Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Recipe: Chai Spiced Pumpkin Pie

With a few tweaks to Libby's Famous Pumpkin Pie, you can end your Thanksgiving feast with a satisfying exotic twist.

3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
a dash of freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1 can (15 oz.) pure pumpkin
1 can (12 fl. oz.) evaporated milk
1 9-in. deep dish pie shell (like Marie Callender's Deep Dish Pie Shells in the freezer section)

You'll Also Need:
a large cookie tray, aluminum foil, small mixing bowl, large mixing bowl, an oven

1. Line the cookie tray with aluminum foil. Place the pie shell in the center.

2. In a small mixing bowl, mix together the sugar, salt, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and a dash of freshly ground black pepper (about four grinds from the pepper grinder).
3. Preheat the oven to 425°F.

4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs.

5. Stir in the pumpkin and the sugar-chai spice mixture to the eggs. Gradually stir in the evaporated milk.

6. Pour into the pie shell.

7. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350°F, then bake another 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for about two hours. Serve warm or refrigerate and serve chilled.
Serves 8-10.

The AHH Factor: About a month ago, I panicked and bought a bunch of canned pumpkin. Why? Apparently, I am still traumatized over last year's pumpkin shortage, which very nearly almost left me without pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. (I finally found a few cans, after getting on the phone and literally calling store after store.)

My family has traditionally used Libby's Famous Pumpkin Pie as our recipe, and it is delicious. This year, I wanted to try something a little different, while still staying true to the essence of one of my all-time favorite desserts. Lucky for me, this pumpkin pie recipe already has many of the spices that are traditionally found in the spiced Indian tea known as Chai. So, all I did was add two more spices to the mix -- ground cardamom and ground pepper. With those tweaks, this pumpkin pie becomes an Indian fusion dish that's even more warming than a typical pie. Even the aroma wafting from the oven was reminiscent of a Hot Chai, and, even though I usually prefer my pumpkin pie chilled, the first few bites of the warm pie were so satisfying as it was like Chai + Pumpkin all in one. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf: Are you listening?

So, now I have an extra pie shell -- not from a panicked moment but just because the shell package came with two. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Movie: Today's Special

6 out of 10 Peppers = Medium
A feel-good comedy about Indian food and culture in the United States, Today's Special is a good, if not great, movie that serves authenticity on a well-garnished platter.

The Details: The new (English-language) feel-good comedy Today's Special really hit home with me. Maybe a little too closely, actually.

It's the (fictional) story of an Indian sous chef named Samir (Aasif Mandvi) who has to take over his father's failing Indian restaurant, except that Samir doesn't know how to cook Indian food. As an Indian food blogger who didn't know how to cook Indian food until, oh say about three months ago -- yes, that would be when I started this blog -- I could empathize with the plot. Lucky for both of us, Indian food encourages -- nay, demands -- improvisation, which seems to have worked out well for both of us.

The best scenes in this movie are those in the kitchen of the restaurant,Tandoori Palace, especially the interaction between Samir and the Indian chef he hires -- a former chef-turned-cabdriver (who's also done everything in between) named Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) -- and his unorthodox cooking methods. The best lesson Akbar teaches Samir is one that any Indian auntie will agree with: it's all about translating your feelings onto the plate. About six years ago, I was trying to cook Indian food for some friends back when I lived in Atlanta -- I vaguely knew how to create about two Indian dishes at the time, and that was only because I wanted to be able to answer "yes" without technically lying every time a non-Indian person asked me if I cooked Indian food. (I never bothered to lie about this failing to Indians, most understood.) I called my mom for help with the recipes, and her response was, "Just make the food with love and it will turn out fine." (I can hear you "Aww"ing out there, but I need you to remember that the next time you make a recipe from my blog and you aren't happy with how it turns out!) There's even a Bengali word for this cooking method --  andaj or "estimate." There are no written recipes passed down from generation to generation in most Indian families -- it's all about estimating amounts of spices based on instinct and experience.

The movie also focuses on the drama between Samir and his father Hakim (Harish Patel), in whose eyes Samir's career and other life choices have made Samir a failure. Here's where the movie hit a little too close to home for me, as I have a tumultuous relationship with my own dad for similar reasons. In a culture where doctors, engineers, and in recent years we can maybe add businessmen and bankers, reign supreme, writing is not considered a choice profession. My dad literally wouldn't pay for me to go to any of the elite colleges I desperately wanted to attend and was accepted into, unless I enrolled as a science major. (I wouldn't do it, wound up going to an in-state public school instead, and have never regretted it.) So some of the scenes -- like when Samir is trying to tell his parents some important information about his career and they both blow him off -- were hard for me to watch. But I appreciated the scenes for their authenticity.

I will warn you that the movie will make you hungry. I felt famished after watching the film, and Nick and I had eaten right before. Nick audibly gasped when his favorite Indian food, puri, made a cameo at the beginning of the film. (Which reminds me: I need to get his mom's recipe for for a future post.) I watched the movie with a group from NETIP (Network of Indian Professionals) Los Angeles-Orange County Chapter (thanks to the NETIP board for organizing the screening!), and everyone really seemed to enjoy it. One critique several NETIP members made was that Tandoori Palace's cuisine didn't look like Indian food. It's true that the high-end Indian food -- complete with garnishes and fancy swirly designs -- being served by Tandoori Palace by the end of the movie was too high-end to really be served at a low- to mid-end restaurant like a Tandoori Palace, but it reminded me of the food served at restaurants like Tanzore and Chakra Cuisine.

My biggest problem with the film is that it's slow to get to the point -- that Samir gets forced into helping with the family restaurant. I mean, could Samir's dad just have the heart attack already? (Mind you, I don't make it a habit to wish Indian uncles ill -- but let's keep this plot moving!) Nick didn't think the beginning was slow at all though. And he's not shy about broadcasting his feelings, so he would have told me if that were the case. So maybe it was just me.

Have you seen Today's Special -- What did you think? What parts of the movie did you find authentic (or not)?

Today's Special, Los Angeles Showtimes

Friday, November 19, 2010

Restaurant: Tibet Nepal House, Pasadena

10 out of 10 Peppers = Extra Spicy
A consistent performer, Tibet Nepal House provides delicious food in a charming atmosphere that's just as ideal for a first date as it is for a group dinner.
The Details: Ahh, the memories. Tibet Nepal House has been a staple in Nick's and my restaurant circuit for the entire time we've been dating. Indeed, it's been a staple of Nick's restaurant -- and dating -- circuit, long before we ever met. He's taken so many first dates here that the restaurant staff knows him on site.

Having the staff recognize his date(s), however, is another matter entirely.

Nick definitely played the dating field, so, while he was exceptionally great at first dates, and occasionally at second, he'd usually elect to stop dating the woman after that point. (I think he actually tried to break it off with me during our second date, but that's a whole other story.) By the time he first took me to Tibet Nepal House on about date 4 or 5, he'd told me all about his salacious past -- and Tibet Nepal House's role in fostering it. After a delicious dinner, I asked him if I should go wig shopping so I could accompany him on future visits without ruining his player rep. (Luckily, for whatever reason, he doesn't seem to mind that the restaurant staff now recognizes me too.)

The atmosphere is casual, but unique. Prayer flags hang from the rafters, as do large paper feet decorated by customers -- which represent the feet of the Yeti (Abominable Snowman). The service is excellent. Also, the restaurant offers free parking (with validation) in the Parsons parking lot.

The menu features both Himalayan Nepalese dishes, which to me are virtually indistinguishable from Indian food (hence, why I feel comfortable reviewing the restaurant for this site), and Tibetan dishes, which are similar to Chinese food.

One dish that is different from what you find in Indian food are these Momos, or potstickers that are filled with seasoned ground meat. Nick loves them, and I prefer them to samosas, their Indian counterpart, as momos are steamed and not fried. I've added a tiered steamer to our wedding registry for the sole purpose of wanting to make momos at home. Other dishes you'll find here but not at Indian restaurants include hearty Himalayan stews and yak meat, which I have yet to try. Or rather, am scared to try, courtesy of a story Nick told me of a friend who, during Nick's group birthday dinner several years ago, ordered the yak, then proceeded to drink too much alcohol. So, by the end of the night, he had yakked up the yak.

Even though I know the puking had everything to do with the alcohol and nothing to do with the yak, the phrase "yakked the yak" has stuck with me. Actually, I hope I didn't just ruin yak meat for you too. But, if I did, I do think that story was worth it. (Plus, the non-yak menu here is several pages long, so you'll be OK.)

On this particular occasion, we'd taken Nick's visiting friend, David, here for an early lunch before he had to catch his flight out of Burbank. Tibet Nepal House offers a lunch buffet every day from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. It's $9.99 and is a small- to mid-size buffet selection of about eight dishes.

Naan was brought fresh to our table. Champagne is also complimentary during the Sunday buffet.

The buffet (and entire menu) is both veg- and non veg-friendly. I really liked the mushroom dish that's on the left side of this plate.

David, Nick, and I were all huge fans of the Shrimp Curry. I really liked the cabbage too.

I helped myself to the Kheer (rice pudding). It's a great way to finish off a meal.

Honestly, the best review to heed on this restaurant isn't mine. It's Nick's mom's. She's a traditional Nepalese woman who grew up in Kathmandu. She has declared Tibet Nepal House "authentic." It doesn't get any better than that.

Have you ever tried yak meat? What would you say are the main differences between Indian cuisine and Nepalese cuisine?

Tibet Nepal House, 36 E Holly St., Pasadena 91103. (626) 585-0955.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Restaurant: Bombay Tandoori & Banquet, Torrance

Banquet Hall: 3 out of 10 Peppers = Mild

Restaurant: 8 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy
Bombay Tandoori & Banquet is a tale of two restaurants: the restaurant itself and the banquet hall. The restaurant, I recommend; the banquet hall, I don't.

The Details:
Via various leadership classes, I've learned to employ the "compliment sandwich" technique of delivering criticism -- in which the negative comments are placed between two compliments on either end. (Sneaky, huh?) Supposedly, it's a good technique when the entity on the receiving end has a lot of potential but needs select improvements.

So, Bombay Tandoori, we need to talk. By the way, I like your choice of cuisine -- Indian food rocks! But, seriously, I'll have to split this review into two parts -- the banquet hall and the restaurant -- because the experience was so different in each place. (The alternative, averaging the scores, wouldn't really have done justice to either component.)

So, the Banquet Hall:

The good: The decor is appropriate -- I especially liked the hanging Indian-style fabrics draped from the ceiling.

The bad: Banquet hall guests were not allowed to park in Bombay Tandoori's own parking lot. When asked where we should park, the parking attendant shrugged his shoulders. (As a side note, that must be an easy job -- being a parking attendant for a parking lot where no one is allowed to park!) He mumbled something to the effect of, "We have to keep the lot open for restaurant customers." Ironically, after Bobby (Nick's brother) and I (with Nick) parked seven and three blocks away, respectively, we did end up becoming restaurant customers. But more on that later.

So, half an hour later after we'd trudged back to the restaurant, there was indeed a sign in front of the banquet hall that said if you parked in its lot you would be towed...sucker! (Well, the sucker part may have been added by me. But it was implied.) During dinner (in the restaurant part of the establishment), we actually saw a tow truck pull up. It's been a few weeks since this event, and I'm crossing my fingers that those poor Nepalese aunties and uncles have finally made it back home.

The event, a celebration sponsored by a Nepalese association, had started at 6 p.m., or about an hour before we arrived. We'd each paid the requested $20 event donation, then made a beeline for the buffet table. The items set out so far were appetizers.

Available were Chicken Tikka, boneless chicken breast pieces roasted in a tandoor; Samosas, fried pyramid-shaped filled turnovers; and Vegetable Pakoras, deep-friend vegetables battered in chickpea flour and spices. The appetizers were OK, but Bobby and I both found them to be too salty. Nick liked them. Of course, Nick will also be the first to admit that he's currently annoyed with me for not keeping a salt shaker available in my apartment for his salting pleasure. (If food is flavorless when it's already been brought to the table, then I think it's too late for salt. At that point, I figure I'm better served spicing it up with something like chili powder,curry powder, cinnamon, or whatever spice will complement the dish.)

At about 7:45 p.m., we were starving, the scheduled entertainment hadn't started yet, and we decided to order food in the restaurant (restaurant review starts in 4 paragraphs).

When we returned to the banquet hall at about 9 p.m., the entrees had only just been added to the buffet line. And, due to the inefficient room layout, the line for food was snaking around everywhere, including completely blocking all seated guests' views of the dance floor -- where the association had planned on having various performances. Even after making an announcement that guests should get off of the dance floor, nobody budged. I don't blame them. Moving off of the dance floor meant losing your place in line, which at 9 p.m., I wouldn't have done either. (Sadly, I didn't get to try any of the food on this buffet, as I was too stuffed from having just eaten in the restaurant.)

At this point, I was seriously wondering if the room was over capacity -- all of the tables had long been filled, we were sitting in seats placed around the room's border, and some people were without seats altogether. I searched for the "max room capacity" sign and quickly found it near the entrance -- but instead of a number, it was blank.  I later found out that Bombay Tandoori says the banquet hall holds up to 250 people, but I think they must counting the seats that are immediately outside of the banquet hall.

The good: Service, in the form of picking up empty plates and the like, was prompt.

All in all, I don't think this space works for a large event. But, if you have a smaller event of 60 guests or below, don't need to use the dance floor for performances (or can get a stage built on it -- that would likely have solved the sight-lines problem), and are able to negotiate use of the parking lot, then it might work for you.

Now, the restaurant:

The prompt and courteous service continued in the restaurant portion of Bombay Tandoori. Our server even memorized our order without writing it down -- a party trick that has always impressed me. (Well, as long as the order comes out correctly. Which it did).

I was also impressed with the complimentary Papadum -- partly cause of the taste, but mostly because it was cone-shaped. (Can you tell I'm easily amused?)

Pickled carrots, mint sauce, and tamarind sauce were also complimentary.


Some people order alcohol to improve a bad mood. When I'm in an Indian restaurant, I'll order a Mango Lassi. The bad mood was courtesy of the negative experience with the banquet hall, but the lassi was the perfect pick-me-up. And, no, I didn't order a "double" -- that's the same mango lassi in both photos, but doesn't it look super cool in the second photo? The first photo is more true to the drink's actual color, but I wanted to share second photo because, with the table's candlelight and without a camera flash, it looks like the lassi is glowing with a light from within. I seriously can't stop staring at it.....

OK, moving on!

We split three entrees.

Bobby picked the Lamb Curry. It was yummy. Plus, if you like lamb, you'll be happy to know that the restaurant offers nine different lamb entrees..

As usual, it was up to me to order a vegetable. I picked the Bengan Bhartha, described as fresh eggplant first roasted in a tandoor oven then cooked curry style with fresh tomatoes. It was tasty -- not the best Indian eggplant dish I've had but definitely above average.

Nick's Lamb Biryani stole the show. Described as,Basmati rice cooked with tender pieces of goat meat in a blend of special North Indian spices, nuts, and raisins, it's flavoring was just superb.

Raita, an Indian yogurt sauce, was included with our entrees. Nick and I have never cared for raita, but Bobby is somewhat of a raita connoisseur. He said it was up to par.

After we were stuffed and had declined dessert, our server brought us each a complimentary dessert anyway. I'm not exactly sure what the motivation behind that was, but I suspect it may have had something to do with how, even sitting markedly far away from the banquet hall, we were still subject to its loud music and to overhearing the "talent" show (which included a very bizarre rendition of Taio Cruz's Dynamite). All three desserts -- carrot pudding, gulab jamun, and rice pudding -- were excellent.

Have you been to Bombay Tandoori (or its sister restaurants India's Tandoori in Hawthorne or India's Tandoori on Wilshire in Los Angeles)? What is your favorite banquet hall for Indian functions in L.A.?

Bombay Tandoori & Banquet, 4111 Pacific Coast Highway, Torrance 90505. (310) 303-3185.
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