Laura Sutherland takes a culinary tour through Indian cuisine with the help of her friend Nandini Bhattacharya as the two explore the menu at Santa Cruz’s Namaste.
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My Bengali friend Nandini Bhattacharya is a bit of a food snob when it comes to Indian restaurants.
“Too often the food comes to you as one big brown blob,” she says. “Too much is fried so it can be greasy, and you lose the flavor of the individual ingredients.”
She’s the kind of person who makes sure the venue for her son’s wedding has an outdoor spot for the caterer’s clay oven so the tandoori chicken and kebabs are particularly succulent and the naan is especially fresh.
When I heard her praising Namaste, a new Indian restaurant in the spot formerly occupied by Vasili’s Greek Restaurant on Mission Street in Santa Cruz, I booked her for a Thursday night to find out what she liked best. I also wanted to know which dishes reminded her of her family home in Kolkata.
We went early; the place is popular and doesn’t take reservations, so you need to show up before 6 or 6:30 to get a table, even on a weeknight, and it can be noisy when it gets crowded.
“Let’s start with the steamed vegetarian momo,” Nandini advised. “Namaste’s owners are Nepalese, and momo is the Nepali version of a dumpling. It’s made with a really delicate spinach dough and they’re tender and light.” They looked like puffy green crowns marching in pairs down the plate and came with an aromatic, creamy, tomato-based chutney seasoned with garlic, ginger and green chili.
“We absolutely have to order the avocado chaat,” she insisted next. Chaat is a common street food throughout India that has veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers and onion and yogurt. Namaste substitutes avocado for the yogurt. “You get the same creamy texture,” Nandini said, “but it’s like a California spin on a traditional Indian dish and I love that you can taste every ingredient.”
The chaat was layered and molded, and served like a stacked tartare with beefy tomatoes taking the place of flesh — and with crunchy slivers of fried gram flour called bhujia on top, a fresh and colorful appetizer that could easily be a main course.
Since daal is Indian comfort food — basically a stew-like dish made with lentils, spices like cumin, chili and turmeric, and often tomatoes, onions and garlic — she decided we had to order both the tarka and the makhani daals.
As the dishes appeared on our table, Nandini pulled out her phone and called her older sister in Delhi, India, to check on the daal recipe their grandmother made. “Yes, it was her yellow daal everyone loved,” her sister replied. I liked the yellow best, too, and could imagine ordering it in place of chicken soup next time I have a cold for its warmth, comfort and layered, satisfying spices.
The kadhi bindi okra dish was a must, as it was something Nandini’s mother and grandmother made from fresh okra they’d pick in their expansive kitchen gardens. “My paternal grandmother, Sukhomoyi Devi, was a renowned cook and was often invited to help at large and important events in her town,” Nandini explained, “partly because of her skill and partly because of her position as a brahmin and the wife of the community’s Sanskrit teacher.
“She also really loved to be praised for her cooking, so whenever she was invited to help, she’d sneak special ingredients from her own kitchen so her dishes would stand out. She’d grab raisins, pistachios, cashews, butter and other more expensive items for that era that the family hosting the event wouldn’t be able to afford and hide them in her sari so her husband wouldn’t see. That way people would call out her particular dishes and praise her more!”
The okra is cooked in two parts, Nandini said. First spices like cumin, red chili, garlic, ginger, turmeric and coriander are cooked in oil, then tomatoes are added. After those flavors meld, the okra is added and cooked for a long time without a lid — so it never gets slippery, but instead becomes drier, with a deeper curry flavor. It was a perfect complement to one of our main courses — goat biryani made with lots of aromatics and simmered dum-style in its own juices in saffron basmati rice.
“Goat is popular throughout northern India so we should have it here,” Nandini said — but we could have also tried the biryani lamb, chicken or vegetables, all in a similar preparation with saffron rice, mint and crispy fried onions.
Because her native region of India is near the Bay of Bengal and fish is popular, we decided to order the sea bass. But when the server pointed out we could sample the sea bass in a mixed tandoori platter with salmon, chicken and lamb, we jumped at the chance. It arrived with three different chutneys — tomato-based; green cilantro; and tamarind. “We have a lot of tamarind in my part of India, and often chutneys have tamarind as the base,” Nandini said.
“Mangos and other fruits that can be the sour component of chutney are seasonal, but tamarind can be sun-dried and preserved, so it’s very common and very good.” The tamarind offered tart, the tomato umami and the cilantro fragrant flavors to the tandoori-tender meat and fish.
When our dessert appeared, I smiled to myself thinking of Nandini’s grandmother. There were golden raisins, cashews and slivered almonds in the cinnamony rice pudding. And even though I knew they were part of the recipe, I imagined the plump raisins and nuts had been hidden in the folds of a sari and carried across town to add to the pleasure of the dish.
Namaste Indian Cuisine is located at 1501 Mission St., Suite A, in Santa Cruz. It’s open for lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 5-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For menus and more information on its Santa Cruz, Monterey and Los Gatos locations, click here.