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From my narrow table, now arrayed with dirty tin and stained linen, I catalogued the details of the room -- a space that looks like the aftermath of an explosion at a duty-free shop, decorated as if the owners were determined to shoehorn a thousand years' worth of proud culture onto the walls. I watched how the bright parachutes of rainbow-colored cloth hanging from the ceiling fluttered like Buddhist prayer flags every time the front door opened; saw how the double-sided brass ashtray holders on every table had been converted into racks for holding bottles of mint and tamarind chutney. I noticed how the low band of mirrors running around the periphery of the dining room reflected no faces but captured dozens of hands with fingers pinching bread, fingers cradling forks, dipping things I didn't know the names of into bowls of other things I didn't know the names of.
Like boti masala, which I'd never so much as heard of until I returned to India's for dinner a few nights later with Laura. I'm still having trouble describing this fantastic dish. But I can say that it came with a side of the best rice I've ever had: long-grained and dry, steamed with fennel, clove and raisins. The dish itself comprised perfectly tender little chunks of lamb -- a half-bite each, slow-cooked in the clay tandoor (the hallmark of Mughlai cooking and the instrument that's the best indicator of this particular cuisine) and left juicy with just a bare, dark shade of gamy tang -- swimming in a shallow tin bowl full of smoky, earthy tomato cream sauce touched with a dozen subtle, grounded spices.
I can say that it was wonderful.
7400 E. Hampden Ave.
Denver, CO 80231
Region: Southeast Denver
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Samosa: $3 Onion bhaji: $3.50
Sheekh kabab: $12.95
Navarattan korma: $10.95
Saag paneer: $11.95
Boti masala: $12.95
Aloo paratha: $2.25
Aloo chaat: $4.00
What really matters, though, is what it did to me. The very first taste crushed me. My eyes drifted closed. I didn't chew, couldn't breathe. I folded forward like I was bowing, like I'd been punched in the chest. It was shock that did it, the kind of reflex that seizes you when your vision is filled with great art or your heart by pure love. It was instant joy at finding something so new, so unbelievably good. It was overwhelming.
There were generations of experience in that one taste, in the balance of texture and spice, in the depths that had been coaxed from one simple sauce. This was not a taste created by accident. Culinary-school grads -- the kind of cooks always attempting to take their two years' experience behind the stoves and "modernize" classic dishes it took hundreds of years to perfect -- should be marched to India's right at graduation and made to sample this dish before they receive their funny white hats and diplomas. It would teach them the humility that they'd otherwise failed to pick up, show them the result of long practice, secret recipes and knowledge passed down from cook to cook to cook; of how, with each passing set of hands, a sauce can get a little better, can get a little deeper, can grow a little more soul.
I had a second bite, a third, then stopped. We had so much more to eat, so much more to try.
We picked our way around a table crowded with food. There were crisp samosa -- peas and spiced potatoes, sharp with fennel and pepper, wrapped in a deep-fried pastry shell. Papri-pakauri was like Indian nachos with chickpeas, cubes of potato and slices of raw, red tomato set on starchy wafers and covered with raita, then looped with sweet and sour, red and green chutneys. We ate ground-lamb sheekh kabab (another Mughlai original -- you gotta love these guys) and breasts of chicken dyed brick red by spices and tradition, then watched the cooks pulling fresh orders of them out of the smoking tandoor on long metal skewers.
There was navarattan korma, a vegetarian dish of carrots, potatoes, peas, cauliflower, almonds, cashews and pistachios in a mellow cream sauce rich with bitter lime, cumin, cardamom and clove. And then chicken shahi korma done the same way, only with raisins and tender pieces of stewed chicken instead of vegetables.
Laura and I passed plates back and forth, traded bites of this and tastes of that. It seemed the table held twice as much food as we'd ordered, and we didn't know what to call half of it, but we ate it all anyway. That's one of the joys of Indian food: Sometimes you get a little extra without even asking, and most of the time, you feel like it's more than you deserve.
There was another lamb dish, this one with the meat in a simple, thick brown gravy with a hint of curry that was probably rogan josh (of Kashmiri origin, but right at home here), and was better and more powerful than most demi-glaces. We had aloo paratha -- flat wheat bread stuffed with spiced potatoes -- in which to fold up a little bit of everything, and a butter-smooth spiced dal for cleansing the palate. And between all this, I had my boti masala to sneak back to, secretly wanting to pour the stuff into my pocket and take it home so that I could dole it out one or two bites at a time, like medicine.