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A Sumptuous RePass

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Welcome one and all to another very interesting and hearty food post on Mastication Monologues!  Today’s subject actually involves a type of cuisine that is as old as time and comes from an incredibly well traveled part of the world, the Khyber Pass.  While this landmark might not evoke a reaction from most readers, it is actually one of the crucial geographic features to the shifting sands and roaming armies of global empires.  It is a key link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been transversed by every conqueror from Alexander the Great, Darius I of Persia (Father of the big bad Xerxes from the movie 300), Ghengis Khan, British colonial forces, and even to the modern day with the murky conflict with the Taliban and NATO forces.  Not only was the Khyber Pass a route for war since time immemorial, but it also was a giant outpost during the heyday of the Silk Road.  With all of these populations moving to and fro in the region, naturally they were going to leave an impression on the local cuisine.  I mean, they were peddling seasonings to Europeans that we take for granted nowadays for imparting all of our food and drinks with immense amounts of flavor like black pepper, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, ginger,  and even nutmeg to name a few.  Basic white girls in Fall wouldn’t even be a trending meme in American culture if it wasn’t for the Khyber Pass!  A giant historical stretch, I know, but a definite reality we have to deal with.cowwl  Thankfully, when Janice and I visited the Oak Park location of the Khyber Pass restaurant chain, there wasn’t any pumpkin but plenty of spice on the menu.

It was a cold and frozen drizzle kind of a day, so what better way to cut through the terrible weather than some soul-warming Indian food? IMG_5972 We walked in around the lunch hour after finding some parking in the back, and it was not terribly packed.  It was very welcoming with its warm colors and interesting decorations. IMG_5967

This takes all spice to another level

This takes all spice to another level

IMG_5969

Tea, anyone?

Tea, anyone?

We were quickly seated, and we noticed that they had a lunch buffet special for $15.  Based on my experience with previous buffets, I didn’t have any qualms, so we informed the waiter we were interested in getting our money’s worth since we were starving.  According to Khyber Pass’ website, they champion the cuisine of the Pathan people or more commonly known as the Pashtun in their language, Pashto.  Their homeland spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some famous Pashtun that you might of heard of include Harmid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, and Malala Yousafzai, the famous young lady who stood up to the Taliban for women’s rights.  Clearly, it is a region that is not the easiest to live in, so their cuisine is similar to Indian food in terms of utilizing simple ingredients in a variety of ways with plenty of spice and flavor in every bite.  This was epitomized looking over the assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes along with a healthy array of curries, salads, soups, sides, and entrees.  We decided to try their half of a tandoori chicken ($12.95 or $16.95 for a whole) along with a side of naan bread to accompany our foray into the buffet.  Before we received all of our food, I got a Maharaja Premium Beer to slake my thirst, and that’s all about it did. IMG_5960 This brew from Mumbai was nothing of great note.IMG_5959  It was a thin, slightly fruity pilsner that had a very faint, bitter aftertaste.  I wouldn’t go back for another one.  However, the tandoori chicken and naan looked great.  Tandoori chicken originally was popular in the northern region of India and Pakistan called the Punjab due to the cultural practice of every home having a charcoal fired oven called a tandoor.  Just like in India, Khyber Pass roasted their chicken in a traditional tandoor after it had been marinated in yogurt, Kashmiri chilies, and turmeric. IMG_5964 However, this chicken isn’t super spicy if you don’t have a tongue of steel.  It is instead savory with swirls of flavor that are both umami yet earthy.  The naan bread we had it with also has an interesting history.  It seems like your typical, slightly leavened, flatbread that has been around since the beginning of time and the word originates from the Iranian word “n’n” which is a general word for “food” or “bread”.  However, this particular type of bread only became popular beyond the Indian subcontinent and surrounding cultures when the Roma people, more commonly known as “gypsies”, brought it during their exodus across the Central Asian steppe all the way to Europe.  Side note:  Based on genetic blood studies done in Roma communities and studying the Romani language, all signs point to an origin in India, not Romania, Ireland, or even Egypt which is where their modern nickname came from.  The Greek’s believed they came from Egypt, so they called the Roma Αἰγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi) or “those from Egypt” which then eventually made its way to the Middle English “gypcian“.  Whatever they call themselves, I can’t get enough of their bread.  IMG_5962It has more body and texture contrasts than a pita but still has its strength when dealing with soupy curries.  Khyber Pass’ naan had both a lightly buttered, crunch exterior that gave way to a moderately chewy center that sopped up all of the delicious chicken juices and the plates we got from the buffet.IMG_5966  My first plate was a mix of different items from their regular menu including:  vegetable pakora ($5.50), green salad ($5.95), chicken curry ($11.95), bhuna gosht (lamb in a light spicy sauce), bengan bhurtha (stewed eggplant; $10.95).

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

Clockwise: green salad, lamb, chicken, vegetable pakora, and eggplant

The pakora were little, deep fried vegetable fritters that were rich with flavor but not super greasy.  Plus, the smooth breading was very different than typically Western fried foods that is flakier.  Surprisingly, their green salad lived up to its name, even more impressive that it was part of their buffet, since it was bursting with fresh, verdant veggies that I topped off with the slightly tangy raita yogurt sauce.  The chicken curry was competently made but nothing to rave about.  I felt that the food overall wasn’t super spicy, so I asked them to bring some sort of hot sauce.  They brought me a Sriracha knock-off, but I told them that I wanted what they, i.e. the South Asian staff, ate.  Next thing I know, I was greeted with a cook inspired hot sauce that looked nuclear from the bright orange yellow that was emanating from the bowl.

This just looks angry.

This just looks angry.

I put it on my chicken, and it was amazing.  It was a coconut based sauce that up on the vindaloo level of spice that let me know that I, a real chilihead, was actually eating something spicy.  They were shaking their heads when I wasn’t dying from heat stroke, and that added to the long list of people from spicy food cultures being flabbergasted at my spice tolerance.  Yet, I think that it offers a more authentic experience that isn’t watered down for the locals.  Tongue searing spice aside,   I was definitely into the bhuna gosht or stewed lamb.  It added the gamey dimension that comes with lamb and fused it with a cumin and curry sauce that took it to another level of flavor awareness.  It was the clear standout on my plate and paired perfectly with a hefty piece of naan for some finger food that was finger licking good.  The bengan bhurtha was a close runner up in terms of flavor.  It consisted of minced eggplant roasted directly over a fire that then was stewed with cilantro, chilis, and onions.  The smoky flavor from the grill was unlike any other eggplant I had ever tasted, and it was melt in your mouth tender.  My second plate wasn’t as over the top as the first with dal mukhni ($10.95) and stewed vegetables as the only new entries.

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

Clockwise: green salad, eggplant, lentils, vegetables

The dal mukhni was supposed to be a four lentil stew, but it seemed quite heavy on the chickpeas.  I wasn’t impressed by it or the dal mukhni and should have gotten more of the meat dishes and bengan bhurtha.  Unfortunately, by the end of the second plate, we were stuffed and had no more room for dessert sady.  However, Khyber Pass left us with full bellies and wallets before going out into the cold.

So if you find yourself downtown or in Oak Park and are looking for an establishment with typical Indian food prices that aren’t the cheapest in the world but with plenty of authentic and unique dishes, I suggest swiping right instead of left on Khyber Pass!
Khyber Pass Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Great Blogs of Fire!: Tropical Pepper Company Ghost Pepper Sauce

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Welcome to another Mastication Monologues post!  Before I begin, I’d like to recommend a food website that I have been a part of since the outset of my blog, but it has changed in many ways.  While there are lots of websites for restaurant recommendations like Yelp or Trip Advisor, I’d like to make a case for Zomato.  It is similar to the aforementioned websites, but it also integrates other apps like Google Maps and Uber if you need a ride to your restaurant.  I’m currently the number 8th ranked foodie in Chicago and my blog is number two on their list out of hundreds as noted on the side of my blog, so I highly recommend it for new and seasoned bloggers as well if you’re looking for a platform to launch your brand like I did years ago with Urbanspoon.  Anyway, foodie promotion over.  Let’s get back to the food!

Today’s post is another ode to one of the greatest culinary inventions in human history:  hot sauce.  While there are millions of different blends of peppers and ingredients that range from the sweet to savory to Manhattan Project levels of spice, I cannot get enough of these condiments.  I only recently decided to showcase my love for burning my tastebuds with reviews of my latest hot sauce adventures (See post #1 here).  So, I would like to let you know about a great discovery I made this past week:  Tropical Pepper Company’s ghost pepper sauce.  I picked it up from the local grocery store’s hot sauce wall that I’m slowly but surely working my way through, but I’m sure you could find it in any grocery store that has a substantial Latin American section.  I also chose this sauce at the recommendation of a fellow chili head who works at the store who highlighted the sauce’s ability to scorch your mouth with both heat and flavor.  Naturally, it piqued my interest.  Looking over the bottle, there were plenty of warning signs of the potency of the sauce.  IMG_6349From the skeletal remains of the toucan to the “More than one drop is suicide” warning on the upper label, it all made me all the warier based on previous history with this creation of the devil in the USA and overseas.  Oh yeah, and this quaint description on the back. IMG_6572 The Naga/Bhut/Bih Jolokia pepper originates from the far eastern regions of India and also Bangladesh.  It was once considered the hottest pepper in the world at 800,000 to 1,000,000 Scoville units of spiciness which made me skeptical of the number given on the back of the bottle as only 500,000 Scoville units.  To give you an idea of spice, a typical jalapeno pepper is around 10,000 Scoville units.  My following experience could only be summed up by Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk, “Too hot!  Hot damn!”.  The name either comes from the fierce Naga warriors of Nagaland or Bih comes from Assamese for “poison” since its so hot.  As for the origin of the more popular “ghost” name,  athe home of the Bhut Jolokia website provides this explanation, “The word Bhut, given from the Bhutias people, means “ghost” and was probably given the name because of the way the heat sneaks up on the one who eats it”.  This was surprisingly accurate when I finally sampled the sauce.   When I opened the bottle to drizzle on some tacos, I sniffed it first to get a snoot full of slightly vinegary hints of fire.  When I poured the candy apple red sauce on the tacos, it was more watery than I was expecting.  Upon my first bite, I found it to compliment the taco contents with an initial subtle spice that almost had a jerk seasoning slant to it with a modicum of sweetness.  However, as time went on, my appetite lit the fuse on this powderkeg of sauce.  The heat kept on building and building to leave me with a constant layer of sweat on my brow and a noticeably higher level of salivation from the sheer heat in my mouth.  Janice even told me that my lips and surrounding area was extremely red after enjoying this sauce, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I know it might seem weird, but I find pleasure in the afterburn in my mouth after eating a spicy sauce.

So here’s my general review of  Tropical Pepper Company’s ghost pepper sauce:

Flavor:  8/10  Full of semi-sweet fruity and slightly smoky notes that are surprisingly for such a spicy sauce
Spice:  8/10    While the label is slightly misleading in terms of underestimating the heat, it has a good level of spice that sneaks up on                              you, but is manageable if you’re experienced with this type of firepower (pun intended)
Overall:  8/10   This is one of the best ghost pepper sauces I’ve ever tried, comparable to Jake Melnick’s XXX wings sauce, where there                              is a nice balance of both spice and flavor instead of just tongue melting heat.

What Can Brown Do For You? Answer: Delicious Food

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Hello to all of the veterans and first time readers of Mastication Monologues.  If you have never seen this blog before, I write about all of my different food experiences in the Chicagoland area and during my travels in order to broaden your culinary and cultural horizons.  Plus, I would like to think that I could break certain cuisine stereotypes that exist with different types of ethnic foods.  One of the most persistent ones is with Indian and Southeast Asian food.  Often times I have heard from many people that it is too smelly or spicy or simple or causes bad things to happen to your G.I. tract, and I am here to tell you that it is not the case at all.  I recently went to a small Indian restaurant called the Little India located on 1109 West Bryn Mawr Avenue Chicago, IL 60660, and it is a great establishment in terms of hospitality and food.

At first, I was not sure what they meant when they claimed to serve “Indian fusion” cuisine, but upon closer inspection of their menu, I could see that there were some American elements like french fries and chicken soup and even a Chinese entry with Paneer Manchurian.  However, I went with a traditional Pakistani dish called Chicken Shajahani Biryani which was described as, “Chicken marinated in a yogurt sauce, herbs, spices, and served with steamed Basmati rice”, and I could only imagine it got its name from the influential Shah Jahan.  One of the reasons why I chose this dish was that I love the intermingling of tastes when mixing rice and meat together, and from a more economical standpoint, only the choices under the “Rice Dishes” on the menu automatically came with rice.  Just a heads up because my fellow diner did not have the same luck and had to order rice with her Paneer Makhani.

When they brought out our food, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the presentation of the Biryani since it looked like ordinary rice with a couple chunks of chicken put on the surface, but oh how wrong I was.

Chicken Biryani: Geopolitical alliances be damned for deliciousness!

It was also served with a small gravy boat of yogurt sauce filled with diced cucumbers and carrots.  Once I tucked into the mini-mountain of rice, I realized that I made a great choice because the rice was cooked to perfection and huge, golden nuggets of chicken were lurking under the surface.  There was also a slightly spicy hint to each bite which I expected to come with a dish like this, and the yogurt sauce provided a cool contrast to the spicy rice and chicken.  It was white, creamy, and almost seemed like a Pakistani version of the Greek tzatziki sauce that can be found on any classic gyro.  Upon seeing me intake heaping spoonfuls of the dish, the staff asked me if the spice level was alright.  Naturally, I responded with it wasn’t spicy enough, so they actually took it back to the kitchen to make it even spicier for no extra charge.  When they came back, I could see they added more red peppers to the rice, but it gave it only about a Habanero level of spiciness.  The waiter and doorman both joked with me that the cook couldn’t believe someone wanted their food spicier and that they knew what it was like to have a penchant for amping up dishes with more spice.  These chats gave the restaurant more personality than others I have been to in my life where they just want your money and don’t care much for small talk.  I ended up finishing the entire plate which was pretty substantial for the price, and I even tried some of the Paneer Makhani.

It was an odd dish with cubes of homemade cheese in a tomato and cream sauce, but the clash of the somewhat old Swiss cheese aftertaste with the smooth, spiced tomato sauce really didn’t jive well with my palate.  I think I would enjoy both elements on their own instead of combined in one bowl and eaten together with rice.

To sum up, if you want to go beyond your culinary comfort zone, wander over to The Little India to try some delicious food that will convince you that Southeast Asian food is one of the most underrated cuisines in the world.

The Little India Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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