Once considered a rarefied ethnic cuisine — and probably too spicy — Indian cooking is emerging as a new Houston favorite.
It's hard to remember a time in Houston when chicken tikka wasn't offered as a topping on a pizza or a filling in a taco. Rewind further back though, and Indian cuisine was grouped in the “too spicy for me" category by many, left out to dry along with Thai food and ghost-pepper salsa. Thankfully, the city's culinary landscape has broadened to reveal an increased demand for spice — or, rather, for many spices.
Chowpatty Chat owner Kurry Walah<p>While many chefs, near and far, are adopting the Indian-fusion trend, Joshi elects to embrace tradition. "Indian food is so complex. It ranges from region to region and is impossible to get right all under one roof," he says. His approach to Surya's primarily North Indian menu? "Dishes are made to their merit. I do not believe in adjusting the spice level because it does an injustice to the cuisine." But, he adds, there are safe bets for people wary of too much spice, like Tandoori chicken and chicken <em>korma</em>.</p><p>When it comes to the vast variety of the cuisine, Little India — a pocket of Indian fabric stores, grocers and boutiques at the intersection of Hillcroft and Harwin — manages to pack it all in. Neighboring restaurants like London Sizzler, Sri Balaji Bhavan, Raja Sweets and Shiv Sagar offer clean, casual dining spaces with plenty of tasty finds, all distinguished by North or South Indian menus. The most significant differences? North Indian cuisine boasts a variety of rich and non-vegetarian items like kebabs, butter chicken and mutton, served alongside wheat-based breads like <em>roti</em> and <em>naan</em>. And South Indian fare features primarily vegetarian options, often made with rice as the staple grain. <em>Idli</em>, savory biscuit-sized cakes, and <em>uttapam</em>, a pancake-like dish similar to a <em>dosa</em> but with all the ingredients cooked right into the batter, are both made with fermented rice and served alongside hot <em>sambar</em> for dipping.</p><p>At Chowpatty Chat, also in Little India, the funky Bollywood-inspired décor is a nod to India's booming multi-billion-dollar film industry, and offers convenient counter service for its menu of fast-casual street eats. The menu spans from "Bombay bites" like <em>pav bhaji</em> — spicy mixed vegetables served with toasted buns, often found in Indian street markets and cafes — to Indo-Chinese, a sub-category of Indian food which fuses Indian and Chinese flavor profiles to create dishes like <em>gobi</em> (cauliflower) Manchurian and vegetable <em>hakka</em> noodles.</p><p>Since a large percentage of the Houston area's 50,000-plus South Asians live and work in Fort Bend County, it makes sense that Stafford would be home to a huge traditional Hindu <em>mandir</em>, or temple, the first of its kind in North America — and that nearby Sugar Land would be a sort of capital of Indian cuisine. There are dozens of popular and tasty Indian restaurants here, but many residents opt to get their takeout from a different type of kitchen. There's a network of seasoned home chefs in Sugar Land who cook and package ready-to-eat meals. Such an option is becoming increasingly popular among a new generation of Indian diners — and non-Indian ones — who may not know how to cook traditional Indian food or simply don't have the time to. Select <em>parathas</em>, which is fried bread stuffed with spiced potatoes or mashed cauliflower; black or yellow <em>daal</em>, lentil soup; and even desserts like <em>kheer</em>, a sweet rice pudding — all for a family of four or more.</p>
Inside Sugar Land's Madras Pavilion restaurant<p>Longtime restaurateur Michael Shah, owner of Madras Pavilion in Sugar Land, who moved his existing concept from Chicago to Houston in 1996, says he has seen a wave of change in the last two decades. Having since expanded to Dallas and Austin, he also operates as one of the cuisine's largest catering businesses, and believes that millennials are helping to change the Indian food trend in more ways than one. "They are well-traveled, they know food," he says. And when it comes to catering, the rise in inter-racial weddings allows him to break free from the boundaries of traditional Indian foods and fuse flavors — think mini tacos stuffed with spiced garbanzo beans, and <em>gulab jamun </em>cheesecake — in an effort to please all parties.</p><p>New generation or not, he observes that all his customers are evolving. "Diners have become a lot more sophisticated," he says. "They ask for a lot more transparency. They ask about what kinds of ingredients are in the dishes, and where the food comes from. There is a conscious effort to eat better." But, he laughs, "samosas and fried foods have not gone out of style."</p>