A Passage to India - Restaurante Taj Mahal
As a small child I appeared as a beggar in a play called The Hungry Ones, by Indian author Asif Currimbhoy at New York's Café La MaMa. They painted my upper half dark brown and I wore a dhoti. One night, it fell off, exposing my torn underwear and white legs.
Many years later, I was living in the East Village in a fifth floor walk-up bathtub-in-the-kitchen studio, on what was known as Curry Row. It was above an Indian restaurant, which isn’t a coincidence as virtually all the storefronts on the block were Indian restaurants. I swore, when I moved in, that I would try every single one while I was there – the average bill in these places was $5, so this wasn’t a preposterous idea. I only got about halfway through when I started to suspect that there was really just one big kitchen that produced all the food; it all tasted the same. It always smelled like curry inside and out (as did I, my friends reported), which was very nice, I thought, until I realized that the cockroaches felt the same way. But I still loved Indian food. I journeyed to Rajasthan, eating my way to the border of Pakistan. And now, when I return to New York, I visit my favorite venue for Haute Indian, recommended to me by author Gita Mehta, Devi. It’s not on Sixth Street. And a dinner there costs way more than $5.
So when I moved to Mexico I really missed what had become for me comfort food. Here, in El Day Effay, the cooking of the Continent is little known and not well represented. Its Mexi-spañol name ‘comida hindú’ is a misnomer if ever there was one; not all Indians are ‘Hindus’. It is so called to avoid the possibly derogatory word “Indio”. Despite certain similarities between Mexican and Indian cooking i.e. salsas, breads and moles : salsas, breads and curries - our sophisticated capital has only been host to a couple of Indian/Pakistani places not worth shelling out the mega pesos they charge. So I almost flipped my turban when one of my detectives told me about a good new place called Taj Mahal right here in the Condesa. I Eco-bicied right over. It is good indeed. The dream realized of two brothers from Bangladesh, Azad and Atik Hosain, who have been in Mexico for several years importing clothing, is not technically Indian at all, but Bangladeshi. Their cooking is similar to that of the Bengal region to which it once belonged. While most dishes offered here are generic Indian-national, a few byrianis, or rice platters and several curries are featured which are typically Bangladeshi. “My friends and clients pleaded with me to open a restaurant”, Azad explains over a cup of spicy chai. “The hardest part was finding the ingredients…and the chef”.
Located on a quiet tree-lined street just past Mazatlan, the simple, pleasant space features all the Amer-Indo décor requirements: ‘exotic’ chachkas, a big Elephant embroidery, hanging batiks and a TV providing lively Bollywood dance numbers. A few tables are set outdoors, which in good weather is a tranquil alternative. The familiar menu brings me right back to, well, maybe not exactly Connaught Circle, but First Avenue. Start with some samosas, golden and crispy outside, savory within: Indian umami. Also memorable are onion bhaji (which means botana). Chicken tikka tandoori is slices of tender, fragrant baked breast lightly dressed with oil and vinegar to bring out the flavor. A tikka masala is creamy, piquant and complex. Jalfrezi, a Bengal/Bangladeshi specialty, is a curry in which meat (or in our case shrimp) is marinated then fried with chilies and tempered with a bit of cream.It is tangy and just fiery enough - the lovely brick-red sauce concealing a payload of tender shrimp . From Saag (spinach) toShazlek (lamb marinated in yogurt and grilled) careful spicing is in order. There are many vegetarian options including an alluring array of 'pillau' or rice dishes. Most importantly, the curries at Taj Mahal are distinct– you can make out individual elements. Chef M.D. Ayubali, who hails from Dhaka but has experience from Dubai to Santiago de Chile, is a master. Several typical desserts are offered: gulap jam, or rose-water scented bread balls, or fini, a milk sweet - comfort food for Indians. And there is a full bar. Prices are on the high side but, considering yur options it's worth it. Allow $300 pesos per person for dinner. But they are pesos well spent. The Indian food at Taj Mahal is the best in the city – go for it!
Note: all photos by NG except the one of NG which was taken by India-phile Val Clark