I love to eat in Indian restaurants, but I seldom attempt to cook Indian food. It seems like such an incredibly complex cuisine, with all of the spices to source and buy and then there is the tandoori oven, the long slow cooking and the widely varied regional aspects — well, I am quite content to have someone else do the preparation and serving while I just sit back, eat and enjoy. That’s why I’m so happy to discover another good Indian place in Hamilton and to welcome Narula’s Indian Restaurant to our Monday night Go Cooking session.
Navdeep Narula is the chef and owner of Narula’s. Navdeep and his wife Amandeep moved to Canada from the Punjab and Delhi in 2004, enticed by the growing market in Canada. Their first restaurant was in Mississauga, but seeing a greater opportunity open up, they moved to Hamilton last year.
“Cooking was always a passion in my family,” says Navdeep. “My grandfather and my father were both excellent cooks and did all of the cooking in the home. I feel as if cooking is in my genes — everyone I served at home would say, ‘Why don’t you open up a restaurant?'”
Their Hamilton location has been open on Barton Street East, across from the old Centre mall, since last year. The restaurant is housed in the former Olympia restaurant and it is huge. The cavernous space on the main floor seats 150 and upstairs is a banquet hall that seats 350. (When I saw photographs of it I couldn’t help but imagine a sort of fantasy Bollywood movie set with lots of music and singing and dancing and colorful silks and saris — okay, I know I go to too many films.)
Navdeep describes the food as northern Indian, a complex combination Punjabi and Mughal traditions. The Punjab is in the north of India alongside of the border with Pakistan. Punjabi cuisine is probably what we think of as most typical of Indian food — intense colours, flavours and aromas. It has a rich tradition of tandoori cooking, but also incorporates Mughal traditions, a style of cooking developed in South Asia by the imperial kitchens of the Muslim Mughal Empire. It combines the cooking styles used in North India, Pakistan and the Indian city of Hyderabad and is strongly influenced by Central Asian cuisine.
The chef says, “The restaurant serves northern Indian food that is not toned down. We try to make it authentic and find that that’s what people really love. They begin to understand that Indian food doesn’t have to be really spicy, although it can be. It also can be milder but still have deep, full flavour.”
As a “for instance”, Chef Navdeep talks about his butter chicken that universally beloved Indian delight.
“It has to be cooked in the tandoor and, to be authentic, it shouldn’t be sweet. We specialize in so many tandoori items — for instance, a kebab platter that has four different items. This is really flavorful — the fragrance draws you to the table.”
I should mention that the Spectator’s Amy Kenny did review the restaurant (August, 2014) and one thing that Kenny notes is that Narula’s also has some non-standard options in addition to curries and tandoori. The menu includes an aloo tiki burger, butter chicken fries (!!) and a lamb masala wrap. Her summary? “Good service, good food, reasonable prices.”
For our Go Cooking session on Monday night, I was somewhat perplexed by the menu which has several items on it that were unfamiliar to me. Chef Navdeep was kind enough to help me out.
The chicken tikka masala, for instance, is really butter chicken with added onions, coriander and a rich gravy sauce.
Lahori cholay is made with chickpeas cooked in the style of Lahore. The chef says don’t expect the canned chickpeas that we buy at the grocery store. These are real dried chickpeas which have been soaked for 24 hours and cooked for a couple of hours with onions, ginger and a variety of spices.
Jeera rice is rice flavored with cumin and garam masala.
And the dessert — ras malai — is made from milk which is cooked for six or seven hours. A few spoonfuls of sugar are added and the result is a sort of very rich cheese dumpling.
Chef Navdeep says that he will talk about how these items can be made by the home cook. The ras malai, for instance, can be made with condensed milk with added cream. And if you don’t have a tandoori (clay oven) in your kitchen, here’s a recipe for the chicken tikka masala that you can improvise at home.
Chicken Tikka Masala
from Chef Navdeep Narula, Narula’s Indian Cuisine
1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
For the sauce:
1/2 tbsp ghee, butter or olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, diced
1 inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 – 2 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp paprika
1 cup diced tomatoes
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup roughly chopped coriander
1) Trim the chicken thighs of any large pieces of fat and lay them in a shallow dish.
2) Whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, cumin and coriander. Pour the yogurt mixture over the thighs and stir to fully coat each piece. Chicken can be used immediately or marinated in the refrigerator for up to 6 hours. Chicken will become more tender and flavorful the longer it marinates.
3) Cook in a clay oven. If not available, line a baking sheet with foil and set a wire cooling rack over the baking sheet. Turn on the oven broiler to high with a rack positioned 6 inches below the broiling element.
4) Remove the thighs from the yogurt and shake off any extra marinade. Lay the thighs, spaced an inch or so apart, on the wire rack over the baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and broil for 6 minutes. Flip the thighs and broil for another 6 minutes. Check that the thighs are cooked through and register at least 165 degrees F on an instant- read thermometer. Broil in additional 2 minute intervals, if necessary, until the thighs are cooked. Remove the thighs from the oven and set aside to cool.
5) Warm a half tbsp of ghee, butter or oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste, 1 tbsp of the garam masala, and paprika and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
6) Pour in the tomatoes and their juices and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile dice the cooled chicken into bite-sized pieces.
7) Stir the cream and chopped chicken into the sauce and simmer until the chicken is warmed through and the sauce is just starting to bubble, 1 – 2 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Depending on the potency of your masala spice mix, you may want to add up to another tbsp of spice. Stir in the cilantro just before removing the sauce from heat.
8) Serve immediately. Top each serving with another sprinkle of cilantro.
This looks long and complicated but each step is quite straightforward. What a great dish to have ready after a night out watching “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. Or, you could just visit the restaurant!