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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

London (Day 6)- Taken to Tasca/Dressed to Empress

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Hello everyone, and welcome to the final chapter in my London food chronicles on Mastication Monologues.  While I don’t think that anything will really top the crazy dinner I had at Bunga Bunga on day 5, the last days of London were still filled with great Spanish food at La Tasca and wonderful dishes at the popular Indian eatery The Empress.

During my time in Korea, quality western food items were in short supply, but that is not to say that they were impossible to find.  I had a brief encounter with a taperia in Incheon that supposedly had great tapas but left me wanting.  I’ve lived in Spain, and this place omitted basic tapas that you would find on any menu in Spain or even in the USA.  Then with the tapas that they did have, they couldn’t even do them properly like gambas a la plancha or tortilla espanola.  So, when I landed in London, I was certain that they would at least have the know-how and mettle to pull off a decent tapateo due to the influx of Spanish immigrants or at the very least through geographical proximity to la patria compared to Korea.  I was also meeting up with my friend, Rebecca, who I had met back in 2008 in Manchester, and she also had a taste for Spanish food.  After a bit of wandering around the Covent Garden area, we finally found what we were looking for:  La Tasca.  Rebecca told me she had heard good things about it, so we went inside to see what all the hubbub was about.6905@ltgallery  The decor was filled with plenty of cultural items from the peninsula that were not too tacky, and it was surprisingly empty for the height of lunchtimeIMG_2341IMG_2340.  Oh well, more room for us.  The menu had an extensive offering of tapas of all varieties, cocidos, paellas, and meatless options for you vegetarians out there.  As for drinks, they obviously had an extensive wine menu along with many different types of beers I sampled throughout Spain.  While Rebecca went for more of the seafood options, I went more the land animal route with croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes, a Madrid favorite, L 4.70), mejillas de puerco (pork cheeks, L 5.25), and patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce, L 3.35).  After a bit of catching up with an old friend, our tapas came out.  I began with the pork cheeks that were in a semi-sweet chili sauce nestled in a nest of fries.

Cheeky porky

Cheeky porky

I was greatly satisfied as the sweet sauce combined with the saltiness of the fries to further enhance the tender morsels of pork.  I moved on to the croquetas which were half-heartily presented on tufts of what seemed to be a garlic mayonnaise and garnished with sprigs of clover on top.IMG_2337  Thankfully the presentation did not foreshadow the taste as I found them to have a crunchy, light exterior that gave way to a piping hot interior flush with pieces of all white chicken and melted manchego cheese.IMG_2338  I saved my very favorite for last, the patatas bravas. IMG_2336 This specific tapa is always my personal barometer of how true a tapas restaurant is to the real article in Spain, and while they did an adequate job at La Tasca, I’ve yet to find a restaurant outside of Spain that can recreate the sauce they use.  However, the ones at La Tasca were semi-satisfying in the sense that they had the peppery spice that comes with the dish, but the ratio of mayo to tomato sauce was completely off.  Overall, it was a decent tapas meal, but I would look elsewhere if you are searching for high quality tapas.
La Tasca on Urbanspoon

Moving on from my mini-Spanish adventure, I knew before I left London I had to get some Indian food whether at was at a sit-down restaurant or getting my favorite Chicken Tikka footlong sandwich at Subway.  Either way, I needed to get my curry in a hurry.  So, my friend Ravi set up our last meal together at The Empress located just a short walk from the Aldgate East tube station in the Tower Bridge area of London.empress_indian_restaurant_london_whitechapel_1  The interior was elegantly decorated but had very dim lighting.  I don’t know if they were trying to save on their electricity bills or set the mood, but it made taking pictures of my food a bit harder along with walking through the restaurant in general.  We started off with some Cobra beers (L 3.95) that are Indian in origin but brewed in the UK.IMG_2348  It was a smooth lager that wasn’t terribly filling and had a light, slightly hoppy aftertaste.  After wetting our whistles, we perused the menu to find that they had an extensive menu offering a plethora of Indian specialties from mild paneers to taste-bud scorching phals and everything in between.  To start the feast, we got an order of papadum (Indian flatbread) that came with curry, chutney, yogurt, and pickled vegetables.IMG_2349  The flatbread was crispy and somewhat bland until you put some of the garnishes on it.  My personal favorite was the red chutney that packed a spicy punch.

(Starting at 12 o'clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

(Starting at 12 o’clock going clockwise) raita, red curry, red chutney, and pickled vegetables.

As for the entrees, we decided to split some smaller dishes like bindi (okra), aaloo mutter (potatoes and peas), raita (yogurt sauce) but also have our own meals.  I was contemplating between the spicy vindaloo or the supposedly hellish phal, but the waiter dissuaded me from the latter saying that I’d only be tasting the spice.  I don’t know if he did that because he thought I couldn’t handle it or was just being nice, but I went for the lamb vindaloo (L 11).  All of our food came out at the same time along with some of the naan (flatbread) we ordered, and it looked and smelled delicious.IMG_2352  The taste test would prove equally fruitful.  My lamb vindaloo was filled with plenty of lamb swimming in the spiciest vindaloo sauce I’ve ever had, but it definitely brought plenty of delicious cumin and onion flavor with the flames. IMG_2353 The raita cut through the inferno with a cool, cucumber splash coupled with some of the basmati rice we ordered.  I really enjoyed the aaloo mutter as well since it was simple, hearty, not overly seasoned, and the peas weren’t soggy.  I’d say it was the best Indian meal I’ve ever had for the price I paid, and I highly recommend you seek out The Empress.
The Empress Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Even though we paid our check and got up to leave, the fun didn’t stop there.  After dinner, one of our friends suggested that my friend Bob and I should try this Indian after dinner mint that helps with digestion called paan.  We walked further down the street to the world famous Brick Lane which is regarded as the hub of the best South Indian fare in the world.  First, we walked into a respectable looking Indian bakery looking to see if they offered this paan treat, but the guy turned us away.  Then, we moved 50 feet down the street to a convenience store selling everything from rolling tobacco to an unusual amount of calculators.  I knew we were in the heart of a different community far from the glitz and glamour of more touristy spots as all of the workers referred to me as “boss” since I was the only person not of South Asian descent in the store.  I saw the cashier take our order and proceeded to roll up what looked like a medium sized oval leaf into a cone.  After scooping in something that looked like confetti and pouring some syrup inside along with rolling them up in newspapers, we walked back outside to finally try them.  Bob and I took them out of the newspaper to find what seemed to be green cocoons that were packed tightly with that flaky material I saw that man stuff inside.IMG_2356  While I was taking pictures of this mystery food, Bob popped his into his mouth, and I was frightened by his reaction. His face went quickly from a look of curiosity to a grimace to almost a portrait of pain as he subsequently ran to the nearest garbage can to spit it out.

Yum...

Yum…

I decided to give it a go, and I bit through the semi-bitter leaf to find the interior to be similar to sawdust in terms of texture along with pieces that almost felt like rocks.  When I chewed even further, that is when the true flavor came out that made my friend Bob pay a trip to the nearby rubbish bin.  My mouth was overwhelmed with a taste I could only liken to extremely floral potpourri mixed with cherry syrup with a heavy emphasis on the former.  It was such a mess in my mouth, and I couldn’t get it out sooner.  Unfortunately, it was thoroughly chewed which made it harder to gracefully spit out into the garbage can.  My friend who brought us there said it wasn’t good quality, so I’ll just take his word for it.  I asked him what was in it, and he said coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, camphor, anise, and the cherry syrup among other things.  Either way, it quickly shot up my list into the top three grossest things I’ve ever consumed, and it will live long in my memory.  However, it was a memorable way to say goodbye to some great guys (and the girlfriend of one of them) that I hope to see again, and I still appreciate the hospitality they showed me while in London.IMG_2359

A Meal Fit For a King or Queen

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I present to you Taj Palace in Itaewon located at 39, Usadan-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 용산구 우사단로 39 (이태원동).  Directions: Get off at Itaewon Station (Subway Line 6), exit through Exit 3.  Walk 5 minutes and enter the alley next to the fire station past Kookmin Bank.  The restaurant is located down the street.    Now, I’ve had my fair share of Indian food throughout my life due to the high population of Southern Asians in the Chicagoland area, but this meal contained probably some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had.

The palace of culinary delights

The palace of culinary delights

A bunch of friends and I made our way to Taj Palace in Itaewon for our friend Steve’s birthday, and I was a bit wary of this experience since the last time we went out for someone’s birthday in Itaewon, it ended quite badly in terms of the food (See Saved By The Bell).  The restaurant’s staircase was decorated with beaded strings , and then the actual dining room was tastefully decorated with paintings and pictures of various parts of Indian culture.  We were seated immediately, and I saw that they had a sumptuous banquet laid out against the back wall.  I had only eaten a bowl of cereal the entire day, so I was ready to explore what sort of Desi delights Taj Palace had to offer in their buffet for 18,000 Won.

Enter my first plate:

Clockwise starting with Tandoori chicken, aloo beans, butter chicken, sagg chicken, and vegetarian curry

Clockwise starting with Tandoori chicken, aloo beans, butter chicken, saag chicken, and vegetarian curry

I started with the standard Tandoori chicken that can be found on any Indian restaurant’s menu.  This chicken dish is named after the type of oven it is prepared in, a tandoor, and is first marinated in yogurt before being grilled.  Then the chunks are coated in spices like paprika which give the meat its brick red hue.  These mighty pieces of meat were excellent in terms of size, juiciness, and spice level with just the right amount of paprika to test your heat tolerance.  Then there were the oddly named aloo beans.  I say oddly because aloo is the Hindi term for “potato”, but it didn’t seem like there was a single potato in the dish.  The sauce seemed to be similar to aloo gobi since I could taste hints of savory turmeric, and the green beans were perfectly cooked.  After plowing through that bit, I made my way to the butter chicken.  What it is is pieces of boneless chicken roasted in a tandoor and then plopped into a gravy that consists of tomato puree, butter, and spices like turmeric and cardamom.  It was more of a dish for people with less of a spice tolerance, but still had plenty of great flavors where the tomato puree possessed occasional hints of garlic and some weak chili elements.  I switched gears going from one chicken dish to another as I tasted saag chicken for the first time.  It comprised boneless pieces of chicken sauteed with spinach and spices.  I’d probably say this was my second favorite dish out of the entire buffet because I love spinach to begin with, and the addition of the high quality meat along with the garam masala made it really stand out.  The last part of my first plate was my vegetarian curry piled high on my saffron rice.  It was somewhat pedestrian compared to the other samplings on my plate, but with the perfectly prepared white and yellow rice, it really brought my first mini-meal to a respectable end.  Then there was my second plate.

Clockwise:  green salad, chickpea salad, Kadhai noodles, lamb vindaloo, and dal hariyani.

Clockwise: green salad, chickpea salad, Kadhai noodles, lamb vindaloo, and dal hariyali.

On my second plate and for the whole meal, my favorite was the lamb vindaloo.  It was respectably spicy, but the only downside was the lack of lamb pieces swimming about in the devilishly red sauce.  The green salad was pedestrian compared to the other food since it didn’t possess any of the aforementioned mind and mouth boggling flavors and spices.  The lettuce, carrots, and cucumbers were fresh and verdant though.  I really liked the chickpea salad too because these small legumes are a great source of protein, had a creamy texture, and were mixed with a garlic vinaigrette that really made the flavors pop.   The kadhai noodles and the dal hariyali were nothing special, especially the former.  I thought they kind of didn’t fit in with the rest of the foods in terms of flavor, and the noodles didn’t taste like anything.  As for the dal hariyali, it was a vegetarian dish consisting of red lentils, coriander, spinach, and methi leaves.  While it possessed the same creamy texture as the chickpeas, it was on the blander side of things.  I was surprised that the coriander and methi leaves didn’t bring stronger herbal flavors to the taste spectrum.  While I was eating all of these delicious plates, they provided us with complimentary naan which is basically flatbread that can be prepared in a number of different ways. IMG_0507 This naan wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was soft, fresh out of the oven, and garnished with coriander.  I also tried their dal soup which consisted of yellow lentils, but I was indifferent to it.IMG_0509  It just tasted like beans.

However, the dessert was quite interesting.  We were all trying to figure out what to compare it to which ranged all the way from porridge to semolina, but the actual name of it is kheer.

Not a bad bowl of goop

Not a bad bowl of goop

These parallels to other foods were drawn due to the fact that it is made of boiled rice with milk and sugar, so there was a slight grainy texture to each thin, vanilla-tinged spoonful.  Plus, it was garnished with raisins and almonds which took this dessert to the next level in regard to texture.  It wasn’t mind blowing in terms of flavor, but this pudding was a pleasant surprise since it initially didn’t look like the most appetizing after-meal treat in the world.  By the time I slurped up the last drops of kheer, I was thoroughly stuffed and satisfied.

If you’re looking for great Indian food in Korea and don’t know where to turn, visit Taj Palace.  It has it all:  quality food, generous portions, and a great ambiance.IMG_0513

On Top of Mt. Everest, All Covered With Cheese….

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Hello everyone to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Even though the weather in Korea doesn’t know how to make up its mind, today was a beautiful day.  So I went out for a mini-adventure in Incheon.  I also wanted to  find an interesting restaurant on the internet in Incheon, and eventually I landed on a cuisine that I never had before:  Nepalese.  The only things I really know about Nepal is its proximity to India, being home to the mysterious Yeti, and of course, Mt. Everest.  The food?  No clue.  So after making my way to a local point of interest and hiking a mountain, I made my way to Bihanee Restaurant located right by Bupyeong Station in Incheon.IMG_0068

Upon entering, I was greeted by a Korean hostess/waitress which made me a bit nervous since I’ve seen what Koreans do with pizzas (mustard and shrimp, anyone?), so I was curious as to why they would specialize in Nepalese and Indian food.  After sitting down for a bit, all of my questions were answered when a man, who I assumed was the owner, came up to me and asked me how I was doing.  He seemed to be of Indian descent, and I saw his cook who looked Nepalese.  So much for the Korean smokescreen at the door.  Anyway, I ordered the Murg Malai Kebab (10,000 W) and a side of Himali naan (4,000 W).  I also appreciated the gigantic carafe of free, ice-cold water that really quenched my thirst after trucking up the mountain.  After patiently waiting, my food finally came out.IMG_0066  It was arranged in a very tasteful manner, and the owner explained what the sauces were that came with it without even being prompted.  So I started on the kebab which looked scrumptious, and the actual taste did not disappoint.  According to the menu, the boneless pieces of chicken are roasted in a Tandoori oven with cheese, cream, cashews, and spices.  All of these elements came together to form a harmonious flavor profile.  It was on the milder side compared to other Indian dishes, but the chicken was succulent with nutty undertones that were accented with some charred notes from the intense heat of the oven.  The sauces, one green chutney infused with cilantro and one sweet red chili sauce, definitely kept the dish from becoming too boring.  On the side, there was a fresh cabbage salad with some of the same red chili sauce on it, but I preferred the cooked, chili coated onions.  They were not spicy, but I enjoyed employing them in a tag-team of intense flavors with the green chutney when eating the chicken.  Just when I thought my appetite was down for the count, I turned my attention to the Himali naan. IMG_0067 The three enormous pieces of warm flatbread looked very enticing because they were coated in pieces of apples and cherries.  Normally, I’ve had savory naan with garlic or peas, so this Nepali twist allowed me to indulge my sweet tooth.  From the first bite, I knew that I made the right choice.  The bread was warm, soft, and pliable with just the right amount of crispiness on the surface.  In terms of flavor, it was a fitting dessert as the buttery foundation of the bread served as the canvas for the broad strokes of smooth apple and the tart, staccato cherry accents.  By the time I finished, I was thoroughly satisfied and felt it was a worthy trophy meal after such an active day.   Upon leaving, the owner asked me where I was from, and thanked me for coming in and gave me his business card.IMG_0070Just another fleeting moment of great service during my dining experience.  So if you want to try a cuisine that is as rare as the abominable snowman and more satisfying than climbing Mount Everest (individual experiences may vary), then head on over to Bihanee and Mr. Oli will treat you to a fantastic meal.

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