Something old, something new

2010-08-23 00:00

A VISIT to a new Indian restaurant in Pietermaritzburg was a bit of a culture shock for me — notwithstanding the fact that I have been eating Indian food all my life. Needless to say, it is pretty much all I eat, with the odd exception of a few dishes here and there, mainly at restaurants.

Now I am no expert on cuisine  — let alone Indian cuisine — but I believe that some of the dishes prepared at Tandoor – The Clay Oven differ greatly from the popular dishes prepared in my home and the homes of many other South African people of Indian descent.

But I guess that defining cuisine by utilising an entire nation as a reference point is fraught with potholes.

I have come to learn that India is a very multicultural, diverse and complex nation — each grouping with its own distinct way of life, language and belief system. (The country apparently has more than 200 ethnic groups.) It is also a point that is occasionally lost on some members of the South African Indian community.

The extensive use of yogurt in cooking is one example of divergent paths followed by local cuisine versus Indian cuisine.

The popularity of kheer, a sweet dish made by boiling rice with milk and sugar, as well as paneer, a fresh Indian cheese, are other examples, as is as the difference between the naan breads prepared by Tandoor versus those prepared by the local Indian community.

It is also understood that the use of potatoes in curries is less popular in India compared with South Africa.

Others have observed that curries are generally hotter in South Africa compared with India.

The co-owner and managing director of Tandoor – The Clay Oven, Jaswant Singh, was my gracious and generous host.

Singh is a Sikh who hails from Punjab in India.

Armed with a bachelor of science degree, he spent several decades in farming and textiles.

Singh has spent the past 12 years working in the textiles industry in Pietermaritzburg — specialising in textile spinning.

Having settled nicely into the city, he recently decided to semi-retire and pursue his lifelong passion for food.

Located in upper Bulwer Street, pat­rons enjoy a relatively tranquil environment, away from the hustle and bustle of the inner CBD.

“It’s not a very busy area but business has picked up nicely. We have had lots of word-of-mouth clients, from the nearby bed and breakfast establishments and from nearby private hospitals. We have a very homely atmosphere, which attracts people as well,” Singh noted.

An old double-storey house has been converted and refurbished into the restaurant, which houses 25 people inside and 10 to 15 people on the balcony.

The staff of eight people includes two chefs: head chef Jasbir Singh, who specialises in north Indian curries and tandoor, and assistant chef Dharminder Kumar.

Jaswant Singh described the menu as “authentic Indian cuisine with slight changes and variations to suit local taste buds”.

Tandoor has invested in a special clay oven, which was imported from India.

“Most of our foods are prepared in this oven, which provides constant temperature for cooking from all angles. The oven is made from three to four inches of a mixture of three special clays.”

Although the menu consists mainly of north Indian cuisine, it includes some dishes that are bound to be popular with all communities. The vegetarian menu is also extensive.

Speciality dishes include tandoori chicken, tandoor mushroom, amristari naan, stuffed parata (stuffed with potatoes), a variety of samoosas (vegetables, chicken and lamb), as well as carrot halwa.

Singh stressed that all the meats are marinated in-house. The paneer is also prepared in-house.

Reflecting changing tastes influenced by health concerns the world over, Singh noted that many Indians now prefer dishes cooked with minimal oil and fat.

He added that their various tandoori dishes are spicy and relatively dry, with little oil and fat.

Prawn jalfrazi is another interesting dish on Tandoor’s menu. This dish is prepared with green peppers and onions in a light curry sauce.

Presentation is critical in the restaurant business and Tandoor is no exception as they utilise unique serving dishes, including a dhal balti (Singh describes this as a small bucket used to serve dhal) and a chicken kadhai (a small round pot).

Of all Singh’s beverages (which include well-known offerings such as lassi and masala tea), nimboo pani is arguably the most intriguing. Nimboo pani consists of a fresh lemon juice combined with water, sugar, black pepper and salt.

I did not venture to taste the nimboo pani — the combination of sugar, salt and black pepper did it for me. Here on the southern tip of Africa, we rarely mix our sugar and salt. It shows that 150 years on, the community of Indian descent that came to life in South Africa has evolved: we have our own unique way of cooking — similar to India, yet distinct. Nowhere else in the world will you find the famed “Durbs masala”.

• Tandoor can be found at 319 Bulwer Street, Pietermaritzburg. Tel: 033 342 8853 or 083 263 0733 (Jaswant Singh).

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