to know: This tip is handy for all buffet dining experiences. Take a walk around the food counters before you start filling your plate, you don’t want to fill yourself up with the also-rans and then run into a winner.
Live Food Counter Alert! Look out for ‘Chaat’ counters at Indian buffets. Chaats are a savory Indian street food and definitely worth a try. Most times, they are set up as a separate counter or you will find the ‘chaat’ ingredients along with the condiments. How do you put a chaat together? Start with puffed rice (looks like rice crispies) or crisp crackers, top it with vegetables like mashed potatoes, raw chopped onions and raw chopped tomatoes, then drizzle tamarind sauce, cilantro chutney and yogurt over it. There are many versions of chaat, so there really is no wrong way here. Enjoy your creation.
Destination II – Curries and Dry Spiced Vegetable Preparations
Recommendations: I suggest going for different colors and texture here. If two curries or vegetable preparations look too similar in color, they are probably made from the same curry base…Since you have so many choices, try different ones. And don’t miss the condiment section with the chutney and pickle options.
Good to know: Dry spiced vegetable and meat preparations are generally made fresh on that day while the gravy-type curries can be prepared in advance and kept in freezers for days without you being aware of it. (Till the next day, of course.)
Live Food Counter Alert! Fresh ‘naan/roti’ (Indian flatbread made in a tandoor) counters are commonly found in Indian restaurants and they are a must-visit. If you are looking for whole grain options, like me, go for the Tandoori ‘roti’ instead of the naan which is made with whole wheat flour.
Live Food Counter Alert! In North Indian restaurants, look for live ‘tawa’ counters manned by a chef making fresh spiced vegetables on a large griddle. In South Indian restaurants, you will run into ‘dosa’ counters, where a chef deftly creates super thin crisp pancakes called ‘dosa’ (fermented rice & lentil batter) and stuffs them with a delicious south-Indian style potato mixture.
Destination III – The Rice
Recommendation: Don’t skip the Biryani, a delicious preparation of meat and vegetables cooked with fluffy basmati rice. The best accompaniment to biryanis is a cooling raita, an Indian yogurt salad.
Good to know: There is always a serving of tempting plain white basmati rice at Indian buffets, but filling up on it may not be a good idea…however, if you crave something non spicy, enjoy a plain hot buttered naan/roti from the tandoor instead, which can’t be made easily at home.
The Final Destination – Desserts
Recommendation: The dessert options at an Indian restaurant buffet can turn out to be like a fireworks show with a sorry ending. So unless you see something you like during your buffet walk-through, don’t leave much room for it.
Look out for rice or vermicelli/lentil puddings, like Kheer or Payasam, those are delicious and common on buffet counters. Gulab jamun and Rasmalai (both milk based desserts served in a syrup or milk) are other popular buffet desserts.
Good to know: Many restaurants are willing to bring you something that is not on the buffet if you make a request. So if you like ‘Gulab Jamun’ and it’s not on the buffet, by all means, ask for it.
Live Food Counter Alert! You know by now that Jalebi (flour and yogurt dessert shaped like a pretzel and dipped in sugar syrup) is one of my favorite Indian desserts. And if there is a live ‘Jalebi’ counter (for a description, read this) don’t skip it for any reason…even if you need to run 3 laps of the restaurant to make room for this treat.
And let’s not forget the mouth freshener kept by the hostess desk at all Indian restaurants, it’s a delicious mix of fennel seeds and sugar, which aids in digestion while freshening the palate.
I’ll end with the most important ‘things-to-keep-in-mind’ while eating this ‘meal for the gourmand in you’…You will overeat. You will need to walk it off. And it’s all totally worth it.