What a Daal!

One day a friend handed me a takeout container she'd brought back from a business lunch in Boulder. "Here, eat this," she said. Since this sort of thing happens frequently in my line of work, I asked no questions and dutifully dug a spoon into what looked to be a yellowish stew filled with potatoes and onions. But there was much more going on here than that: a hint of coconut, a whisper of cilantro, a trace of peanuts and an underlying essence of garlic. It was one of the best curries I'd ever tasted.

While I moaned in delight, my friend kept giving me one of those smug, "I knew you'd like it" looks. But she'd earned the right to smirk--a friend who turns you on to the kind of food Jessica Shah turns out at MijBani is a friend, indeed.

Shah, a native of Bombay, owns MijBani with her husband, Kuntal Rawal. The couple came to the United States eight years ago and first stopped in Oregon, where Rawal worked in the software business for a year, then moved on to Boulder, where they decided to settle. Initially Shah, who'd been a staff reporter for a Bombay newspaper, worked in marketing; three years ago, after friends and acquaintances clamored to know more about the food she cooked for dinner parties, she began teaching the finer points of Indian cuisine out of her kitchen. The informal sessions proved so popular that she soon moved them to Alfalfa's, Wild Oats and the Cooking School of the Rockies. But when even those classes weren't large enough to expose people to genuine Indian foods, in October 1994 Shah opened MijBani (which means "grand feast"), the window-fronted restaurant a few blocks off the Pearl Street Mall where she tries to keep the dining experience as true to her native country as possible.

It's not an easy task. "India is so enormous," Shah says. "And what is one way in one part of the country does not mean it's done that way everywhere." For example, at MijBani most diners sit on colorful futon cushions scattered on the floor around their tables. "That is how we ate lunch in Bombay," Shah explains. "We would gather around on the floor in the kitchen. At dinner, though, we ate at a dining table. But go to a home in a village in India, and you would eat all of your meals on the floor." Shah also encourages customers to take their shoes off at the door, and judging by the number of Birkenstocks stuffed into the cubbyholes in the foyer, most comply. "There are a few who refuse," Shah says. "I think that many look at it as an adventure, though."

MijBani's food continues the adventure. While most Indian restaurants in this country concentrate on foods from the north, Shah's creative menu pulls from India's entirety. Nearly half of that menu changes daily--Shah wants not only to use fresh ingredients available that day but also to keep the lineup interesting for regular clientele. One thing, however, remains constant: Like the majority of India's diet, the MijBani menu does not include meat, and many items mention merely a "mild vegetable" or "daal soup" (some variation on Indian bean). Fortunately, the gracious waitstaff seems quite knowledgeable about the dishes--no easy task when things change so often and the cuisine is as little understood as India's is--and avoids condescension when explaining the unfamiliar.

At our waiter's urging, we first took on the appetizer sampler ($5.50), a great deal that included two portions each of five appetizers normally priced at $3.75. Ringing a smooth-chunky chutney of sweet-and-sour dates was a harmonious collection of tidbits that exemplified the Indian concept of balancing textures along with the four basic flavor groups of salty, sweet, sour and spicy. The samosas were softly fried savories stuffed with peas, onions and potatoes; they sat next to crunchy steamed vegetable fritters called muthiyas, which were on the savory side, too. Packing some spicy punch were patras, rolls made up of tropical plant leaves that held a snappy garbanzo mixture, and bhel, sort of the Rice Krispies treats of India, which consisted of dried rice bits added to garbanzo noodles, onions and cilantro, with everything held together by a fiery chutney for a delicious sticky-sweet snack. But the fifth item on the plate was our favorite: fried mashed potato pancakes named vadas that were sharp with garlic.

The main courses followed the same principles of balance intrinsic to Indian cuisine. We'd ordered all but one of the combinations, and they came on the traditional thali, a large, circular metal tray that holds the many small dishes that Indians prefer to nibble at rather than eating one large plateful of one or two items. The combination plates also included some form of daal (the Indian word for any member of the legume family), which is the primary protein source and the foundation for most Indian meals. In both the Gujarati ($10.95) and the Punjabi ($10.95) combinations, the daal came in the form of bean soup, but because the two platters represented different regions--Gujarati in western India and Punjabi in the north--the soups had very different preparations. The Gujarati version was thinner and had a faint sweetness, while the Punjabi daal was thick and stewlike, with no sweetness at all. Each of these platters also contained both a mild and a spicy vegetable, basmati rice (nutty long-grain rice from the Himalayas), a cooling salad to offset the spicy offerings (yogurt with cucumbers and cilantro on one, tomatoes with cucumbers and parsley on the other), some type of bread and a couple of mini-pappads, a smaller variation of pappadams, the wafer-thin crackerlike bread made from lentil flour.

Shah doesn't use a tandoor oven, so her flatbreads--made by a kitchen employee who does nothing all day but supply the restaurant with fresh bread--are griddle-roasted, which lets the ingredients stand on their own instead of being unduly influenced by smoke from the clay oven. As a result, the chapatis, a chewy tortilla-looking bread, and the parathas, a puffy, multi-layered bread, were exceptional and arrived steaming hot. We'd also asked for a separate order of the bhaturas ($2.75 for two pieces), a yogurt-based bread that came out looking exactly like Native American fry bread, only with less grease and more flavor. It was precisely what the mango curry pulao ($7.50) needed, since this thin, mellow curry, with the consistency of soup and the healthy taste of mangoes, came with nothing more filling than rice.

Otherwise, the portions were so generous that we didn't need dessert--but the choices were so compelling we had to give them a try. Although Shah says Indians don't distinguish between appetizers and desserts, instead putting savory and sweet dishes on the thali with the rest of the meal (which is how she serves her special "festival" menus), her menu does offer five finales, along with seven flavors of ice cream including pistachio and saffron. But it was the gajar halwa ($3.50) that really caught our eyes (and, unbelievably, our stomachs): grated and cooked carrots had been mashed with cream and a touch of sugar in a parent's dream concoction guaranteed to make sure kids eat their vegetables. MijBani's take on gulab jamun ($3.50) wasn't the best we've sampled--these milk-soaked balls swimming in syrup just weren't sugary enough--but the coconut-chocolate creation still offered the flavor of German chocolate cake without the bother of the cake.

When I rhapsodized to my friend about the meal we'd enjoyed at MijBani, she responded by bringing another to-go package, this time of the restaurant's masala dosa ($7.25). The dosa is a sort of crepe made from rice without eggs or flour; Indians either stuff them or tear them apart and smear them in sauces. The masala dosa--masala refers to any blend of spices, either dry or wet from coconut milk, yogurt or lemon juice--had been filled with potatoes and onions and seasoned by an intense combination of spices so well-proportioned it was hard to pick anything out (save maybe the cloves, but we really had to think about that). The dish was further proof of MijBani's ability to pull off the most characteristic facet of Indian cuisine: strikingly sophisticated seasoning.

Be sure to tell a friend.


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