by John DeMers
If you can’t say something stupid about something, don’t say anything at all. That must have been my operating philosophy the first time I met Chef Kiran Verma of Ashiana Indian Restaurant on Dairy Ashford and her business partner, Dr. Jack Sharma.
Verma was collaborating with Monica Pope of Boulevard Bistro on another of those east-west-see-what-happens dinners, each course paired with some interesting or even surprising wine. So, of course, it didn’t take me long – despite my then-newness to Houston and my general ignorance of, well, most things – to declare what was really most significant and newsworthy about this particular dinner.
“How does it feel, Dr. Jack?” I asked, picking up the mode of personal address that nearly everyone uses with him. “I mean, come on. All these people drinking all these wines with Indian food – when wine doesn’t even go with Indian food!”
I knew what I was talking about. Indian food went with beer, the perfect cold and cooling liquid to follow its incendiary spices that are known everywhere (except, it turns out, in India) as curry. I’d always had beer with Indian food, including one called Kingfisher that came in the world’s largest beer bottle all the way from India. Quite a few Indian waiters on more than one continent had assured me beer was the chosen drink for this always-fiery cuisine.
Well, for the rest of that evening, Dr. Jack ignored other folks at our table on an express mission to set this poor soul straight. Indian food, he said, isn’t always the least bit hot – though it always features a unique and complex blend of exotic spices. Indian food isn’t always curry – certainly never made with “curry powder,” which was merely a British shortcut to the painstaking (and ever-changing) mix of spices that Indian chefs, domestic help and even housewives have always created themselves. And about this silly business of the beer –
Indian food is perfect with and for wine, pronounced Dr. Jack, who recently had the honor of seeing his own smiling face in the Wine Spectator. Indeed, the rather subtle flavors Verma served us that evening flipped their fascinating way through vintage after vintage, white and red alike. If anything, Indian food went better with wine than a lot of things I’d tasted at wine dinners by chefs from actual wine countries. The biggest bombshell of all: India itself used to be a wine country.
Spinning a tale worthy of Kipling (a Brit who probably drank nothing but gin and beer), Dr. Jack told me about the Greeks in India – the Greeks? – armies led into the country’s north by Alexander the Great. The Greeks, like the Romans who later copied their every good or bad habit, wouldn’t cross the street from the Parthenon without knowing that where they were going had decent wine. Or else, happily for all of us, they took grape cuttings and set to planting.
For centuries after Alexander was a memory (a godlike one, if we believe Kipling’s story “The Man Who Would Be King”), the people of India enjoyed glass after glass of their own local wine. It was the coming of Muslim culture (creating the tangled issues addressed with the formation of Muslim Pakistan and largely Hindu India), with the Koran’s strict prohibitions on alcohol, that ended the “glory days” of Indian winemaking. Still, no British soldier anywhere could stand being sober for long, so these guys brought their own preferences to their long reign in India. And those preferences were, to the ease and delight of later Kipling quartets, gin and beer.
I’ll never forget that east-west dinner full of surprises, with Verma and Dr. Jack of Ashiana. Yet for me, as for many Americans, Indian cuisine is always about surprises. It’s mouth-burning hot less often than not – though “hot stuff” can always be found or avoided by uttering the single word vindaloo. Indian food is far more varied than we tend to give it credit for. Rather than turning everything into curry, Indian chefs can treat each dish as a separate entity demanding its own cooking method, its own careful cooking time and, of course, its very own blend of 14, 21, maybe 27 different spices. (The Indian spice rack is a wonder to behold.)
One of the few simple words to remember is tandoori. A ‘tandoor” is an unusual, super-heated clay oven that many Indians use to cook almost everything: from served-everywhere tandoori chicken to shrimp and fish to the collection of incredible breads known as naan. Most tandoori items are marinated first in a liquid blend that’s usually very red (except at Ashiana, where both colors and flavors are subtler). They tend to remain moist during cooking, taking on only a minimal char on the outside like the very best stuff you ever cooked on your backyard grill – except, with that spice-yogurt marinade, much better.
For the uninitiated (and/or intimidated), Ashiana does what most Indian restaurants in Houston do – though only reluctantly, says Verma. The place sets out a dazzling, palate-pleasing lunch buffet that gets gobbled up so fast the foods remain fresh. These tables feature most “colors” from the Indian palette, including the best pureed lentil dal I’ve ever had in Houston, New York or even that hotbed of large and small Indian restaurants, London.
Don’t tell Verma I sent you to her buffet because she really wants you to try her tender, voluptuous rack of lamb, her jumbo prawns marinated in ginger-garlic sauce and her surprisingly creamy chicken tikka masala. Turns out, all three totally different tastes and textures involve the same Indian tandoor. And as Dr. Jack will be happy to assure you when you come rushing back for dinner that evening, they all pair really well with wine. Really. H