Mirchi ka salan curry served alongside biryani. Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.
Annapurna10606 Camino Ruiz, Ste. 6Mira Mesa858-578-0100
If you were at last Monday's noon showing of Avatar in Mira Mesa and got distracted by the food aromas and muffled eating sounds coming from the girl in the back section of the theater, I apologize, but the movie was nearly three hours long and it was lunchtime; popcorn and stale nachos just weren't going to cut it.
I was munching on vegetable pakora, an Indian snack of veggies dipped in a spiced flour batter made from ground chickpeas and fried until crisp. The pakora comes with two dipping sauces—mint and tamarind chutney. The restaurant it was from, Annapurna, usually offers only a buffet at lunch, but if it's not too busy, you can order items à la carte.
During another recent lunch, a friend and I split the butter chicken, called murgh makhani, in which cooked chicken is simmered in a ghee and tomato sauce that's flavored with masala (a spice blend), and enriched with cream. It's really decadent, a bit similar in flavor to chicken tikka masala, but spicier. I thought it'd be good choice for my friend's first taste of Indian food, and she devoured it along with a basket of fresh-baked naan.
But I wanted to delve deeper into Annapurna's menu, especially the spicier dishes of South India that I'd seen on the tables of the primarily Indian clientele—things offered here but nowhere else. Lucky for me, I have a friend from Hyderabad, a city in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, who in addition to having fantastic food knowledge, is a talented cook; some of the best Indian food I've had has come from his home kitchen.
At his suggestion, we tried lamb korma, a dish with origins dating from when the Mughal Empire dominated India, before British colonization. It's a braise of meat in coconut milk, chilies and aromatics like ginger, garlic and warm spices, including coriander and cumin, resulting in tender stew with fiery, yet well-rounded heat and flavor. It went deliciously well with basmati rice, as did the mirchi ka salan, a searingly spicy but tasty curry of hot peppers cooked in a peanut-enriched sauce. It can be eaten on its own but is often served alongside the most famous Hyderabadi dish of all, a fragrant and spicy meat-and-rice dish made with chicken, goat or lamb, called biryani.
Annapurna is the only restaurant we've seen that cooks the traditional dum biryani, layering marinated meat with basmati rice and a laundry list of other ingredients in a huge pot that gets sealed with dough and slowly cooked. It requires a sensitive cooking technique and a large crowd, which is why it's served only in the weekend buffet lineup, when it shares the steam table with a rotating mix of meat or vegetable-based curries, rice and snacks including Malabar fish curry, a savory rice porridge with lemon pickles, a simple stir fry of curried potatoes, fluffy little steamed cakes of rice and lentil batter called idli (the best I've had) and nuggets of soy-sauce-flavored fried chicken, a nod to the country's Chinese-influenced cuisine.
India's incredible food culture comes from a vast, immensely populated country of 28 states, each with its own style of cooking that's influenced by language, religion and location. The variety of dishes and sheer number of ingredients in each is intimidating. I'm a pretty adventurous cook, but I haven't yet gotten the courage to tackle Indian recipes. So as we ended our meal with cool and tangy yogurt rice and the warm, sweet comfort of a cardamom-scented semolina pudding, I think I successfully convinced my friend to give me some Indian cooking lessons, since he's my best hope of ever being able to recreate any of these great dishes at home.
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