Thursday, December 30, 2010

Indian Food in Israel

From a very young age, I have greatly enjoyed Indian food. No doubt influenced by the wonderful cooking of one of my best friend's mothers - who would often invite me to join the family for a wide range of vegetarian delights. With an ever growing Hindu community, Toronto is blessed with many fantastic Indian restaurants - many of which have a wide range of strictly vegetarian options.

Can you get authentic and worthwhile Indian food in Israel - that is suitable for a vegetarian or Kosher diet? I have recently tried to answer this question by sampling two different options - quite different experiences but both decent.

Billed as an "Authentic Indian Kitchen" - Sangam restaurant is located about 15 minutes north of Ra'anana off of Highway 4 in K'far Monash (a "moshav" - an agricultural settlement). In the middle of this farm like setting, (turn left after you pass the cows to get to the restaurant), one of the Moshav members has built a pine and oak cabin. The walls are adorned with Indian rugs. The seats are low mattresses. The plates are stainless steel - all intended to make the atmosphere as genuine as possible.

The menu is not extensive - about 10 or 11 dishes - all strictly vegetarian. Included on the list are pakoras (made much more like falafel balls), channa (chick peas), dal (lentils), aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower - one of my personal favourites), mixed curried vegetables and other dishes. The restaurant also serves chapatis (rotis) - which are the only bread item listed on the menu. The dishes were all flavourful - and well made - though not particularly hot (spicy). For added spice and flavour, we were provided with some cut up chile and jalepeno peppers - as well as yogurt and mint chutney.

The lentils and some of the other dishes were a bit mushy. The restaurant sorely lacks a tandoori oven - at least to make fresh buttery naans (soft pita like breads)But overall - the place was quite fun - particularly the atmosphere. We finished the meal with chai tea - and a very reasonable bill - just over 200 N.I.S. (less than $60) for 4 people. The restaurant is not under Rabbinical supervision - but it is closed Friday nights and Saturdays - and is vegetarian. Allow extra time to find it...and make sure to book in advance since it is a reasonably small place.

For a completely different experience - we also recently visited Kohinoor Restaurant - located in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. This is much more reminiscent of large commercial Indian restaurant that one might find in Toronto or London - though it is strictly Kosher, under Rabbinical supervision. Kohinoor- serves meat and vegetarian food - no dairy products of any sort.

Unlike Sangam, this is a much fancier place - with prices to match. The menus is much more extensive - featuring chicken, lamb, fish and many vegetarian dishes. The meat dishes can run around 70 N.I.S. each ($20) - and the vegetarian dishes around 50 N.I.S. ($14). You can start with authentic samosas, pakoras and other tasty appetizers. The wine and beverage list is extensive. The setting has more of dining room feel - with china and fine cutlery to match.

I was eager to try this restaurant since I had never eaten meat at an Indian restaurant (there are no kosher Indian restaurants in Toronto). We tried a range of dishes including tandoori chicken, chicken vindaloo, curried lamb and some others. The dishes were nicely spiced and some were quite hot. We also tried a range of vegetarian dishes. Here, due to strict Rabbinical supervision - the range of vegetables is limited (for fear of eating veggies infected by microscopic bugs). As result, you can't get Aloo Ghobi (with cauliflower) or some other very important veggies. I would say that the vegetarian dishes were quite lacking as a consequence of these relatively new restrictions (relatively new to the Kosher world - not to this particular restaurant - but this is all a topic for another time...). For this, you have to blame the Rabbis rather than the restaurant...

The Naans were tasty enough - though obviously drier than usual since you cannot use ghee (Indian butter) or yoghurt in a meat restaurant. There may be a non-dairy alternative that the restaurant has not yet tried. But some of the meat dishes were big hits (we were a large group), particularly the tandoori chicken. The range of available desserts and beverages was wide - and the menu even included some non-Indian childen's dishes - such as shnitzel - to ensure that the whole family can enjoy the experience.

Kohinoor is nice for a special occasion. It is also quite unique in that there are few Kosher Indian restaurants that serve meat - anywhere. For the most part - as tasty as it was to try the curried meats - I am happy to continue eating only vegetarian Indian food. Nevertheless - I would still say that visiting Kohinoor was a treat.

The real challenge for me is to try to learn to make some of these great dishes at home. Haven't been able to do that yet - but until I get there - it's nice to know that I have some real options here in Israel. I have heard of two or three other places - and I'll try to make it to those as well to complete the survey.

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