It's not often that a fellow like myself -- a dedicated carnivore, shameless bacon addict, fan of all things larded, bloody and fat-spackled -- goes looking for health food. Ten cups of coffee a day, taken as preventative medicine against potential lifestyle complications like sleep; ice cream for breakfast, Cuban sandwiches and mashed-potato burritos for lunch -- this is what I usually consume, and on nights when I'm not on the job, I'm perfectly content to curl up on the couch with a bar of black Russian Korkunov chocolate and a bag of Lay's barbecue potato chips and call that dinner.
Like most galley brats (both current and former), I have a deep-seated distrust and cultivated loathing for anyone not willing, when presented with the opportunity, to eat the heart -- or liver or brain or penis -- right out of any animal. I am the only man I know who considers the excuse of a crise de foie (a beautiful French term that essentially translates to "liver emergency" and means that one's vital machinery has become so gummed up by recent excesses that moving from bed might actually cause the sufferer to burst) an acceptable reason for calling in sick to work. And I firmly believe that much of the religious strife and acrimony in the world stems from the fact that certain people out there are denied the joys of eating bacon by their faith, while others can have all the bacon they want -- except on Fridays. Perhaps that's a simplistic view of thousands of years of zealotry and holy warfare, but if I wanted bacon but was allowed no bacon and saw somebody walking down the street happily eating bacon with both hands, I, too, might be tempted to blow up his car.
Still, after the excesses of my last couple of weeks (see Bite Me, page 50, for details), I was feeling a bit spent, fat, bloody-rare and larded myself. It occurred to me that fourteen solid days of travel, huge dinners, fried foods, cream sauces, buckets of gravy and lots of liquor had finally begun to catch up with me. My system clearly needed a break, and because fasting is for mystics and two-dimensional Hollywood ingenues, my favorite method for cleaning the pipes (as it were) is to go vegetarian. Temporarily.
Like for a day.
I know that sounds drastic, but it's not like I ran right out to some hippie factory for a sprout burger and a steaming plate of not-loaf. That shit offends me to the core, and I have it on good authority that there's a secret provision in the Patriot Act that allows Dick Cheney to personally toss the houses of anyone caught buying, selling or consuming tofurkey recreationally. No, when the need to do something nice for my body strikes, I head for a restaurant that presents vegetarianism not as a technique of pleasure denial, but as a vital, vibrant cuisine in its own right -- a restaurant that doesn't try to sneak around the fact that there's no meat in the canon, but instead celebrates the humble roots and beans and tubers of the world as things of sublime, resplendent deliciousness. Unsurprisingly, most of these are ethnic restaurants. Unsurprisingly again, they tend to attract a predominantly ethnic crowd. Unsurprisingliest of all, they are often affiliated in one way or another with a religion, because seriously, what other than the wrath of an angry, carrot-eating God could keep people away from the glories of bacon, smoked and sizzling in the pan?
I'm not sure what religion is observed at Masalaa, which has been open and operating seven days a week for five years in a crooked Aurora strip mall (there's a second, newer location in Boulder), but I'm ready to look at some brochures. In this place, one of the few I've found that offers both gluten-free cooking and Jain-friendly menu options, worlds are forever colliding. Tables full of young Indian men and beautiful girls in saris sit beside imperious dowagers who pick at their dosa like birds. Families that all seem to know each other join and split their tables like molecules, arranging and rearranging themselves as plates arrive and conversations shift. Girls share single plates of onion bajji (Indian onion rings in fried chickpea batter) and gossip in a mishmash of Hindi and English, while oh-so-very American teenagers in thick-framed black Buddy Holly specs, Korn T-shirts and plaid golf pants drink perfect sour-sweet mango lassis out of soda-shop fountain glasses and eat Kashmiri uthappam lentil pancakes topped with dried fruits.
And then there's me, slouching through the middle of it all, taking a table in the back of a dining room that seems almost naked for its lack of decoration. Unlike many Indian restaurants in Denver, Masalaa isn't a museum; it doesn't cram every inch of available space with pictures of holy mountains, lithographs from the Bhagavad Gita, tea sets, pipes, copper plates and sculptures of elephants in wedding finery. The walls here are earth-toned and nearly bare. Accent lights hang from a double strand of bare wire running the length of the ceiling, and a simple wooden arch separates the lobby from the main dining room. Skreeling Indian pop music rides the fragrant air, and customers sometimes sing along quietly, mouthing words in yet another language that I will never learn to speak.
Rather than put all their beautiful copper-jacketed cups and plates and platters in the standard display case, the owners use them for service. Ice water poured into one of these cups at the beginning of a meal becomes almost like its own amuse, a taste of metals on the tongue, a cold different than the cold of plain ice water served in plastic -- deeper and painful on the teeth. The dosa -- giant rice-and-lentil-flour crepes as long and thick as a fat man's arm, stuffed with anything and everything under the sun -- arrive hanging stiffly off either end of round dishes with copper bottoms, sided by small bowls that hold sambar and chutney for dipping. Because of the serving medium, everything at Masalaa takes on strange metallic qualities. Burnished tin and scrubbed copper reflect the bare bulbs overhead, and all of the rice tastes distantly of old pennies.
Like an actor who's done everything from porno to Broadway, a cook at an Indian restaurant (and, in particular, a cook at an Indian restaurant in a place like Denver, where the audience is not yet sufficiently versed in the culinary lexicon to know whether they prefer Goan cuisine to Mughlai or Bengali to Kashmiri) has learned to be all things to all people. He must be multi-faceted to a ridiculous extreme, able to cook the accessible saag paneers and biryanis that draw the lunch crowd to the buffet every afternoon as well as the traditional and somewhat standoffish mysore bonda (doughnuts made of lentil flour), thayir sadam (soft rice in yogurt) and pongal. He must be versatile, knowledgeable, a veritable storehouse of culinary minutiae spanning a dozen cultures, regions and traditions, conversant in the languages of chappatis, rice, spinach, mangoes, condensed milk and a hundred spices.
To say that you know how to cook Indian food (and not be lying) is comparable to saying you know how to cook Asian food and actually knowing how to cook in the Szechwan, Mandarin, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese and Hong Kong styles and how to roll perfect tekka maki, as well. The menu at Masalaa is pages and pages long, spanning innumerable styles and regional specialties that include soups, rice dishes, dosa, uthappam, idly, entrees, appetizers, desserts (wonderful desserts) and a drink list longer than some restaurants' entire menus. And in all of this, there's not a scrap of flesh anywhere. Or tofurkey.
At my table in the back, I eat paneer pokoda -- Indian cheese sticks -- because there is not a cheese-eating people on the planet that hasn't thought of battering and deep-frying cheese, and not a single iteration of this genius that I don't love. The Masalaa version is dimly spicy, the squares of squeaky, greasy paneer jacketed in orange chickpea batter with fennel, then fried until crisp and steaming. My order of aloo bonda brings cueball-sized dumplings of chopped, boiled potatoes cut with masala spices and fried in the same batter along with long strings of onion. The spinach pakoda is like a savory funnel cake of lentil batter and fresh, chopped spinach leaves. I'm not crazy about the spinach, which is unevenly spiced and fried rock-hard, but it comes with a small bowl of something red, like a sweet-hot chile paste, that's absolutely addictive and goes well with the paneer.
Another thing any good Indian cook should be is slow -- and the cooks at Masalaa certainly qualify. They're languorous. Deliberate. I imagine them to be almost dreamy at their work. The menu even warns that everything is cooked to order and prepared by hand, so customers should be willing to wait at least twenty minutes -- and this is no idle bluff. Nothing changes the tempo of the Masalaa kitchen -- not ebbs, not flows, not hits or turns or lags. The cooks gauge their velocity by the time required to make a dish properly, not the rhythm of the dining room or the demands of tickets lingering on the rail. Because the success and failure of Indian cuisine rides so heavily on complicated patterns of spice and flavor interweaving between starch and sauce and main and side, and because the full blossoming of spices takes time, speed is not a hallmark of good Indian restaurants. This is why you don't see a lot of fast-casual poori huts out there, or drive-thru korma joints.
But the upside of this night's wait is avial -- vegetables in a yogurt sauce sweetened with coconut -- and aloo mutter made with diced potatoes and sweet green peas in a creamy sauce rich with the balanced inflection of sweet notes and spicy curry and maybe coconut and probably fennel and I don't even know what else. To me, the measure of excellence for an Indian sauce is the inability to tell exactly what's in it because every flavor has settled so perfectly into the embrace of all the others. Individual tastes -- discernible onion, obvious cardamom -- are like barbs, defeating the purpose of a culinary tradition that prizes balance above all things and pairings down to the level of individual seeds and grains of salt.
Channa masala, for example, is tricky because it seems so simple on the plate -- just chickpeas in creamy gravy -- but is damnably complicated in the kitchen. To get the mix of surface heat and savory spice to balance in a blunt cream sauce, slick with oil, is no amateur trick. To get the chickpeas themselves just right -- not too stiff, but certainly not mushy -- is work for madmen, because chickpeas are the fussiest of the legumes, always going wrong the minute you look away. Masalaa's cooks get it perfect one night, with every element coming together into a beautiful red-orange mélange of blazing spices and smooth cream and mellowing peas. Then they botch it another, serving underdone chickpeas in a too-oily sauce that's all spice with nothing on the other end of the scale. But that just shows that they're still in there tinkering, never content to let anything good enough lie for longer than the space of a single plate, a single night.
Which, when you get right down to it, is the single defining characteristic of any good restaurant anywhere. In New York, Denver or Calcutta, vegetarian or otherwise, ethnic or not, healthy or not, engagement is what makes the difference -- never leaving well enough alone.
And I can't help but wonder what would happen if the guys in this kitchen ever got their hands on a couple of pounds of bacon. All religious rules aside, I'll bet the results would be divine.
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