Tikka Masala

As popular Indian restaurant curries go, Tikka Masala may very well be king. It is rare to find an Indian buffet that does not feature some permutation of this dish, most often with chicken, though sometimes also with paneer or tofu or some vegetable.

The proper way to make Chicken Tikka Masala is to grill the chicken first on skewers after marinating and then mix into the sauce. This method is much too bothersome for me. I find it easier and much more flexible to use a modified recipe for Tikka Masala sauce, and simply add whatever meat or vegetable I wish.

Tikka MasalaSARAH’S TIKKA MASALA

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 lb. chicken or fried tofu, cauliflower, potato cubes, chick peas, mixed vegetables, etc.
2 inches minced ginger, or 1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno, minced (optional)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground red pepper, or paprika for less heat
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
2 cups cream or yogurt
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (or more to taste)

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Saute the protein or vegetable in the butter with the ginger, garlic and jalapeno for a few minutes. Add lemon juice and remaining spices. Add tomato sauce. If cooking with chicken, stew for a few hours until chicken is tender, adding small amounts of water or milk if the stew gets too dry or sticky. Once cooked to desired tenderness, add cream or yogurt and cook until heated through. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

The Great India Buffet Tour: India Garden in Oakland

Last Sunday night marked the fifth stop on our Great India Buffet Tour of the Pittsburgh area, to take advantage of the Deluxe Dinner Buffet at India Garden on Atwood Street.

Indian Garden OaklandThis was by no means my first visit to the India Garden in Oakland (nor was it Sabrina’s or Nik’s), a venerable institution of cheap spicy eats for the college crowd that has been around since my own college days. I’ve been there before for the late night half priced special, as well as to the lunch buffet on a non-Great-India-Buffet-Tour-related trip.

The evening started with a modicum of confusion. Seeing from the website that the dinner buffet was offered on Sunday night, and that dinner was served until 11:00pm, we naturally assumed that an 8:00 start time for dinner was not a problem. But as we sat and chatted, the waiter confirmed that we were getting the buffet and informed us it would be closing at 9:00pm. Okay… certainly not fatal to our evening, but that would have been nice to know on the website so that we did not risk planning a prohibitively late dinner.

Taking in the buffet, we decided that on the scale of size, this buffet fell somewhere on the scale of smaller than Taj Mahal but larger than Coriander, effectively making it the second largest buffet we have visited so far. There was a wide selection of vegetable curries, including favorites such as Saag and Vegetable Korma. There was a potato and chickpea curry, a yellow dal, a vegetarian Sambar curry and a mattar paneer. There were two chicken curries, as well as a shrimp and a goat curry, making for an impressive non-vegetarian selection. In addition, there were some dry vegetables, and a salad bar with an array of chutney and pickle, but I didn’t avail myself of any of these, save for some hot red pepper sauce.

My favorite item on any India buffet is the Saag (aka the palak, depending on some difference of regional dialects of which I know nothing, or so I presume). That night the saag was served with mushrooms, which was a first in my experience, but certainly no less agreeable than any saag with chicken, paneer, lamb, chickpeas or potatoes (moreso, actually, than the potatoes) I’ve had in the past. It can hold its own against any saag in the city. The vegetable korma was tasty, and no objections were raised on the consistency, as they were at Coriander. The chickpea and potato curry and sambar curries were tasty enough, the yellow dal was nothing special, and the mattar paneer was better than average, as I am usually extremely underwhelmed by mattar paneer, and this one I found okay (though, didn’t encounter any paneer).

The highlight of the buffet was within the meat section. I didn’t try any of the shrimp curry, but Nik highly recommended it (I was too full by that point to go back just to try the shrimp). There was a goat curry offered, but I don’t recall that any of us tried it… mostly we were enamored of the Chicken Chettinad. I have had chettinad from a few Indian restaurants in the past, but it is not a terribly common Indian Restaurant menu item, and this is the first time I have seen it on a buffet. It is a flavorful and fragrant curry which relies on many of the brown spices, such as cinnamon, clove and black cardamom. It was, by far, mine and Sabrina’s favorite item on the buffet. The other chicken offering, the more predictable Tikka Masala, was enjoyable. It was a particular favorite of Nik’s.

The dessert selections were limited: a fruit salad and a rice pudding. I was the only one who availed herself of dessert, enjoying two small helpings of the refreshingly sweet and spiced rice pudding.

A table-wide assessment of the Buffet Tour thus far resulted in the India Garden dinner buffet ending up a solid third on the list. The quality was good, we found, enough to trump Taj and Taste, despite the enormity of the Taj buffet, but it still came in behind Coriander and Tamarind, which remains our leader several stops into the tour after pulling ahead as the early front runner.

India Garden on Urbanspoon

The Great India Buffet Tour: Coriander India Grill

After a long cold winter (well, January and February at least) of struggling to summon the ambition to venture out for any reason, let alone for India Buffet, we finally made a date to check out our next stop on the tour, Coriander India Grill in Squirrel Hill. It was a day only a Pittsburgher could love, 50’s and drizzling, it even inspired two guest critics to come along for the ride: Nik, an India Buffet aficionado and Millvillian, and Jay, an Asian food enthusiast and Squirrel Hill denizen.

Coriander India GrillCoriander Grill is exactly what you would expect, in terms of decor, and then some. The outside and inside plaster wall surfaces are smothered in a lime green color (perhaps “cilantro green” would be more appropriate), which is, perhaps, overkill, but the booths were clean and comfortable, and water served in heavy faux-cut crystal goblets. The lunch buffet at Coriander is offered every day, and a dinner buffet is served on Tuesday and Sunday evenings. The cost is reasonable, being $7.99 during the week, and jumping only to $8.55 on the weekends.

Taking in the scope of the buffet, it became apparent that Coriander’s offerings were more extensive than most, but not quite so gargantuan as the buffet at Taj Mahal. The salad/dessert bar section had a wide variety of chutneys and pickles, including the expected tamarind and mint, as well as the not terribly common coconut. Rice and naan provided the standard starches. Onion pakoras proved to be a crispy appetizer. The meat selections were just as standard as the starch: chicken curry, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala. The vegetarian selection, though, came as a pleasant surprise in its extensiveness. There was mattar paneer, chana saag, an inviting dal, vegetable korma, spiced mixed vegetables and cauliflower. The highlight of of the curry selection was a dish off to the side of red chili paste, very useful for raising the heat level on mild buffet offerings.

Coriander GrillAs we dove into our teeming plates of buffet gleanings, we quickly reached a consensus that the taste quality of coriander’s food was a cut above. There was something intriguing about the taste of each dish. Flavors bespoke fresh ingredients and well-tuned spice mixes. So often buffets rely on over-salting to lend taste to food that does not arrive immediately at the table, but in every dish at Coriander, the salt flavor was low and the spices rang at a good pitch. The pakoras were crispy, but the coconut chutney, while tasty, was uninspired. The saag was one of my favorites, as I am a particular fan of saag, and Nik agreed that it exceeded ordinary Indian restaurant saag. The spinach was still quite green, not too dark and overcooked. The chicken tikka masala was definitely a few flavor levels above typical, a danger that faces any buffet vat of tikka masala since it is practically a requirement. I was even impressed by the mattar paneer, which I didn’t get until my second trip, since mattar paneer is among of my least favorite curries. Sabrina detected a pleasantly sour whisper of vinegar in many dishes, and happily attributed it to the Goan influence that she has noticed on the regular menu, as she frequents Coriander for non-buffet dinner. The dal was a favorite among all the guests at our table, and everyone agreed its appeal lay in its likeness to an Indian-style chili.

Coriander SpecialtiesThe biggest controversy of the day came from the vegetable korma. I enjoyed the flavor of this dish and I was happy to taste a highlight spice—my guess was cardamom—which set it apart in good contrast to the other dishes. However, the korma did suffer one pitfall; it’s a common danger that plagues the preparation of korma, that because of the nut pastes used in its preparation the curry sauce dries out easily, and so water or milk must be added frequently as long as it stews over the fire. Sabrina and Jay agreed that the flavor of the korma sauce was not enough to outweigh their distaste at the pudding-like consistency.

After eating, the table discussed our selections; Sabrina and I compared the experience to our previous buffet stops and we solicited the input of our fellow lunchers that day. Coriander got points for variety, being larger than any other buffet we visited, save the Taj Mahal (what is the appeal of the buffet, after all, if not to sample a plethora of dishes), but it also got points for taste quality. We easily agreed that the flavor of Coriander’s food was second only to the buffet at Tamarind. In the end, we decided that taste trumps size, and so we placed Coriander second to Tamarind in the scheme of buffets we’ve visited so far.

Coriander India Grill on Urbanspoon

The Great India Buffet Tour: Taste, Tamarind & Taj

There is just something about an Indian restaurant buffet that I find hard to beat. Being mildly obsessed with Indian cuisine, my drive to frequent Indian restaurants is far from surprising, but my particular affinity for the buffet bears special explanation as it is the seed of Sabrina’s and my idea for a progressive tour.

The buffet, of whatever ethnicity of food, is a controversial institution. Health nuts hate them, red-blooded American appetites love them… Perhaps the most compelling cuisine-conscious argument against the restaurant buffet is that the quality of food over the buffet represents a noticeable downgrade in quality from off-menu items.

Be that as it may, from my perspective, a cost-benefit assessment of the India Buffet makes it the most alluring choice for South Asian dining. My own growing skills in curry cookery will satisfy my cravings on the average day and make off-menu dining at your average Indian restaurant a questionable upgrade. Do most Indian restaurants cook with superior skill and authenticity to me? Probably. But will ordering two curries and a basket of naan make me happier than cooking two curries and warming up some store-bought naan? Probably not.

The beauty inherent in the India Buffet is that I cannot attempt to recreate it at home (without ludicrous and laborious effort), and I cannot order the full splendor of an Indian meal off the menu without spending a fortune for more food than I could eat in two weeks. The essential appeal of the India Buffet is bountiful variety. Not only do you get a choice of a few (or more) curries, but you get the condiments, the chutneys, the raitas, the breads, the dry vegetables, the desserts, the unexpected delights…

And so, when I told Sabrina two months ago that I had a craving for India Buffet, and we found ourselves stymied by the choices of restaurant, the idea for our India Buffet Tour was born. We have already made three stops on our tour of Indian restaurant buffets in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Let me catch you up on the results so far.

Taste of India, Bloomfield, 4320 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Sabrina, being a Lawrenceville dweller and Indian food aficionado, is such a fixture at Taste of India in Bloomfield that she is, more often than not, the reigning mayor on foursquare, but I had only ever tried food from the CMU cafeteria installation. Still, it was close to both of us, it had a buffet, and so it won out as our first stop on the tour.

The restaurant itself was rather empty with only two other tables occupied when we arrived. The buffet itself was much as expected with all the trimmings, the standard chutneys, rice, naan, kheer, a variety of curries, dry vegetable, green salad and tandoori chicken (the last two of which I always skip over). I was disappointed that day in the lack of color among the curries, specifically the lack of a spinach curry. I expect and enjoy having a variety of color in curries. Some red (makhani, tikka masala, madras, etc), some yellow, white or orange (kormas, dals, chana masala, etc), some green (saag/palak). I understand that buffet offerings change, but that day they were all basically red curries. There was a chicken tikka masala, a basic chicken curry, and a malai kofta. As it turned out the malai kofta was quite good, and something I would not have ventured to try off menu, but I was disappointed in the lack of color variety and specifically in the lack of spinach dishes.

On the upside, there was an unexpected delight in the form of lentil balls. Neither Sabrina nor I had tried this dish before and we were both pleasantly surprised. As it turns out, this is a chilled dish made from white lentils served in a yogurt sauce with garnishes of cilantro and tamarind. They were especially tasty and became an instant favorite.

All in all, the Taste of India offered good quality food and a good variety.

Tamarind, Flavor of India, Oakland, 257 N. Craig Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

The buffet at Tamarind came highly recommended by Sabrina, and so for our second stop about a month later I was eager to try out her recommendation. That recommendation came with a warning, however, that the buffet would be smaller. Indeed it was smaller than the Taste of India buffet, but not by as much as I had imagined when she first described it.

Smaller, perhaps, but I knew on first glance that the dishes were certainly more unique. Their coconut chutney was a first for me and a welcome change from the usual coriander, tamarind and random pickle. There was naan, of course, but also a savory pastry that resembled small donuts. The curry selection was much more up to my colorful expectations, and I was especially impressed by the presence of a lamb saag. Since I am generally unenthusiastic about chicken, a lamb dish on a buffet was quite exciting… and spinach, nonetheless!

The difference in quality was apparent from the first bite. Whether it was the spice blends or the freshness of the ingredients, I could not say for certain, but the food at the Tamarind lunch buffet was definitely a cut above. The flavors were more intriguing and complex than at Taste. The lamb saag was particularly good, as was an eggplant and cauliflower dish (Sabrina was less impressed than I was with the latter), but nothing on this buffet was a disappointment.

Tamarind took a clear and early lead.

Taj Mahal, Ross Township, 7795 McKnight Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15237

Having a little more time to spare over the holidays, we decided to make our more-or-less monthly buffet trip a bit early. After crunching schedules and evaluating our remaining options, we decided on the Taj Mahal restaurant on McKnight Road, which has a lunch buffet and a dinner buffet, such that it seems whenever they are open there is undoubtedly a buffet.

We attended the dinner buffet on a weekday evening. The building is tarp-draped and under renovation, and no wonder, because even though the seating was only about half capacity, it still felt cramped inside.

Perhaps it was the ambiance, but perhaps it was the enormity of the buffet. The advantage of the Taj Mahal buffet was undeniable even on first sight. It was at least twice as large as the Taste of India buffet with offerings I had not seen anywhere else. There were all the requisite vegetable curries, chana masala, vegetable korma, as well as a few chicken curries and even a goat curry. More impressive there was an entire vegetarian wing with paneer tikka masala and vegetable biryani, along with a peculiar Chinese-style tofu dish. Chutneys were numerous, as were appetizers including fritters and papaddams, the peppery crackers served as a standard warm-up at many sit-down, off-menu restaurants. The dessert selection was also large, with a mango mousse, kheer, a peculiar puffy pancake and a too-sweet blood-orange candy.

The bounty of the Taj buffet was exciting, though ultimately the quality was standard. All the curries were enjoyable, but the quality was not up to par with Tamarind. The highlights for me were the paneer tikka masala, the piquant sauce of the goat curry (still undecided about the goat meat itself), and the papaddams which made a surprisingly tasty, spicy and not-too-filling starchy complement to use in alternation with the naan. Lentil balls were a welcome chance to revisit the flavors we had come to enjoy at Taste of India, but weren’t quite as good as those at Taste, lacking some of the extra fresh flavor of the garnishes we had enjoyed the first time.

In the end, we decided that Tamarind still won out on the basis of far superior taste quality to our other buffet stops, but Taj Mahal gets definite points for the vast and various offerings of its dinner buffet.