Some cuisines, no matter how great and wide-ranging, can't escape association with a particular dish. Mention Indian and most people think tandoori or chicken curry. But India, with over a billion people, has a number of cuisines, and a plethora of stunning dishes such as korma, samosas, pakoras and vindaloos.
Kumar, who is from Punjab in northern India, originally designed his restaurant to feature northern Indian cuisine, but a few southern dishes have slipped onto the menu as well. Northern Indian cuisine, the cuisine most commonly found in Indian restaurants, is dominated by wheat, contains meat, and is influenced by other cultures, specifically the Mughal Empire and conquerors from the Middle East. In the Punjab, cooks use liberal amounts of dairy products including ghee, a clarified butter. The effects of a history packed with invasions from the West is evidenced by the Persian inspired biryani, a dish similar to pilaf. But perhaps the most brilliant food from the Punjab isn't a food at all. It is the drink lassi, the world's original smoothie.
Appropriately, we started an evening at Sangam with a refreshing mango lassi while perusing the lengthy menu and munching on the crispy pappadam, thin lentil wafers. One reason for my great fondness for Indian restaurants is the interaction with well-informed servers. Indian society is driven by hospitality, and Sangam's service team excels in professionalism and earnestly wants the diner to explore and delight in their cuisine. To the credit of Sangam's staff, my discussion of regional chili peppers with one server resulted in his giving me a magazine featuring a woman drying chilies in Gujarat, India.
Sangam's menu, with extensive explanations, is filled with dozens of refined Indian comfort cuisine including vegan and vegetarian dishes, masalas, kebabs, tandoori, kormas and curries. The kitchen is manned by Chef Singh, also a native of Punjab. The first dishes to arrive from the kitchen focused our taste buds for an evening of sensory delight. A tasteful platter of appetizers sparked the introduction as we dipped aloo tikka potato patties into a pungent bath of tamarind. That was followed by crispy chicken pakora (Indian chicken fingers), a well-composed potato samosa and a classic vegetable pakora.
The medium spiced lamb vindaloo was equally fine. Before ordering, we had discussed the degree of heat in this vindaloo with our server. A vindaloo's heat is layered. Unlike a lip-searing Texas chili, a vindaloo aims the heat toward the back of the mouth which can be extinguished by a cooling hit of raita or a sip of icy beer. As with other aspects of Indian cuisine, moderation and balance are essential elements to any dish. If, however, this sort of heat is not desired, the kitchen will create a mildly spiced vindaloo.
Unfortunately for Atkinites, bread is an integral part of any northern Indian meal. Although stuffed bread is a Punjab regional specialty, we opted to try the naan and fried poori, a festive whole wheat, slightly greasy puffed bread, as ideal vessels to dip into Singh's flavorful sauces. Perfect. Next up was the sizzling tandoori, or Indian barbecue. This is the classic cooking method in the Punjabi region and our reddish-orange chicken tandoori with its special earthy aroma was slightly dry, as is the tradition in Indian cuisine — dripping juices are strictly forbidden — but tender, nevertheless, due to the spice-laced yogurt-based marinade. While the tandoor chicken was quite right, the best of what we had was the biryani. Here was a perfect melding of flavors and aromatic spices with the added textures of nuts, raisins and thinly cut vegetables. Sweetness to end the meal is another contribution from the Middle East and we chose to end on a mango ice cream note.
Charlotte seems to be enjoying a whirl of new Indian restaurant openings. Three more have opened or are scheduled to open in or near Center City soon. However, if you live near the lake and your culinary soul needs a wake-up call, Sangam's robust and hale cuisine will reinvigorate your languid senses.
The Taste of the World Restaurant Event is selling 150 spaces on their East Charlotte food tour on Thursday, April 14, from 5:30pm until 9:30pm. This is an idea from the Asian Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber's Charlotte East Area Council and the Eastland Area Strategies Team (E.A.S.T.) and local Latino leaders to introduce Charlotteans to the diversity of restaurants in East Charlotte. Tickets are $25 per person, including a welcome reception with wine and entertainment at the Charlotte Museum of History, a shuttle bus, and dinner samplings from five restaurants. Beverages are extra. Reservations by phone: 704-347-8793. For additional information: www.charlotteeast.com.
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