All Over the Map
The inconsistent authenticity of Taste of Himalayas
By Ari LeVaux
On one visit I thought I was close. As we were being seated, I asked the host about samayabajee.
“I would prefer that you didn’t order that,” he replied. “You wouldn’t like it.”
I felt slightly indignant. I’ve traveled the world, including a week in Southern India, and I like to think I’m as adventurous as they come. So when our server arrived, I defiantly ordered the samayabajee. Apologetically, he informed me that they didn’t have the ingredients. They’re hard to get, he explained.
This experience is emblematic of the predicament in which I feel Taste of Himalayas is struggling. It aims for a level of authenticity that is enticing, but maybe not attainable or advisable here in the 505 due to the unavailability of ingredients and the limits of the clientele. Some of the dishes on the menu are confusingly pedestrian, like the semolina-coated fried calamari with aioli (which is tasty) and a list of chow mein dishes under the curious header “Taste of Himalayas Special.”
I soon discovered that there are, indeed, dishes at Taste of Himalayas capable of pushing me beyond my limits.
I soon discovered that there are, indeed, dishes at Taste of Himalayas capable of pushing me beyond my limits, though not enough to make me order any chow mein.
Upon being seated, diners are treated to a plate of papadum and two chutneys, tamarind and mint, the latter of which is especially good. There are other chutneys available on request, including a salty mango pickle and a bright yellow mix of cauliflower and some kind of legume, perhaps soybean. Children are greeted with complimentary mango lassi. There is also a salted lassi available, a similarly thick yogurt drink, laced with flecks of cumin and other spices. It was confoundingly delicious.
The aloo tikki, a savory fried potato pancake with spinach and fenugreek leaves, delivered the warm fuzzies as only comfort food can. The goat curry was deliciously spiced and falling-off-the-bone succulent. The lamb rogan josh was full of lamb chunks in a thick, rich, tomatoey gravy. The goan fish curry, flavored with mildly pungent curry leaves in a coconut sauce, carried me back to my travels in South India, even if salmon is not a staple of authentic Indian restaurants.
Most of the vegetarian dishes we tried hit the spot as well. Tops was the chana masala—buttery soft chickpeas in a tomato curry. The bhindi masala, fried okra in tomato sauce, hit the mark as well and wasn’t even too slimy despite being okra.
The only bump on the vegetarian side was the bagara baingan, baby eggplant in a peanut, mustard and coconut sauce, that tasted too much like peanut butter. Meanwhile, the chana chaat salad, a chickpea-based salad in a curry dressing, was noteworthy in how dramatically different it was each of the three times we tried it. Sometimes it had papadum shards in it, sometimes crunchy soybeans, sometimes crispy noodles, and none of the versions contained the advertised blueberries.
Underneath the surface of this inconsistency, I see a restaurant that’s still trying to find itself, despite being open for half a year. Taste of Himalayas can’t decide if it should be true to itself, and to authentic Nepali cuisine, or serve food that would be more likely to appeal to the local audience.
The yogurt had a gaminess that gave it the impression of being homemade, and I loved it. The chai had a similarly pungent edge to it. But one of the vegetable dishes, which had cauliflower, peas, potatoes and bamboo shoots, had an aroma to it that caught my attention in a negative way. That aroma showed up again much stronger in the goat bhuteko.
I love goat and was excited to dig into the plate of meat covered in finely chopped green herbs. But as it neared my mouth, I detected that challenging aroma, which stuck with me as I chewed. I ended up leaving most of the dish untouched. At home I perused recipes online for Nepali bhuteko and noticed that many contain asafetida, a South Asian ingredient made from the sap of a giant fennel plant. Asafetida is known to have an atrocious aroma that transforms into something quite pleasant, often compared to cooked garlic or leeks, when the resin is cooked in hot oil. Perhaps it was the asafetida that so repelled me.
It’s telling that there is no beef to be found on the menu. While it’s common to see beef on the menus of many Indian restaurants in the US, this would be taboo in true Indian cooking, as cows are sacred in India.
The majority of the restaurant’s patrons appeared to be South Asian—to my untrained eye I assumed they are mostly a mix of Indian and Nepali. This makes me think that my hesitations at Taste of Himalayas might be rooted in my own inability to handle the real deal. My pride wouldn’t want to accept a watered-down, Americanized version of any regional cuisine, but after a few trips to Taste of Himalayas, I’m afraid that with some of the dishes, my belly can’t keep pace with my heart. The next time the host warns me against ordering something there, I will listen.
Taste of Himalayas
7520 Fourth Street NW
Hours: 11am to 3pm, 5pm-9:30pm Monday to Saturday
11am to 9:30pm Sunday
Booze: Beer and wine
Worth noting: The lunch specials are big and come on fancy platters.
The Alibi recommends: Goat curry, lamb rogan josh, goan fish curry, dal bhat or nepali bhojan
Flash in the Pan
Clay pot tofu
1 brick of soft tofu
1/3 yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 green onions, cut crosswise into inch-long pieces
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine
Enough sesame oil (untoasted) for deep frying
2 teaspoons sweet potato flour
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
8 tablespoons vegetable stock
Cut the tofu brick into 4-8 rectangular pieces (I prefer fewer, thicker chunks). Dredge them in a mixture of beaten egg and sweet potato flour.
Heat sesame oil on high. When it's hot enough that a drop of water flicked into the oil causes an eruption, add the coated tofu. Deep-fry for about four minutes, or until brown and crispy. Remove.
In a wok, sauté yellow onion, green onion and garlic in sesame oil (you can use some of the leftover fry oil). Add veggie stock, rice wine, oyster sauce and brown sugar. Stir it together, and add the tofu. Transfer to a clay pot (or some other heat storing dish, like a cast-iron skillet), and keep warm until serving.
It's a subtle, flavorful dish, in which the moist and mild-flavored interior contrasts with the rich sauce on the other side of the crispy skin. When made with thicker pieces, it's straight-up decadent and hard to stop eating.
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