When it comes to Indian cooking, fans of these exotic yet welcoming flavors often start by asking whether we are talking about southern or northern India. It’s a key question, for the ingredients, the seasonings, the overall approach can vary noticeably according to where you are on the map.
Is there a wrong answer? Hardly. Both approaches are potentially great and sometimes unforgettable – rich and intense, alive with aromas and practically dancing nuanced tastes. Though there’s plenty of fusion to be found these days, the cooking in the south tends to be spicier, includes a wealth of vegetarian options and has rice at the heart of many dishes, while the food in the north tends to feature more dairy, and has flatbreads as a staple.
It may be hard to decide if you’re a ultimately a northerner or southerner when it comes to Indian eats. But what if I could take you to a small suburban shopping center with two Indian restaurants – one featuring the cuisine of the north and the other showcasing the food from the south?
The place I’m speaking of is Folsom – modern, high-tech Folsom – which just happens to have some particularly noteworthy demographics to explain this most welcome restaurant phenomenon. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people from India are the largest Asian ethnic group in Folsom. The number of Asian Indians in the city more than tripled in the past decade, from 1,153 in 2000 to 3,801 today.
Intel, the computer chip maker, is the main reason. And its campus is a stone’s throw from the two Indian restaurants we are assessing here – Mylapore (with its more southern-style fare) and Chaatney (more northern-style).
Ironically, many of the dishes featured here – such as bhel puri, samosas and dosas – are the star attractions of the street cuisine in India’s bustling, densely populated cities. Folsom is spread out and, outside of Old Folsom, is mostly a car culture with little foot traffic. Thus, this coveted street food is housed in a strip mall. Adding to the confusion, you’ll find some northern-style dishes at the southern-style joint, and vice versa.
It’s worth noting that both of these restaurants are owned by the same proprietor and that both are entirely vegetarian. What’s more, it’s easy for vegans to navigate the menus at both places and enjoy hearty, delicious meals without meat or dairy. At Mylapore alone, I counted 30 vegan dishes.
But don’t stop reading if you are a meat-and-potatoes person. You don’t have to be a vegan to eat like one now and then. Most of us could stand to have a meatless meal here and there. It’s good for the planet. It’s good for your waistline. And I bet the barnyard animals would endorse it, too.
Even if you’re prone to devouring rib-eye steaks and double-cut pork chops, you too can find inspiration on the menus at both restaurants, picking enough hearty dishes to leave you happy and full by the end of lunch or dinner.
The magic word at Mylapore is “dosa.” Think of a French-inspired crepe and picture an elongated burrito. The dosas at Mylapore are filled with a variety of tasty ingredients, are nicely finessed, delicious, affordable and fun to eat. These are not delicacies. You don’t nibble. You pick them up and you chomp down. The crepe portion of this dish is made of gently fermented dough that is often a mix of ground rice and yellow split peas.
If this is your first time trying dosas, your best bet is to go with the “Assorted Dosa Platter” for $12.99, which will allow you to appreciate the exciting range of flavors. My favorite individual dosa is the “Mylapore Special Dosa” ($8.49). The thicker style of dosas here are called uthappam and look more like pizza. They come with ingredients such as chilli or tomato and peas.
For the uninitiated, one of the more refreshingly different dishes at Mylapore is the “Bhel Puri” ($4.99) It just might put a smile on your face. It’s light. It seems like a breakfast cereal but with earthy, savory seasonings. In fact, this snack is made with puffed rice, garbanzo beans, tomatoes, onions and two kinds of chutneys (one sweet, the other tangy).
The “Pani Puri” is another snack that might seem a tad unusual to some. Served with the accompaniments on the side, it arrives at the table resembling golfball-sized puffs of pastry, light as air and hollow inside. This is a hands-on endeavor. You crack the crust or shell of the pastry and spoon in the ingredients — mildly spiced potatoes that almost seem like a paste, garbanzos and two kinds of chutneys. It’s an enjoyable dish and a nice prelude to the main course.
The vegetable samosas we had for lunch one day were also well-seasoned and tasty, but they were lukewarm and had clearly been made ahead of time and reheated. They were a disappointment.
By now, you may be thinking, “OK, so there’s no meat and not much dairy, but wow! That’s a lot of carbs.” Indeed, these dishes will not appeal to those rocking Paleo diets. Further, all of these doughs and grains can be incredibly filling. During two of my three visits, I was so full I felt like I had just been at an all-you-can-eat ribs joint by the time I headed out the door.
Our entrees, or dishes larger than snacks, included a vegetable biryani that was probably the worst dish we had at Mylapore. While the basmati rice was skillfully seasoned and slightly spicy, it was much too dry, as if it, too, had been reheated.
The other main dish, however, made up for this misstep. The “Kothu Paratha” (commonly spelled “parotta”) is something you might encounter on the streets of India. Paratha is a type of flatbread. Here, it is cut into long julienne-style strips and then cooked in a spicy gravy that has plenty of heat. The accompanying yogurt dip cools the palate between tastes. Again, this carb-heavy dish might make you feel overly full if you’ve already enjoyed the carb-heavy snacks.
Over at Chaatney, if it looks and feels more informal than Mylapore, that’s intentional. This is street food – fast food – with an emphasis on flavors and styles from northern India.
They have the “bel puri” you’d see at Mylapore, but they focus on little snacks, or chaat, like “Dahi Bhalla” ($5), which are fried lentil dumplings soaked in yogurt and topped with chutney; “Papdi Chaat,” savory biscuits served with chutney and topped with crunchy noodles. If you want to try a variety of chaat, get the chaat basket for $12 — you select three of the six chaats on the menu.
We don’t see a lot of chaat in the Sacramento area, so having an eatery like this is a great way to experience some of what makes Indian food so vibrant.
My favorite little dish at Chaatney was the “Batada Vada,” a kind of potato fritter that’s both fun to say and a pleasure to eat. Think mashed potatoes coated in a batter and then deep fried. Eat them plain or dip them in the ever-present chutneys.
This street-food-style eatery apparently did not always handle the quick and flavorful cooking with such panache. When we visited, I couldn’t help but notice the sandwich board out front practically blaring that Chaatney has a “new chef.” Talk about throwing the old chef under the bus. We don’t know the old chef, but the new chef is handling his duties with aplomb.
It’s simple stuff and may feel more like a series of snacks than an orthodox meal. But that’s the idea. Again, if you’re a carb-o-phobe, you’re probably in the wrong suburban strip mall.
This unassuming shopping mall obviously targets the transplants from India who have given Folsom an infusion of old-world culture over the past decade. When it comes to the food, we all benefit. Neither Mylapore nor Chaatney will blow you away, but their offerings will give you a clear sense of the quick, easy and informal way of eating in India, be it in the south or the north.