Tag Archives: #Indian

Karma Modern Indian: Edible Art with South Asian flare

It’s definitely nowhere near your average Indian restaurant. Washington, DC’s Karma Modern Indian is one of DC’s newest fine dining establishments, which just happens to emphasize the flavors of India and South Asia as it plates craveable, edible works of art. It somehow manages to pull off an understated opulence that shatters expectation.

OK, so an aside here. The CD is back! Yes, I’ve taken some time away from the blog, but I haven’t stopped collecting great food and culture stories to share with you. Sometimes, life just intervenes. And in my case, life involved major life decisions: relocation and career. Sometimes, home calls, and I’m happy to report that I’m back in the Washington, DC area to share more stories from DC’s underrated international culinary scene.

Back to the experience at hand. I had the opportunity to dine at this new hot spot with friends several weeks ago*. While the DC area (and northern Virginia, in particular) has some fantastic Indian restaurants, Penn Quarter (and Foggy Bottom/Golden Triangle)’s Rasika has long been the only major standout Indian restaurant in a fine dining scene.

It’s hard not to draw a comparison between Rasika and Karma Modern Indian in such an open sector. Both restaurants offer ‘Indian with a twist’ – innovative dishes that re-imagine Indian cuisine and high-quality ingredients. But walk inside Karma and you might be confused.


The visual queues we’re used to seeing in Indian restaurants (warm colors, perhaps red or saffron-colored walls, ornate decor – some bronze and gold for sure) are missing. An open kitchen, striking blue tile contrasting with clean whites and grays, a sleek bar and minimalist pendant chandeliers catch the eye. Tucked in a corner, the private dining room features a gorgeous geometric tapestry – the most eye-catching piece of artwork in the restaurant.

The menu plays up its modern, international flare. It might be a bit difficult for diners searching for their favorite Indian dishes to spot them – but some of them are there, not necessarily where one expected. You’ll certainly notice a focus on the lighter aspects of Indian cuisine – more emphasis on vegetables and meats than on the starches (potatoes, lentils, and chickpeas) that tend to take on a more central role in traditional Indian cuisine. The menu emphasizes quality ingredients – as co-owner Sachin Mahajan notes, he strives for nothing less than the freshest produce and meat (“Whole Foods quality”), and thus dishes are priced to reflect that investment in sourcing regionally.


We started with a cocktail from their well-stocked bar. Two of us tried the Temple of Salt. Somewhat strangely named, salt plays barely a speaking part amidst a cast of intriguing ingredients that include chartreuse, whiskey, lime, chili bitters, and egg whites. It reminded me of a more complex version of a Pisco sour, which is one of my favorite cocktails. It was so delicious – as well as a nice counterpoint to some of the heat in our dishes – that I ordered a second during the meal.

My group ordered a sampling of several small and larger dishes on the menu. Decisions are difficult on the nuanced menu, so I was grateful for smaller plates. We started with the malai kulcha flatbread (essentially cheesy naan; India’s answer to white pizza), oohed over the succulent chicken tikka (a second order was obliterated after the first).


Perfect Chicken Tikka – bet you can’t eat just one!


Go for the gold:  Zucchini Kofta


I ordered the zucchini kofta – definitely an item one doesn’t see on a typical Indian menu. The large dumplings were bathed in an intense, rich tomato and onion sauce and topped with gold leaf – again, another site I’m not used to seeing.


Chilean Sea Bass with saffron and starfruit atop a rice-lentil pilaf and surrounded by spinach puree

One friend ordered the Chilean sea bass, which was perfectly cooked and elegantly presented. We ordered the grilled eggplant and grilled okra sides – which were generous portions. Both vegetables were cooked simply and without heavy adornment by spices or salt. I have to admit that while I’m not a fan of Okra, I was a huge fan of this okra. It was grilled so well that it was hard to believe it was okra.


I also must point out the stunning presentation of everything we ordered. Executive chef Ajay Kumar and his associates strive for nothing less than edible artwork that rivals anything on the restaurant’s walls. Great food is front and center.

At that point, we were sufficiently full, but we couldn’t pass up the luscious coconut cake. I kept going back for more bites; I just couldn’t stop eating it! One friend ordered the cardamom affogato – a truly transportive experience. If you haven’t tried cardamom ice cream, you haven’t lived! Add nitro brewed coffee and it’s an unforgettable pairing.

Karma’s owners state that their goal is to uplift diners through food. In our case, this mission was accomplished. Beautiful food, expressive with quality ingredients, spiced with love from South Asia and presented with reverence, one cannot leave Karma without feeling as though good things are on the horizon.


*Full disclosure:  In the interest of transparency, one of Karma’s owners was an MBA classmate of mine. I could be a little biased, but the opinions are genuine: The food was fantastic, the presentation gorgeous, and the ambiance sleek. I’ll be back!

Chai Pani: “Evolved” Indian street food seduces American taste buds in Decatur and Asheville

If you enjoy Indian cuisine and live or travel near Atlanta, Georgia or Asheville, North Carolina, you must sample the street food tour of India that is Chai Pani. From pakora to Pani puri to thali that will satisfy the heartiest appetites, your palate might never want to leave!

(North) Indian restaurants are as plentiful in major cities around the world as is the Indian diaspora, but Indian street food is a bit more elusive for most of us not of Indian descent. Small snacks, known as chaat, are often foreign to the casual Indian restaurant goer in the USA. Intense explosions of sweet, savory, and crunchy flavors – often with a fried component – are the hallmark of chaat. Each state and region within India creates its own style of favorite chaat. And so does Chai Pani.

Husband and wife team Meherwan and Molly Irani created Chai Pani (literally “tea” and “water”) to bring the diverse flavors enjoyed throughout India as both snacks (street food), meals, and beverages to the American southeast. Launching in Molly’s hometown of Asheville, NC, their restaurant was such a hit that they expanded to Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta best known as home to Emory University.

I can’t rave enough about Chai Pani. Brought by relatives for a “fun” (their endorsement) Friday night dinner outing, I found myself a little skeptical when I saw what looked to be a diverse, yet very educated, bourgeoise crowd and mostly Caucasian wait staff. I know, I know, that’s bias, right? But please tell me that you have never once done the same. We all tend to crave authenticity of cuisine – and superficial indicators of it don’t hurt.

But then again, this is the Culinary Diplomat. Who really is to judge authenticity? What does it even mean? Are we all really that comfortable with the culture shock of truly “authentic” cuisine (here, I mean food that natives/expats recognize and identify as our home cuisine)?* Truly, aren’t all national cuisines continuing an evolution that started millennia ago, influenced by both travels abroad and outsiders?

Chai Pani seems to appreciate that point. Chai Pani believes in the “evolution and innovation” of food; serving dishes that evoke both “traditional” and 21st century influences? Chai Pani’s ingredients – with responsible sourcing and high quality – are geared towards the globalized foodie seeking new flavor adventures.

Romantic, intimate dining it is not. Like the traveler’s experience of India, the restaurant’s open, food hall-esque dining rooms buzz with the excited chatter of its many group diners. I hear that it is always busy. While it was bustling when we arrived, we were fortunate to be seated immediately, but unfortunate to miss out on the nightly special chaat sold at the bar for those hungry patrons waiting on their table. As we left, a long line stretched hungrily awaiting each turn to purchase Pani puri for a very nominal price.

If you’ve never tried Pani puri, you must at once. Small, thin, deep fried dough shells are filled with a mixture of potatoes, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), onions, and whatever veggies, starches, or garnishes the cook chooses, and splashed with a slightly diluted chutney (the puri, or water). When done right, they are perfect little packages of contradictions: savory, salty, herbed, and even sweet; a crunchy exterior surrounding a very soft interior.

But I digress.

The meal I actually ate that night started with kale pakora. If you are not familiar with pakora, think of it as its cousin, tempura, but battered with chickpea flour. One might consider battered and deep fried kale to be blasphemy both to whole food purists and actual Indians, but Pani Puri notes that kale does grow in southern India, so why is the idea so far-fetched? Though I generally am not a huge fan of deep fried food, one bite convinced me that kale pakora might be the best idea ever. Or at least of the day. I later described it to a friend as “kale chips on steroids”, and it seems an apt description as any. It was served with both traditional green chutney and a tangy yogurt dip (not raita). Other appetizers ranged from bhel puri to samosas to Bombay chili cheese (Kheema) and okra fries.

   My family convinced me to order a full thali so that I could experience the restaurant fully. A thali is a traditional meal that consists of a variety of small dishes and bites. Think of it as the Indian equivalent of a bento box. At Chai Pani, it is equally as beautifully presented as any bento. Their thalis consist of a main dish, choices of which vary daily and an accompanying, complementing side dish; along with dal (stewed lentils), various starches – crispy, salty papadum, wheat roti (tortilla-like flatbread), and basmati rice, condiments, and a small dessert.


the daily special Arangaon Chicken curry thali with a side of cholle (chole), a chickpea dish

On this night, one meat (chicken), one vegetarian (paneer, or cheese), and one vegan curry were offered. With only three options, I somehow managed to have a difficult time deciding. I finally picked the Andhra vegetable kurma. Cauliflower, peas, and carrots bathe in a velvety, smooth tomato curry made rich with cashew and coconut. It was a bit spicier than usual, I was told, but I thought it had a perfect level of heat. My sister ordered the Arangaon chicken curry, which prominently features cinnamon but is decidedly more savory than sweet with a hint of bitterness. Her husband went for a more “evolved” fusion choice, ordering the lamb burgers from their street sandwich menu, which are like slightly oversized, spiced sliders.


mixed vegetable Andhra kurma

   Every bite was delicious. While my thali leaned more to the traditional side than many of their menu items, I would love to make a return trip to try whatever shows up on that oh so difficult to choose, eclectic all-India menu.

So the next time you’re in Atlanta or Asheville and seek a food adventure, I recommend making a night of Chai Puri. If you’re in Decatur, follow up the spice with some Butter and Cream, my favorite ice creamery.
*I dearly love Indian food and have traveled around India myself, but even I don’t find “authentic” Indian street snacks incredibly appealing. Case in point: I also visited an Atlanta suburban eatery called Thali. A vegetarian restaurant specializing in chaat and located within an all-Indian strip mall that clearly caters to those in the Indian expat community, I found its chaat to be excessively starchy, with few homemade ingredients. As in mass quantities of deep fried dough with fried chickpea noodl, etc. perhaps tasty as a snack but overwhelming as a meal -for my Healthy Diplomat’s tastebuds.

About that great Indian food experience in Tunis…

My best meal in Tunisia wasn’t regional food, but instead, complex Indian dishes paired with Tunisian wine: a match made in globalization heaven!

I did not expect to write that my best meal in Tunisia was Indian food. Yes, I expected great couscous or perhaps the depth of flavor in Moroccan style tagines, maybe an eastern influence of good Shawarma (Chawarma in Tunis), or French dishes with a nod to Tunisia. While my last post about Moroccan food proves one expectation was met, in general, I found food in Tunisia to be decent, but not amazing. I spent plenty of time searching great dining experiences, but I acknowledge that I didn’t get out and around to the very finest Tunisia has to offer. While I had several good meals, the best were not fully “Tunisian.”

If you read my post about Stockpot in Riga, you saw that my favorite meals in Latvia were not the country’s ‘own’ cuisine. One can argue about the negatives of globalization, but by my observation, globalization allows us to experience another culture without traveling far from home. Or in this case, it allows both locals and travelers alike to savor the exotic together.

The best meal I had in Tunis came at the end of my stay in Tunisia. I’m not sure whether the lack of a meal that wowed me for weeks caused me to lower my standards, or perhaps it really was that good. I would argue that the meal would have been fantastic no matter the setting or meal context. Good food is good food!

This particular experience was made possible by Calcutta, one of the restaurants in the Golden Tulip Hotel – Carthage. Once inside, this restaurant’s traditional atmosphere could be anywhere in the world. Its lengthy menu offers many recognizable specialties, with a few interesting selections. The ‘chicken cooked in pickle spices’ sounded a bit odd, but its rich sauce had a slightly smoky quality to it and so many subtle layers of flavor. I tasted a friend’s but wished I could have returned, because I’d order it myself. My murgh tikka masala, though not a truly ‘Indian’ dish (thank you, British colonists) had depth in its slow-simmered tomato and onion gravy with a slow-burning heat (I requested spicy – their spicy was more of an Indian ‘medium hot’ rather than true hot). I also tried another friend’s chicken makhani (ordered spicy). Again, the makhani curry was outstanding – a complex interplay of sweet, velvety, tangy and meaty at once, with the essence of garlic. On the vegetarian side, yellow dal (lentils) were not quite as good. They tasted as if they came from a mix, I’m sorry to say, but palak paneer was tasty, if not as complex or rich as other versions I’ve had. The garlic naan was nicely charred and full of garlic.

Though I ate wonderful Indian meals throughout the next several weeks, the complexity of Calcutta’s traditional dishes remains a standout among restaurants in several countries.

50th Post: Mumtaz Mahal, sumptuous Indian in Oman

Welcome to the 50th post of The Culinary Diplomat! Thank you to all of you – friends, family, or the fellow bloggers from Word Press – for checking us out, following this blog, and offering feedback. Thank you to my two CD Ambassadors (guest bloggers)! To the rest of you, please consider submitting a guest post. The CD needs more voices to be truly great. Click on the Become a CD Ambassador link to find out more! Plea aside, thanks again and enjoy the post!

I love Indian food. The spices, the yogurt, the tender meat cooked in a tandoor. The way a slow-cooked curry is so rich and complex that I want to sop the sauce, gravy – whichever name you prefer – up with naan or paratha – or just lap it up with a spoon.
In Oman, I ate Indian – or at least, dishes with Indian spices or culinary influences – as often as possible. When I had more than three recommendations to try Mumtaz Mahal in Muscat, I vowed to try it. Two visits later, I safely and highly recommend it to anyone fortunate to make it to Muscat and for a special occasion dinner.
Mumtaz Mahal is an elegant, high-end Indian restaurant on the second level of a modern, white, two-story structure overlooking a man-made waterfall and grassy banquet area about 10-15 minutes west of Mutrah Souk and the old Center of Muscat. Its outdoor balcony seating was perfect for early spring nights, but it’s expansive indoor dining room is probably a safer bet much of the oh-so-hot year.  
As Indian food goes, it is not cheap. It is not cheap by highly expensive Muscat standards (but not unreasonable compared to Europe).  Like most Indian food, their menu is prefect for sharing and sampling, creating a painter’s palette of sorts on one’s large plate, with savory, sweet, and spicy flavors commingling pleasantly.   Their expansive, global wine list is another draw in this largely dry country.
A few highlights:
The papadum, naan, and chutney were decent if not noteworthy. Their Chicken Tikka Masala is moderately spicy, thick, yet not as heavy as other versions. Chicken makhani was a crowd favorite. Saag Paneer was more tangy than most; instead of sporadic diced tomato dispersed throughout, the spinach curry’s base itself appeared to be a light tomato sauce.  My group found that to be an unexpectedly good culinary decision. The Zattar-spiced Tandoori Cauliflower was the least heavy dish I tried. We accidentally ordered the rich Tri-peppers Cauliflower Masala – but it was a wonderfully unintended addition to our meal.
Lamb is everywhere in Oman, and Mumtaz certainly executed its lamb dishes almost perfectly.  Lamb Mughali Korma was a wonderful surprise for me – tender chunks of braised lamb in a creamy and delicate cashew sauce that was like no other korma I’ve ever had. Lamb Vindaloo, always a favorite, was warm but not too spicy.  The Chettinad Lamb Pepper Fry, purportedly a dish from southern India was enticingly fragrant and deceptively spicy. As one colleague put it, at first bite, the heat is subtle, but the spice grows over time until it holds on the tip of the tongue (which is an odd sensation given that most taste receptors for spice are further back on the tongue). It was a must-try.
Should you make it to the far reaches of the Arabian peninsula to Muscat, Mumtaz Mahal is worth the buzz. Should your wanderlust for Indian cuisine strike you closer to home, try a new local Indian restaurant. Whether you are in a large city or small town, chances are you can find a great, family-run Indian restaurant within driving distance. Try something different!