With more than a billion people in 28 states, speaking 21 official languages and more than 1,600 dialects, India boasts a vast dining landscape. To Nashvillians, though, it probably registers as 1.2 million square miles of lamb korma and chicken tikka masala, bordered by a chutney coastline and oceans of raita. Those staples have made Indian lunch buffets one of Nashville's new favorite comfort foods—but in truth, they represent only a small sliver of the food palette in the world's second most populous country.
A fuller picture will come into focus this weekend when the Indian associations of Nashville and the Sri Ganesha Temple co-host their annual Festival of India, a celebration in honor of Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. The event will spotlight Indian crafts and culture, from music to henna painting—but food will be a central component, with delicacies from at least eight regions available for tasting. Those samplings should add new contours, and nuance, to our understanding of what truly constitutes Indian cooking.
According to Asha Rao, a local cooking teacher and caterer who lived in India until she was 13, Nashville's limited experience with Indian food skews toward the meats-with-sauce specialties of Northern India. A region influenced by years of conflict and trade with bordering countries, extending from lush river plains to the Himalayas, it adopted some of the culinary customs of neighboring cultures, such as dairy products and grilled meats.
As a result, the cuisine of Northern India uses lots of cream, yogurt and paneer (cheese) in silky-smooth sauces—the sort of fare readily available at Shalimar, Sitar, Best of India and Cuisine of India. It also produces steam-table staples such as tandoori chicken, with its distinctive ruddy-clay color. Richness, meat, sauces: It's no wonder that Northern India's cuisine has struck a sitar chord with Nashville palates—far more so than Southern India's spicy, largely vegetarian cuisine, or the coastal Eastern region's fish-rich diet. On local Indian menus, fish is scarcely more plentiful than cow.
In the last couple of years, though, there has been a mild boom in Indian restaurants locally, with several eateries branching out beyond the traditional Northern repertoire. Two years ago, Woodlands restaurant on West End broke the mold with its vegetarian buffet. Named for a popular restaurant in Southern India, Woodlands focuses on regional specialties such as dosas (thin pancakes made with fermented lentils and rice and stuffed with spicy potatoes) and idli (lentils and rice stuffed in dumplings of fermented dough). Last year, the short-lived Madras Bhavan on Church Street introduced a Southern counterpart to its sister restaurant Sitar. This fall Swagruha is scheduled to open, bringing a Southern Indian menu to the Farmers Market.
Still, it's Northern cuisine—with all its spicy gravies, goat, lamb, lentils and wheat breads—that dominates the local scene. This summer, Bombay Gardens opened on Nolensville Road, where a chef from Pakistan delivers a menu of Northern-style usual suspects such as chicken tikka masala, mutton korma and kabobs of ground chicken and beef, along with grill-pocked homemade naan baked at the neighboring Jowan Market. The newest entrant onto the Indian scene is Bombay Palace on West End (see sidebar), which offers an elegant environment and a gorgeous menu of Northern fare.
For a quick cross-country sampling of India's varied cuisine, your best bet might be this weekend's Festival of India, where $5 buys a plate of specialties unique to each region. A few highlights from the South include bisibelebath (a dish of rice, lentils and vegetables, from the state of Karnataka); masala dosa (paper-thin rice pancakes stuffed with spiced potatoes, from the state of Tamil Nadu); and tamarind rice from the state of Andhra Pradesh. Northern Indian specialties will include chole bhatura (spicy chickpeas and deep-fried bread made of flour). For dessert, there will be saffron-pistachio ice cream, a delicacy popular across the country.
The growth of Indian dining options in Nashville reflects a vibrant and expanding community—not just of Indian Americans and Southeast Asian émigrés, but of the city's clay melting pot as a whole. In coming years, it will be exciting to watch as strands of various ethnic cuisines emerge in our own traditional fare, and we eagerly await the Northern Indian/Deep Southern hybrids to come. Grits vindaloo, anyone?
The Festival of India is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, at Sri Ganesha Temple, 521 Old Hickory Blvd. Admission is $1 per person.