A block away from my freshman dorm was a restaurant called “Tamber’s Nifty Fifties.” The décor was pure American diner, with the vinyl booths, jukebox, and just a touch of neon. They served burgers and tuna melts and milk shakes. Plus an entire menu of Indian food. Truly a strange combination. At the time, I just thought it was weird; I was far more obsessed with classes and grades than food at that point in my life (for days at a time I derived the majority of my calories from Annie’s shells and cheese). Looking back on it now though, I’m positive there’s a story there, and I wish I knew what it was.
Tamber’s was the first place I ever tried Indian food. I know those who are familiar with both Nifty Fifties and with Indian food will consider that a travesty. I would order takeout chicken tikka masala with extra warm and fluffy naan, and for someone who had never tried Indian food before, the dish was tasty and approachable. Plus, I loved the naan. Garlic naan, butter naan, naan stuffed with cheese, how could you go wrong?
When I moved back home to Boston, my Indian restaurant of choice became Passage to India in Porter Square. Located right by my T stop, I had to walk past it on my way home every day. Sometimes I’d just pick up some naan to munch, but I also slowly expanded my takeout orders past chicken tikka masala to include aloo matar, saag paneer, and my favorite, matar paneer.
I mentioned in the post on homemade naan that a takeout menu hung on my door in Berkeley sparked this whole adventure. My entire relationship with Indian food had always been takeout based, but suddenly I saw no reason I couldn’t try cooking Indian food at home. My grocery store gives me access to tons of bulk spices, and I can follow a recipe. It might not be authentic, but that didn’t mean my version couldn’t be delicious and satisfying.
(these are only the spices for the first step)
As I started cooking everything on my stove (I just used a large, deep saucepan), I marveled at the colors. They’re not nearly as vibrant in this photo, but the turmeric turned the onion a gorgeous yellow which played well with the red tomatoes and the green jalapeno. I was so close to just scratching the whole recipe and making a deconstructed matar paneer, but since the whole style of cooking, not to mention the recipe were entirely new to me, I decided to continue on as instructed.
Where the recipe says to grind the above mixture into a thick paste, I simply turned the contents of the saucepan into my blender, and added 2 tablespoons of water. I blended until the mixture was nearly smooth, and returned it to the pan. From there, I added the rest of the spices, plus the peas and the fried paneer. I cooked the whole thing for just five more minutes, added a splash of cream, and it was ready to eat.
I was perfectly happy dipping pieces of the naan into the fragrant dish. Everything tastes better when seasoned with the satisfaction of having successfully cooked it yourself. Of course, I was merely attempting to imitate a dish I’ve enjoyed as takeout many times. I can’t promise this rendition would live up to the memory of a dish lovingly prepared by someone’s grandmother.
The most intimidating thing about the recipe for me was how many spices it called for. I tackled that by simply measuring everything out in advance, putting the proper combination of spices into little prep bowls based on when they should be added to the dish. Then instead of scrambling for fenugreek and turmeric and undoubtedly forgetting one, I just had to dump the prep bowls into the larger dish at the appropriate time.
I’ve remade the dish since for a quick weeknight dinner, using fried tofu instead of the homemade paneer as a time saving step. The paneer is tastier, but the tofu is far quicker, and a good substitute both in appearance and texture.
I was so pleased with how this turned out. Making the naan and the paneer were good adventures that helped build up my kitchen confidence to take on this dish. Truly, it wasn’t difficult at all, simply intimidating and unknown. Once I read the recipe through several times and organized my ingredients, the whole thing came together quickly. Don’t let a dish that seems foreign or intimidating keep you out of your kitchen and glued to the takeout menu!