Indian Cuisine, Really and Truly
At Tamarind, slow-roasted spices flavor the menu, which is out of this world.
Excuse me for generalizing, but americans love foreign food—as long as it’s not too foreign. Or spicy. Or strange. We like the idea of international cuisine, but defend to the death our right to tame and modify, to the point of making up familiar dishes with strange-sounding names.
Chop suey, once a staple of Chinese restaurants, was invented in America (as were fortune cookies and General Tso’s chicken). Vichyssoise is only Parisienne by way of a French chef in New York, and nachos and fajitas were introduced to Mexico by Texans.
The American melting pot has become a melting wok, kadhai and cataplana, adopting and adapting foreign cuisine to our own tastes. It’s no wonder that people, professing a great love of Thai curries or Mexican poblanos, are stunned when a trip abroad presents them with flavors and ingredients they’ve never encountered before.
So if you’re thinking of visiting India, take a trip to Tamarind Indian Cuisine first for the perfectly authentic introduction.
Tamarind opened in November 2011, in a space formerly occupied by Mimi’s Cuban Café, in the shopping plaza home of Kmart at North Orlando Avenue and Lee Road. No traces of Mimi’s are left behind; the linen-covered tables and saffron walls of Tamarind have a relaxing and surprisingly upscale feel for a strip mall restaurant.
Owner/chef Amit Kumar owns two other restaurants in the area. Bombay Café, in the Laxmi Plaza on South Orange Blossom Trail, features a pan-Indian vegetarian street food menu—eggplant from Hyderabad, potatoes from Chettinad, crepes from Karnataka. Aashirwad, which opened on International Drive in 2004, is a more typically styled Indian restaurant, complete with lunch buffet, that caters to a tourist clientele (albeit a predominantly subcontinental one, as a go-to for Indian visitors).
Tamarind focuses on the dishes of southern India but ranges as far as Kashmir in the north to eastern Bengal. No buffet, no watered-down, Americanized or prefabricated ingredients here. Every dish, from bright red tandoori chicken to deep green spinach, is made to order. They may take a while to arrive, but it’s worth the wait.
Kumar’s fabulous spice blends, evident in luscious curries and masalas, are made from whole slow-roasted spices. “We can’t put them outside to roast in the sun like we do in India,” he says, “so we put them in an oven for two days.” Chutneys are made every day, like the bright green mint and coriander sauce and the signature sweet tamarind sauce, created from fresh fruit pulp that has been dried for four days.
Flavors aren’t about heat; they’re about, well, flavor. The Goan shrimp curry ($16) offers up plump shrimp enveloped in a warmly spiced coconut curry with the essence of fenugreek, ginger and turmeric. While it looks very similar, the Kashmiri aaloo ($11), potatoes in yogurt curry, is alive with nutty cumin, licorice-like fennel and that most fragrant of spices, cardamom.
Vegetable dishes are a long-perfected art in Indian cooking, and you could feast for days and never miss the meat. Palak paneer ($12) is a dish of slowly simmered spinach, flavored with cardamom, cumin, coriander and cloves and surrounding chunks of paneer, a curious curd cheese that doesn’t melt under heat. It might be my favorite Indian dish, and Tamarind’s might be my favorite version of it. The other vegetarian flavor combinations are glorious as well: sweet and mellow sesame, coconut and tamarind with eggplant (bhagara baingan, $12); savory and slightly tart onion, ginger and dried pomegranate with okra (bhindi anardana, $12); and buttery tomato with a touch of fenugreek’s burnt sugar taste with cheese (paneer makhni, $12).
And then there’s the tandoor, a high-temperature clay oven that turns out succulent meats and smoky, fragrant breads. Tandoori chicken ($13.95) comes to the table hot from the oven, coated in yogurt marinade and a wonderfully intricate mix of spices. Chicken tikka ($13.95) is a similar dish in a tomato and garlic sauce—and invented in Scotland, so we’re not the only ones to appropriate other people’s food. Order naan bread ($2.25) fresh from the tandoor to soak up the gravy.
I’ll come right out and say it … I love the depth and breadth of this place. The complexity of flavors and the authenticity of every dish should remind us that not everything needs to be familiar.
The Richness of Dessert:
Temper your very stimulated palate with the smoothness of a kulfi ($4.95). Thicker than ice cream or gelato, this dense combination of condensed milk, cream and starch was originally the sweet treat of wealthy Indian landowners who could afford to trek ice from the Himalayas and freeze slow-cooked cream and cardamom, the most expensive spice in the Ancient World. Savoring this rich confection at Tamarind, flavored with pistachios or rose water, is an indulgence we can all afford.
Tamarind Indian Cuisine
501 N. Orlando Ave., Winter Park