I have to admit, I had some reservations about Indian food. I thought it was going to have some odd spicy taste, be very strong, and everything was going to taste the same. Much to my surprise, I was completely wrong.
Spice of India on Market Street is relatively new, just opening last year. I met with owner and chef, Raj Ingle. I admitted to him I had never tried Indian food before so this was a new experience for me. He was trained in India and creates authentic dishes but at times, he tells me, he adds his own flair on things. All I knew about Indian food was spice so I asked Raj what is the most important spice in the Indian kitchen. "It's like you're asking me to pick my favorite child. All the spices sit out in the kitchen like instruments in an orchestra," as he waves his hands in the air, "and I'm the conductor." "Once all together, the symphony comes out." Garam Masala is a main spice in the kitchen. It's a combination of many spices that when blended and roasted create the most amazing aroma. When Raj is cooking, he doesn't taste, he smells. "I can tell by the aroma when it's just right."
The spices are unique, as are some of the other Indian specialties. Raj actually drives to New Jersey every two weeks to pick up product including the Garam Masala spice packets, and fresh produce like the white radish and small eggplant that is not available locally.
One of the cooks appeared at our table and asked Raj if we were ready to eat and how hot to make the food. Raj asked me how spicy I would like it and on a scale of 1 - 10, I chose an 8. I like spicy food but not knowing the Indian spice level, I tried to play it semi-safe.
A lunch buffet is served daily and it's a great way to try Indian food for the first time. They also serve wonderful soup that is light and a wonderful start to your meal on a cool day. Popular dishes according to Ingle include Vegetable Samosa and Pakora which are fried vegetable appetizers, the Chicken Tikka which I'll rave about later and of course the Shish Kebab, again, details follow.
Raabia was my server today who presented me with a sizzling, steaming dish that when placed in front of me literally took my breath away. She tells me it's called Paneer Tikka. Raj tells me it's a Tandoori Specialty and like the Nan bread, it's baked in a special clay oven called a tandoor. Chunks of cheese (Paneer) are marinated then grilled with green peppers and onions. It continued sizzling, emitting this wonderful aroma as Raj served me. It's a different smell and I'm guessing it's the level of spice/heat that finds its way to all your senses. It smelled amazing and looked beautiful and I couldn't wait to try it. One bite and I was sold. It's so not what I expected. The cheese is not the type that melts. It's firm, yet soft. It reminds me of a greek cheese that I've called Haloumi. The outside of the cubes are bright red from the spices. The grilled peppers and onions on the bottom get a nice caramelization on them and the whole dish is topped with a few slices of raw peppers and onion and fresh lemon wedges. Next to the dish is a trio of sauces. Raj says these are typical sauces served with any dish. I actually really enjoyed all three and don't have a particular favorite but I would want all three with my meal just for the variety of taste and texture. One is a chunky Onion Chutney. It's probably the hottest of the three. A thick red sauce with chunks of onion and lots of spices. The smooth red sauce is Tamarind which, to me, reminds of American barbecue sauce. The third sauce is a beautiful green color. It's called Mint Tamarind. It's cool and refreshing due to the mint and it's very good. I kept trying each one and thoroughly enjoyed them all for their unique flavors.
The next dish Raabia brought out was another sizzler. Shish Kebab. I thought shish kebab was big chunks of meat but not here. Raj tells me it's ground chicken that is seasoned with lots of spices, pepper and onion. It's rolled to look almost like small sausages then placed on a skewer and cooked in the tandoor. The oven is so hot that it only takes 2 - 3 minutes to cook, but this meat has so much flavor and is so amazing, that I would've thought it has been cooked for hours. The texture is like a sausage without the casing. The fast, high heat cooking, just sears the outside and holds in all the natural juices and spices and it definitely packs a little heat. Served on that sizzling skillet of peppers and onion and topped with a handful of fresh cilantro that puts this dish over the top.
While waiting for our next dish, Raj ordered me a Mango Smoothie. It's made with yogurt and a mango pulp that comes from India. It was served in a champagne flute with a straw. It was smooth and creamy. It's not an icy drink, not too sweet, very delicious. It definitely works in cooling down your palate in between bites. Just in time for the next dish. Chicken Tikka Masala and Basmati Rice. A beautiful orange, creamy dish with chunks of chicken garnished with fresh cilantro and slivered almonds. Served with a dish of simple basmati rice dotted with fresh peas and cilantro, again, the aroma and presentation is breathtaking. Before I could try it, out came three very large flatbreads called Nan which is a traditional Indian style bread. We had the Garlic Nan, the Aloo Nan and the Chef's Special. They are cooked on the sides of the tandoor and lightly browned. Two thin layers of dough are rolled out, ingredients place on one then topped with the other and baked. Kind of like a stuffed pita but very thin. The Chef's Special Nan is filled with a combination of onions, garlic, potatoes and shredded chicken. You dip the Nan in the Chicken Tikka Masala and it's fabulous. The bread is wonderful alone as well, but I love dipping it that rich sauce. It's so good.
I was completely satisfied and thrilled that Raabid was packing my leftovers to go when Raj walked over with two small bowls, each with a round ball of ? Well, I really didn't know what it was. "Rasgulla and Gulabjamun", Raj says with a smile. I can't say it, but I can tell you what it taste like. They are both like little cakes. The Rasgulla is white and a sort of dry, crumbly texture. It's in a very sweet sugar syrup that the cake ball has totally absorbed like a sponge. The Gulabjamun is brown and my first thought was it tasted like honey. This cake was a different texture, more like our cake. The difference between the two is the base, one is made with flour and the other with biscuit mix. The Gulabjamun was also warmer and Raj says it's delicious served with ice cream. It's a small bite but with it being so sweet it's all you need to finish off this wonderful meal.
I confessed to Raj that I really was not looking forward to this review. I had it in my mind what I thought Indian food was and I admit I was totally wrong. I am so excited about this food. It's different than anything else out there, it's fresh, it's packed with flavors and it's a place I am definitely going back to. Don't be afraid to try it like me, I have let too many years go by without experiencing this wonderful cuisine. Raj is the "master of spices" and Spice of India is now at the top of my list.