The shiny linoleum landscape of a retro Lake Leelanau grocer gives way to seductive smells of turmeric, cardamom pods, fenugreek and coriander seeds as they’re flash-toasted and ground into garam masala. Wedged between aisles of pantry staples and beer coolers is a portal into the flavors of North India. Stacks of plastic pint containers are packed with okra stir-fried with onions and red chilies, creamy cashew khorma, puréed spinach and coriander with fresh paneer and the silky lentil stew known as dal makhni. Behind NJ’s butcher counter, resident culinary dynamo Rosie Punhani stuffs paratha flatbreads with spiced potatoes, slides pillowy naan from a hot oven and checks a fragrant pot of biryani: basmati rice cooked with chicken thighs, spices and clarified butter. India’s Kitchen daily kicks out scratch-made breads, chutneys, pastries and more than two dozen sublimely spiced North Indian specialties like chicken tikka masala, puris with curried chickpeas and crispy samosas. In addition to its delectable spectrum of Indian take-out options, NJ’s also sells Indian spices and offers personalized cooking classes. Read on as we plow through the snow in search of the North’s secret spice scene.
Chef, India’s Kitchen at NJ’s Grocery
Having learned the intricate Indian art of flavor-building in her mother’s kitchen near Delhi, Rosie Punhani moved her family from North India to Lake Leelanau in 2005 to join her brother, Raj Aneja, at NJ’s Grocery. Eleven years on, Rosie’s curries and khormas have a dedicated cult following among local foodies, so Traverse Magazine food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau caught up with her to talk North Indian food culture, spices and cooking the perfect pot of rice.
What does food mean in an Indian family?
We cook three meals a day, every day, in India. Wives, sisters and mothers do almost all of the cooking. Every meal is prepared fresh from vegetables and herbs bought daily at the market. Spices, lentils and dry beans we typically buy once a month. Most families will only eat meat, usually chicken, once or twice a month. When I moved here I was shocked how much meat people eat, especially at breakfast.
How are North Indian flavors different from those in other parts of the country?
Many of the spices are similar throughout India but the way of using them is different. In the south of India, most of the food is vegetarian and people cook a lot with coconut oil, coconut milk and curry leaves. In the north, we use more clarified butter and cream, and the flavor of our garam masala is different.
Garam masala is a blend of spices that we toast and grind. You need nine or 10 spices to make very flavorful masala. In North India we use coriander seed, cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, mace, fennel seed, fenugreek and cinnamon. The blend is a little different in every home.
This basmati rice is perfectly fluffy. What’s the secret?
Washing and soaking basmati before cooking is very important. Wash the grains two to three times then soak them in room temperature water for fifteen to twenty minutes. Drain the water. Fill the pot with two parts water to one part of rice. When the water is at a hard boil add the rice, when it boils over turn the heat to simmer and put on the lid. Simmer for five to six minutes then remove from heat and let it stand five to six minutes more.
If we want to experiment with Indian recipes at home what’s a good resource?
I really like the Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor. He has several popular cookbooks and a website full of recipes and videos.
5 Secret Spicy Spots:
Nada’s Mediterranean Gourmet Deli
542 W. Front St. | Traverse City | 231.947.6779
Fusing Greek and Iraqi flavors, Nada Saco’s salads are electrified with lemon, sumac, cumin, fresh herbs and tahini. (Try her recipe for roasted root veggies.)
Robby’s Taqueria T.C. Mexicana
830 E. Front St. | Traverse City | 231.486.6991
Robby’s is the spot for authentic Mexican comfort food like fiery menudo or mole-slathered enmoladas.
Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen
617 Ames St. | Elk Rapids | 231.264.0530
Pearl’s festive Zydeco vibe is best enjoyed with a Bloody Mary, a pile of shrimp and grits and plenty of hot sauce. (Check out this video for a look inside the restaurant.)
930 S. State St. #8 | Harbor Springs| 231.526.7107
Harbor Springs’ pan-Asian eatery amps up the heat with spicy Szechuan classics and offers hot food masochists a chance to take their “Spicy Challenge.”
433 E. Mitchell St. | Petoskey | 231.487.9900
Authentic Thai curries like Panang and Pattani sing with chilies, lemongrass, galangal and aromatic lime leaves.