Over the years, Indian food has been my cuisine of both relief and celebration. Weddings and funerals, good days and bad -- chaat, biryani, masala and saag taste equally good through laughter or tears. Vindaloo is only for when I'm pissed, korma if I've been drinking, Punjabi decadence for sunny days, and simple ticca and tandoor meats when it looks like rain. Pakoras are like bar snacks -- what I eat when nothing else sounds good. And rogan josh tastes like misery, because it's what I eat when someone has died.
Ten or twenty years ago, who would have thought that this would be how my tastes would shake out? But then, in New York I had a Tamil line cook named Indy whose wife would fix him dinner every morning, pack it in little tin tubs and send him on his way. After long nights, he would share -- warming paratha on the back of an overturned saucier, pouring out portions of peas and potatoes in rich cream gravy. We'd eat on the loading dock with our fingers, bloody whites traded for sweatshirts, and Indy would tell me about India by way of its food.
I've always been fascinated by Indian cuisine -- cuisines, really, because there are so many, all distinct -- and how a minute adjustment in any one of a hundred ingredients, a thousand spices, can take a dish from one side of the country to another. Add a little curry to your murg, a little more heat, and it becomes Goan. Toss some lamb into an Andhra curry and now it's Hyderabadi. Rice or wheat or lentils, calibrations of spice, slight changes in proprietary family or regional recipes -- these make all the difference in the world.
To the uninitiated, the menus at Indian restaurants look the same: tandoori and pakora, samosa, saag paneer and chicken korma. And yet I've never been to an Indian restaurant where even the simplest dish tasted like the same simple dish anywhere else. This is a complex canon, both stringent and improvisational at the same time: powerful when done well, still good when done poorly, and most interesting when hewing closest to tradition. Anyone can invent some freaky, prawn-and-jackfruit Asian fusion plate with chrysanthemums and pierogi. Some people might even think it inspired. But for me, true talent lies in the ability to make the favorite plate of your great-great-great-grandfather just the way he liked it 150 years ago. And expertise comes from making it a dozen times a night, for decades.
After a bad night in Boulder, a night that had to be expunged either by strong drink or strong spice or both, Laura and I headed to Jewel of India. We have a whole network of Indian restaurants, Mexican dives, sushi bars and Vietnamese noodle joints mapped out all over the Front Range like safehouses in a Cold War spy novel -- spots where we can retreat in times of need, places where we can drown out the memories of disappointing dinners with second, comforting ones.
Jewel of India is hidden in the corner of a busy strip mall in Westminster. It's not the kind of place many people stumble on accidentally, not a place anyone forgets if they do. Opened in 2001 by Jujhar Singh -- a twenty-year veteran of the Colorado restaurant scene and former co-owner of India's in Aurora -- it specializes in regal Punjabi service (Singh is from Patiala, in the state of Punjab) and northern Indian Mughlai cuisine, originally the food of raiders and interlopers, siege rations perfected over hundreds of years.
Mughlai isn't truly Indian, but Afghan. Sort of. The basic elements were brought across the border by Muslim invaders looking to take a piece of India for themselves. Unwilling to leave behind everything of their homeland while out campaigning, the Mughals brought with them familiar spices, dried fruit and nuts. They'd mix these with milk, cream, yogurt and the meat of any animal too slow to get out of their way. Over generations, this style became the cuisine of the Mughal emperors, incorporated into a more generalized Indian cuisine, but defined by a tendency toward addition with no subtraction. Although Mughal cooks would employ anything tasty and available in their cuisine, they never gave up the basics of their own food in favor of anything else. They were the French of the subcontinent, their traditions persisting even as they became more rounded and complex by the absorption of local ingredients and flavors.
If you've ever been taken aback -- stunned, stricken momentarily dumb -- by the depth of richness and layered flavor of an Indian entree, you have the Mughals to thank. And if you haven't -- if you're still looking for that kind of revelatory experience -- Jewel of India awaits. The space is just a simple box, glass-fronted and shallow. But in an attempt to flesh out the familiar bones with alien charm, the walls have been hung with Indian mosaics, the ceiling with billowing cloths in rich primary colors. Every flat surface is set with a vase, a decorated pot, a jeweled elephant. The serving bowls are pounded copper, and everything -- from the most ubiquitous chutneys and pickles to sauces and rice and mains -- has its own plate, its own bowl, its own platter. I've been to Indian restaurants where the profusion of antiques and national treasures makes it difficult to walk a straight line across the floor. But this room feels more like it's dressed in history, padded by culture -- a jewelry box for dal and samosa and karahi gosht, a mix of lamb and tomatoes with sweet sautéed and roasted onions and peppers.
In this room, surrounded by just a few late tables and cheerfully attended to by the owner and the last waitress on the floor, Laura and I ordered more than we could possibly eat, wanting to lay to rest a bad night under a weight of good food. We began with vegetable samosa -- not too spicy, heavy with potatoes and green peas -- and alu chaat, soft and tender potatoes jumbled up with sweet tamarind, fennel and a bright spike of lemon juice. Then chicken pakora the color of old bricks, and paneer pakora -- chunks of stiff, homemade cheese dressed in slips of chickpea batter and deep-fried. This was enough for a meal in itself. But we were just getting started.
We ate tandoori chicken touched with a squeeze of lemon. Then aloo saag (potatoes cooked with creamed spinach) and saag paneer (creamed spinach with cheese). Jewel's Punjabi saag is sweet, gentle, rich as Daddy Warbucks and as filling as drinking a tub of clotted cream. The spinach melts away like magic on the tongue, leaving hints of flavor you chase to the bottom of the bowl without ever catching it, remembering only the other ingredient -- cheese or potato or chicken or lamb -- that was suspended in it, never unraveling the mystery.
The Patiala shahi, on the house- specials menu, is what might have happened if an army of Indian short-order cooks had invaded Oaxaca, combining shredded chicken ticca with tomatoes, onions and jalapeños. Mumtaj is tandoori fusion -- lamb and shrimp in a strange sauce with bell peppers and... what? Licorice? Sugarcane? Something -- or, more likely, several dozen somethings -- all sweet and slightly acerbic at the same time.
Even though I'd arrived at Jewel feeling bad, I didn't order the rogan josh -- no one had died, after all. Instead I went with the lamb boti masala because it's one of those dishes that showcases the strength of Mughlai influence on Indian cuisine as a whole. The lamb had been seared quickly in the tandoor, browned on the outside, tender within and just beautiful throughout, and it was bathed in an incredibly rich, pinky-orange sauce of heavy cream and a palette of spice employed with delicacy so that no one flavor stood out. It was like eating a perfectly composed compound butter, melted and mounted and served in an act of brilliant desperation by some French saucier.
Still not finished, we drank lassis and chai, ate korma dosed with smooth raita and studded with slivered almonds, cashews and plump raisins, and shahi paneer, which is cheese done the same way. Then came dessert: gulab jamun milk doughnuts rolled in simple syrup and rosewater and kheer, and rice pudding with almonds and raisins. By the time our last course was cleared, we were the only table left in the house. It was past closing time, but no one on the staff ever rushed us, ever raised an eyebrow at the extent of our sudden, shameless feast. They just brought to-go boxes and didn't mention the bill until we asked.
We watched them roll out the vacuum cleaner and switch off the "Open" sign as we walked out the door -- out of the jewel box and into big-box suburbia, content.