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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

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All Fired Up For Demera

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Hello and sorry everyone for the lull on Mastication Monologues, but I’m back with a fresh new post that is part of Restaurant Week that is now over in Chicago.  For those of you who don’t know, Restaurant Week in Chicago is a multiple week event where a multitude of eateries throughout Chicago open their doors to everyone with great deals.  In this post, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Demera, one of Chicago’s premier Ethiopian/Eritrean diner.IMG_5907

Janice and I went there for their lunch special, and the inside was brightly lit and bumping with some funky Ethiopian jamz. IMG_5888IMG_5889  We were quickly seated, and we had some trepidation with what to pick since everything sounded so delicious.  I started the meal off with a St. George Beer to drink.IMG_5891  Ethiopia is interesting enough since it is a mainly Christian society surrounded by Muslim nations, and some go on to even speculate that the Ethiopian people are descendants of one of the 12 lost tribes of Israel.   The name of the place, Demera, is the term in Amharic for the ceremonial bonfire used in the Ethiopian Christian version of Ash Wednesday, and we had a similar religious experience with the food.  However, the St. George Beer wasn’t very noteworthy since its neutral flavor and watery consistency left me hoping for the second coming of my food savior to resurrect my taste buds from the bland rapture. IMG_5890 Luckily, the beef sambussas and timatim selata did just that.  First, there were the beef sambussas that I could liken to a lighter version of empanadas.  IMG_5893The dough was less pie-like and more flaky and light like Greek philo dough.  The meat was spiced and amped up in terms of flavor with the spicy yet sweet yet dangerously addicting awaze sauce. IMG_5896IMG_5897 We also got an order of the timatim selata which I likened to an Ethiopian version of pico de gallo.IMG_5892  It consisted of tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno pepper slices all coated in a lime vinaigrette.  It was tangy and flavorful and was handily consumed (pun intended) with the ubiquitous Ethiopian flatbread known as injera.  While flatbreads can be found around the world in cultures that eat with their hands like naan in India or pita in Greece, injera is super unique in the sense that it is spongy with a slightly sour taste compared to its more doughy brethren.IMG_5900  Thankfully, it had plenty of nooks and crannies to soak up all of the lime juice but was also strong enough to enclose the large slices of tomato.  IMG_5894After polishing off that flavorful and refreshing appetizer, we got our main entree.  Traditional Ethiopian cuisine focuses on family style dining where everyone eats from the same plate.IMG_5901  On our plate, we got the ye-beg alicha  (mild lamb cubes), doro wat (chicken in a mild sauce with ayib cheese), ye-misir wot (split red lentils in spicy berbere sauce), and gomen (chopped collard greens).  With the spicy lamb, it was a great mix of spice and the slightly gamey taste that comes with lamb.  The doro wat chicken wasn’t as bold as the lamb, but the ayib cheese was like an African queso fresco that gave this savory part of the meal a cool and semi-salty twist.  IMG_5899I really enjoyed the split red lentils because they were super spicy, but I was mixed on the collard greens.  On the one hand, I enjoyed the earthy, spinach tones, but the ginger notes kind of left me cold on this hot entree.  Surprisingly, we had a bit of room for dessert, but we could only get the missionary delight, a basic vanilla sundae, because they apparently didn’t have enough ingredients for the dessert we wanted, the sambussa turnovers.  Super normal for a restaurant that serves food that isn’t on many peoples’ radars, but thankfully, our waitress told us that we could get the dessert we originally wanted, the turnovers.  What they consisted of were sweet versions of the savory sambussas we had earlier in the meal.IMG_5903  It was the same flaky dough, but instead of beef, there was a melange of walnuts, cardamom, walnuts, saffron, and rose water.  IMG_5904It reminded me of a honey-less baklava with an almost flowery aftertaste compliments of the rosewater.  The strawberry sauce was a bit too much of guilding the rose for me which made me prefer the savory version of these handheld treats.  At the end of the meal, we were absolutely stuffed but greatly pleased with Demera’s food selection.

So if you’re tired of the same old restaurants serving foods you’ve heard of before, check out a red-hot slice of Ethiopia at Demera.

Demera Ethiopian on Urbanspoon

A Diamond Not In the Rough

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Hello to everyone out there to another chapter of Mastication Monologues!  Today’s entry is a bit off of the well chewed culinary path I have blazed throughout my life, but it was one of the hidden jewels that I promised myself I would try one day:  Ethiopian food.  Now many people would be apprehensive about trying food from Africa mainly due to simply not knowing what exactly grows or is raised in the different countries of the continent.  However, Africa has a plethora of cultures that today are blends of many different ethnic groups that have been rearranged due to tribal wars,  European colonialism, and modern day globalization.  The types of food could range anywhere from the more Middle Eastern style cooking of North Africa like the Moroccan tagine to the western coast of the continent which had a significant impact on American southern cooking with such ingredients like peanuts, okra, and black-eyed peas.  However, I explored the northeastern corner of the continent at Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant and Bar located at 6120 N Broadway St Chicago, IL 60660.

The reason why I’ve always been fascinated by trying Ethiopian food is much more than pure curiosity and word of mouth, but rather Ethiopia is an interesting country by itself.  First off, the continent of Africa during the age of exploration was more or less carved up by European nations all vying for global supremacy, but Ethiopia had other ideas.  Like its Asian counterpart Thailand, it was the only country in Africa never to be conquered by an invader in its history including defeating the Italian army on multiple occasions (not a very hard task, if you ask me).  Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s history stretches back to the beginning of mankind including being home to supposedly the Arc of the Covenant, and the famous emperor Haile Selassie who was a symbol of African unity and considered by Rastifarians as “Jah” or the incarnation of God.

History lesson aside, time to talk about the food.  I knew that Ethiopian food was somewhat like Indian cuisine due to their long history of trade with Arab and Indian spice merchants, and their penchant for eating with their hands is another residual effect which is commonplace at Diamond.  However, they will give you silverware if you’re a germaphobe or just don’t feel like getting really messy with your food.  When we walked into the restaurant, I was greeted by a very elegantly decorated place with a pleasant atmosphere.  The service overall was less than ideal since it took them forever to actually give us menus/take our order, but the food more than made up for it even though the vegetarian portions were undersized for the price.  I ended up ordering the traditional Ethiopian dish Doro Watt (chicken in spicy sauce) and Kik Alicha (stewed yellow lentils with garlic and onions) along with an Ethiopian beer called Bedele, and my friend ended up getting the Veggie Combo which ended up with her choosing Yemisir Watt (red lentils in spicy sauce), Dinich Alicha (potatoes and carrots in a mild onion and garlic sauce), and Quosta (simmered spinach with onions and garlic).

A six-ring circus of yummy food

When the food and my beer came out, I was very surprised at the presentation.  It was like everything was served on a large deep dish pizza platter that was layered with the traditional Injera bread which had the texture similar to a kind of  spongy pancake and is to be ripped apart to be used like a utensil to pick up the food.  Then on top of all of the bread were our choices in individual mounds like mini-mountains rising above the sandy colored savannah while circling the verdant tomato, lettuce, and onion salad spoke to this wheel of deliciousness.  My Doro Watt consisted of chicken legs marinated in lemon juice and ginger while playing Marco Polo with pieces of a hard-boiled egg in a spicy sauce.  The legs were very substantial, and the meat was so tender it was falling off the bone.  I could taste a little bit of the lemon through the sauce that was the best part of the dish.  I could only liken it to a spicy Indian curry which helped me stomach the hard boiled eggs which I’m not a big fan of in general.  However, the Injera bread allowed me to make small spicy chicken tacos with the lettuce and tomatoes in the center which was great since it was much more durable than any tortilla I’ve ever eaten.  Unfortunately, my dining companion did not want to partake in the traditional Ethiopian practice of gurrsha or the forming of bonds of friendship by placing food nestled in Injera brad in the other person’s mouth (proceed very carefully with this one, diners).  The Kik Alicha was pretty much split peas, a.k.a. lentils, cooked in a mild sauce of onion, garlic and ginger.  I was indifferent to the actual lentils, but the sauce had a very mellow flavor with each ingredient in perfect harmony.  I also tried some of my friend’s Yemisir Watt which was red lentils cooked with onions in a spicy sauce.  The sauce was quite flavorful and had similar curry undertones like in my Doro Watt, and the Dinich Alicha was quite delicious since the potatoes were buttery soft.  As for the Quosta, it was quite fresh, and thankfully the consistency of it wasn’t too creamy.  Instead, it was like eating a warm salad with a light garlic vinegarette.

Quite the exotic import complete with Ge’ez writing

As for my beer, I read online that one should absolutely get the Bedele beer since it’s a traditional Ethiopian brew, and it did not disappoint.  It had a golden brown hue to it with subtle honey notes and clean finish.  It was quite light and complimented the bolder flavors contained in my food.  It seemed similar to a honey wheat type of brew, so I was genuinely surprised that such a delicious beer could come out of such a non-traditional beer country like Ethiopia.  So if you’re looking for someplace to taste an authentic slice of Ethiopian culture by getting your hands dirty, come on down to Diamond Ethiopian Restaurant.

Ethiopian Diamond on Urbanspoon

Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant and Bar on Foodio54

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