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What's the deal with Indian Buffets?

Why are people so enamored with Indian Buffets? I am not a fan of buffets in general, with the exception of some high-end brunch buffets which I still find to be over-priced and a bad value because one can only eat so much. But back to Indian buffets, on the Bay Area board people actually look around for the best indian buffet as opposed to simply the best indian restaurant. I'm confused at this because I'm confident that the same people would scoff at the idea of an italian or french buffet and they rarely ever rave about chinese or sushi buffets, but Indian buffets seem to be a hit.

Indian restaurants generally tend to be a decent value, you can eat a fresh made-to-order lunch for under $10, but plenty of hounds still seem to favor buffets. I think of bargain buffets as a way for restaurants to unload large quantities of low quality food, like lots of suburban Chinese buffets that you find. What is it about Indian food specifically that makes it so buffet friendly?

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  1. I think the answer lies in the ingredients. Most Indian staples are inexpensive. Pick apart any buffet item and you'll see what I mean. Chicken tikka? They're likely use the cheapest chicken around. Aloo gobi? Cauliflower and potatoes. Bid deal. Palak paneer? Spinach and cheese. Naan? Flour and water. All the ingredients in Indian cooking seem to go a really long way. This is what makes Indian buffets appealing for most people who want to *gorge* themselves. They can eat tons of food without having to pay much and at the same time the restaurant owners turn a profit. Indian buffets have food that's very forgiving -- it almost seems to taste *better* after having sat out for hours at a steam table. Hence, IMO Indian buffets are 'Buffet Friendly'.
    They're cheap, ahem "inexpensive", and the food is very forgiving (can sit for hours).

    17 Replies
    1. re: Cheese Boy

      I respect your opinion, but I can't think of anything that tastes better after sitting in a steam tray for hours.

      Chicken tikka should be made with boneless chicken breast which will dry out very quickly in a steam table, that's true with anything tandoori. Aloo Gobi is basically a stir fry and tastes considerably better fresh from the wok, as is the case with lots of Indian veg dishes. And nothing beats a fresh naan straight from the tandoor. There are some curry dishes that are slow cooked, as is dal and channa masala, but most dishes taste way better fresh.

      I understand the value of a buffet to the normal restaurant goer, but I'm surprised to see so many hounds lower their standards when it comes to Indian food.

      1. re: Fussy Foodie

        In general I agree with you. I would much rather order from the menu. Even if I order a thali, which in many places has the same things as the buffet, but at least I know the naan and fried items will be fresh, plus sometimes I can get fish, which seems to be rare in US Indian joints. I do like the all you can eat raita and pickle at many buffets though (I drink raita out of the bowl, especially if the place does not have a salt lassi).

        Also, who says chicken tikka should be made from breast meat. That seems like an Americanization of the dish. Most of what I have had overseas has been from just about whatever part can fit on a skewer.

        1. re: Hoosierland

          Speaking of chicken tikka - I had the misfortune to have a breast only tikka yesterday lunch time. Despite the high price tag it was possibly the most tastless and dry piece of meat I've had in many a long day.

          1. re: rob133

            I think that has more to do with a bad tandoori chef than anything else.

            1. re: rob133

              The really authentic stuff (chicken tikka or basically any other stewed meat curry) with be dark meat and almost definitely bone-in. It's just what's done, and though it requires more care when eating it also tastes better.

              1. re: Lemon Curry

                Tikka is boneless. That's what tikka is. True, it doesn't have to be breast, lots of places use boneless thigh meat as it's cheaper and harder to overcook. Traditionally, most curries are made with dark meat or the whole chicken cut up and the bone left in. But Tikka is boneless, otherwise it's not tikka.

            2. re: Hoosierland

              Most of the Chicken Tikka I've eaten in the Bay Area or in India is made from chicken breast. Places also make tandoori chicken with leg, thigh, wing etc. But when I see the word Tikka I usually think boneless breast pieces.

            3. re: Fussy Foodie

              I'm not a big buffet guy myself, but since most Indian places cut corners by preparing meats and sauces separately, some curries may indeed taste better when the meats have sat for a while in the sauce. Maybe...

              1. re: Fussy Foodie

                Almost NOTHING "Indian" should be made with white-meat chicken. If you've ever had the juicy perfection of a leg or a thigh done tandoori-style you'll never go back to white meat.

                Aloo gobi is a STEW, not a stir fry, and as a stew it tastes better when it's STEWED. No Indian place serves balti at a buffet table; they have various stews that do taste better when they've been out a long time.

                I LOVE Indian buffets. LOVE LOVE LOVE them

                1. re: John Manzo

                  If by "better" you mean that you can't actually taste the vegetables and that the vegetables are soft and mushy then you're right.

                  1. re: Fussy Foodie

                    Have you actually tried the Aloo Gobi at EVERY Indian buffet out there? If not, why do you think you're qualified to generalize about them?

                    If you don't like the types of food that are suitable to a buffet, then you should not eat at buffets. But you seem to be entrenched in your opinion that ALL buffet food is of inferior quality, and you respond sarcastically to those who disagree with you. This is not productive, informative, or amusing.

                    In answer to your original question, which was why people like Indian buffets, my answer is simple. I like them (or, rather, one in particular) because the food is good. The ingredients are of high quality and are carefully prepared. The vegetables are not cooked to mush, the meat is not stringy or fatty, and the sauces are tasty.

                    I can admit that not every Indian buffet serves great food. Can't you bring yourself admit that some of them might?

                    Fussy, indeed...

                    1. re: alanbarnes

                      Perhaps you should read the whole thread before posting something like this. If you read further down the thread you will see that I did indeed admit that my dislike of buffets is based on the fact that the dishes that I like to order don't hold up well in a steam table. I also accepted that if one focuses on long and slow cooked food, and if variety and price are a factor, then I start to understand why people are so fond of Indian buffets. I will also throw in that it sounds like SoCal, and possibly other areas, have buffets with some added features like fresh naan, tandoori chicken and fresh dosa's that could add to the appeal and value of a buffet.

                      However, being Indian, and being raised on Indian food, still causes me to correct someone who says that aloo gobi is supposed to be a "stewed dish". I'm not saying that all buffets serve a stewed version of Aloo Gobi. But the post I responded too specifically stated that "aloo gobi is a stew" and that is incorrect.

                      1. re: Fussy Foodie

                        If we want to be hypertechnical, John Manzo's claim that aloo gobi is a stew is incorrect. But it's closer to being accurate than your claim that the dish is a stir fry. If you stir-fry potatoes, you eat raw potatoes. To make aloo gobi, you brown the veggies, then simmer them for a while in liquid. Which makes them a fricassee, which in turn is perfect for a buffet where the food turns over quickly.

                        You damn with faint praise. Indian buffets are not only good for those who value "variety and price." They are also a favorite of those who have found buffets that serve outstanding food. (And of my 10-year-old daughter, who is simply impatient, but that's another post.)

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          "If you stir-fry potatoes, you eat raw potatoes"

                          Not if you boil the potatoes first.

                          1. re: Fussy Foodie

                            I'm not particularly fond of this post as it has taken a decidedly unfriendly turn, but I agree with Fussy in that aloo gobi is not a stew. It is actually a stir fry - not a quick one - but a stir fry nonetheless. If at a restaurant it was served in some kind of a liquidy sauce, that's not what is traditionally thought of as aloo gobi.

                            Edit: this thread.

                  2. re: John Manzo

                    I beg to differ. I'm Indian, Punjabi to be exact and Aloo Gobi is a punjabi dish. It's more of a stirfry. It's defnitely not a stew. A good aloo gobi is cooked with just enough water to steam the vegetables. It's not supposed to have a sauce or anything -- it's a dry dish.

                    1. re: boogiebaby

                      Is it punjabi? My bengali family makes it too...

              2. I think buffets often make more sense in an Indian restaurant than in a French restaurant because Indian restaurants are generally family style. If the restaurant doesn't offer a thali, a buffet is a great way to get your rice, chapati, dal, and several different curries without ordering food for 5 people and wasting 4 peoples worth.

                1. If you've ever cooked Indian food, you'd find that the value often comes in the ability to try lots of complex dishes that you don't have to make yourself. If I find a good restaurant, I love the buffet on occasion because I do get to try a lot of things rather than making them myself. When making a full blown Indian meal, which I do love to do, I must devote at least a day or more to preparing several dishes. I roast and grind all of my spice mixtures fresh for starters. And there is as much work involved in a dish for a few people as for twenty. The cost is never in the ingredients for me, but rather the time, which I find I have less of than I'd like. Of course, I'll only go to a restaurant that I like in the first place for a buffet.

                  1. I agree with most of what has been posted, the variety is big part of the appeal. Given that many of the dishes are stewed and mostly vegetarian there is is really no "main course" in the way that most Western eaters think of meals.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: renov8r

                      But isn't this the case with most asian cuisines; Thai, Chinese, Singaporean, Vietnamese, Burmese etc.

                      1. re: Fussy Foodie

                        You've forgotten the Korean BBQ buffet, which works out rather nicely. You get to grill your own selections, which are premarinated, and the panchan are on the buffet, along with lettuce leaf, rice, soups, etc. None suffer by sitting, especially the pumpkin soup when they have it. And my local Thai restaurant used to have a fantastic lunch buffet, unfortunately no more. There were often dishes that never appeared on the regular menu, seasonal or hard to source produce like the small round eggplants.

                    2. Don't all these things also apply to Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese etc.?

                      38 Replies
                      1. re: Fussy Foodie

                        You could certainly make a good buffet of Chinese (Thai, Vietnamese) food if you stuck to braised and simmered dishes. But most Chinese buffets just have nasty stir-fried or deep-fried dishes that lost their "wok hei" a long time ago. (Mmmm, sweet-n-sour pork with breading saturated by that red glue they put on it...)

                        Most Indian restaurant buffet dishes, on the other hand, are long-cooked. Rogan josh and chana dal simmer for hours; a little extra time on the steam table isn't going to hurt them. And breads and rice dishes, while certainly not benefitting from sitting around, tend to hold up pretty well for at least a couple of hours. Couple this with the ability to try half a dozen different dishes, and a buffet begins to make sense.

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          Exactly. A well-made curry or dal is going to suffer no ill effects from a steam table, and if you're going to a good Indian buffet (and there are both good and bad ones around, same as with any type of restaurant), there's going to be prompt turnover. And for a long-simmered dish like dal or the like -- well, even if you order it "fresh" off the menu, it's still been on the stove since about six that morning, so what's the difference?

                          My Indian buffets of choice are busy enough that most likely nothing has been on the table for longer than 20-30 minutes, tops. My favorite one also brings you your naan fresh from the tandoor, so that hasn't been sitting around at all. I wouldn't recommend the pakoras or samosas if you're looking for optimum freshness, of course, but a plate of channa dal, saag paneer and lamb rogan josh plus freshly made naan and a sweet lassi? That's a fine, quick, inexpensive lunch. In fact, I do believe I know what I'm doing for lunch tomorrow afternoon.

                          1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                            Dal and saag, sure they will probably not be effected by sitting in a steam table. But curries will. Even though they are slow cooked for a few hours, they are not stews that you keep over heat all day. They are cooked for an appropriate amount of time and then cooled down and reheated per order. If you leave them over heat to long the meat will lose its texture and fall apart.

                            1. re: Fussy Foodie

                              Yes, but...what I just said was that at a good Indian buffet, the reheated curry is only going to be on the steam table for about 20-30 minutes (not "all day") before it's depleted and replenished from the kitchen. I don't see what's so difficult about this.

                              1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                Replenished from a giant pot that is left over the heat for the entire lunch or dinner time. It's not a seperate batch being made every 30 minutes.

                                1. re: Fussy Foodie

                                  Um...right. Because that's how restaurants work. It's not a separate batch being made for every order at a NON-buffet restaurant, either. Do you really think they make a separate little dish of rogan josh from scratch every time someone orders one at a non-buffet restaurant? This conversation is veering into the absurd, at least partially because you don't seem to be actually reading my comments before you disagree with them. I respectfully bow out at this point.

                                  1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                    I'm reading what you're writing, I just disagree with you.

                                    With a buffet, Large pots are kept hot in the KITCHEN for the entire lunch buffet time which is anywhere from 2-4 hours, that's in addition to the original cooking time. Even though the steam tables themselves seem to be refilled with "fresh" food every 30 minutes or so, the product that it is being refilled with is kept over constant heat and thus getting overcooked. Even slow cooked Indian curries can be overcooked. With a "cooked to order" restaurant the dishes are reheated individually for a few minutes when ordered. This allows for the meat to keep it's shape and textutre. IMO that makes a huge difference.

                                    1. re: Fussy Foodie

                                      It is possible to reheat steam-table sized portions during a buffet when it appears that the supply in the dining room runs low. This also has the benefit of leaving all the burners unoccupied during the lunch period (I mean, if you have 10 items in the buffet and your kitchen has eight burners you're up a creek without a paddle?) and turning them on only when supply gets low... at least that's how it was done at the Indian restaurant I worked at... I believe they do this at Chinese buffets too when stirfried items are running low.

                                      1. re: Blueicus

                                        I can see this happening with some of the less popular dishes that only need to be refilled once during each shift. But did they do this even with the most popular dishes that needed a refill every 30 minutes or so?

                                      2. re: Fussy Foodie

                                        Based on your comments on this thread, I went to my favorite (Punjabi) restaurant for dinner and talked to the owners. They keep hotel pans full of pre-cooked food in the kitchen, and heat them up when it's time to put more food out on the buffet. Or if somebody orders a dish a la carte.

                                        Which makes sense. Why would they keep 50 gallons of curry simmering for hours? It's a waste of kitchen space, cooking fuel, and (here in Sacramento) air conditioning.

                                        You're right that curries and dals can be overcooked. So if a buffet restaurant serves you rogan josh where the meat has disintegrated, don't go back. But don't assume that all buffet restaurants ruin their food. They don't.

                                        Back to my first post, half an hour on the steam table will kill a stir-fry or a deep-fried item. Longer-cooked items like curries and dals (okay, I know, tender cuts of meat and small pulses like masoor dal cook quicker, but you get the point) can stand half an hour on the steam table without adverse effect. That's why (much) Indian food makes good buffet fare, while (most) Chinese food does not.

                                        What's so hard to understand about that?

                                        1. re: alanbarnes

                                          Good enough.

                                          I don't know why everyone has to be so defensive. There's nothing hard to understand about it. I personally have yet to find a buffet that makes food as tasty as my favorite cooked to order places so I was wondering why people like buffets so much. I think part of the problem for me lies in the fact that my favorite dishes are tandoori dishes, karahi dishes and naan. These dishes are more suitable for cooked to order restaurants. Dal, channa masala, some curries are okay for buffet.

                                          Thanks for your input.

                                          1. re: Fussy Foodie

                                            When you sit around waiting for naan for 20 minutes, and they bring everyone a combination of raw/burnt, that has nothing to do with whether it's a buffet or not. Just a bad restaurant. And as I mentioned, the good buffets bring your tandoori chicken portion and naan individually to your table as it is prepared. I think we just have better buffets in LA than you do in SF. Maybe it's the larger population.

                                            1. re: mlgb

                                              I don't limit myself to tandoori chicken, I prefer Boti Kabob, tandoori fish and sometime lamb chops. If I go with chicken, I prefer tikka made with boneless Chicken breast. I love good keema and aloo naan. And Karahi Gosht is my all-time favorite dish. If I found a buffet that served good versions of these dishes I might be game. But I think it would be hard for a restaurant to do it with normal buffet prices.

                                            2. re: Fussy Foodie

                                              I'm not defensive; you're just wrong. :)

                                              Seriously, unless you're looking for long-cooked dishes, buffets are a bad idea. I think we can agree that congealed samosas and stale tandoori dishes are as bad as day-old Moo Goo Gai Pan or warm sushi.

                                              But you started with the premise that buffets are a way for restaurants to "unload large quantities of low quality food." This probably isn't universally wrong, but it isn't universally right, either.

                                              Some cuisines are heavy on foods where the window of deliciousness is more than a few minutes long. Indian food is a prime--but not the only--example. (Ethiopian, anyone?) Sure, there are bad Indian buffets out there. But the whole point of chowhounding is to find the good stuff. And if you like it, it's out there.

                                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                                Good call- Ethiopian is another cuisine that lends itself to a buffet perfectly.

                                            3. re: alanbarnes

                                              alanbarnes: Wow, information direct from a source who knows! Thanks for confirming that.

                                          2. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                            Right. Sauces are premade, the meat then added, simmered until the meat is cooked through, and served.

                                            Edit: this is referring to a la carte dishes.

                                      1. re: sing me a bar

                                        Sing Me: Cafe of India, 52 Brattle St. in Harvard Square. I didn't bother to mention it by name because that's only useful info if you happen to be in the Boston metro area.

                                      2. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                        My favorite Indian place, Woodlands in Chatsworth, CA, not only has the buffet, but they also bring you your choice of fresh dosas as you eat, and when they bring hot fried foods or breads out, they walk around and offer them to you so you can get them fresh. The best of both worlds.

                                        1. re: Snackish

                                          There is also a Woodlands in Artesia, I believe they're the same people. Same set up also. Some interesting S. Indian offerings in the buffet that I would never have sampled otherwise. Not your typical chicken tikka and lamb vindaloo place.

                                          1. re: mlgb

                                            Understand that "Woodlands" has become a generic name used to signify Southern Indian cuisine.

                                            Btw, make sure to ask for your gunpowder and melted ghee separate, so you can dip your idli in the ghee and then in the gunpowder....

                                            1. re: Karl S

                                              Huh, kind of like Udupi Palace? But those two particular ones (Artesia and Chatsworth) are owned by the same family. I checked. Artesia was of course the original one.

                                              1. re: mlgb

                                                No, there's a fabled chain in the UK that has influenced naming of these places all over. For example, in the Boston area, the best southern Indian restaurant is Chennai Woodlands in Ashland, MA, about 20 miles west of Boston in an area with a lot of Indian ex-pats. You'll see "Woodlands" in similar places all over, or least there seems to be a trend along those lines.

                                                1. re: Karl S

                                                  Sorry, I didn't mean Artesia was the original of all of them, just the two in LA.

                                    2. re: Fussy Foodie

                                      There are Chinese buffets, ranging from the mundane ones at the front of a Safeway grocery, to the more exotic next to the roast ducks and pork bung in the 99 Ranch grocery.

                                      paulj

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        Yes they do exist, but you rarely, if ever, hear hounds raving about Chinese buffets. They do, however, rave about Indian buffets.

                                        1. re: Fussy Foodie

                                          Perhaps you've just answered your own question: hounds may actually know what they're talking about re Indian buffets. I've only had one Chinese buffet in my life that I'd return to, and I actually did. Every other time has been dreck and I avoid them as a result. But if someone told me they knew of a good one I'd try it, simply because I enjoy the variety. On the other hand I've found that a good Indian restaurant can offer a very good buffet that is an excellent value, especially for those of us who seek a variety of complex quality dishes as opposed to mere quantity. As another poster correctly pointed out, a good restaurant with a healthy lunch business will have rapid turnover of its best buffet items and a constant supply of fresh nan, chapatis and papadum. If you don't care for this its fine, but I'm not sure what is so hard to grasp about someone else enjoying a good Indian buffet on occasion. Perhaps you've just never been to one.

                                          1. re: Ellen

                                            I've been to most of the popular Indian buffets that are talked about on the SF Bay Area board, and you are right, I don't care for them.

                                            I'm Indian and I grew up eating this food. My family and their group of friends have always been shocked by the success of so many Indian buffets here in the Bay Area. That's why I started this post.

                                            Though I may seem argumentative, I do in fact respect everyones opinion on this board. If I didn't, I wouldn't waste so much time here :-)

                                            1. re: Fussy Foodie

                                              Then you would know that a standard meat curry does not take hours to cook. It takes between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on the meat and not including prep time. Dal doesn't take hours either - it takes about 25-40 minutes - and the majority of the extra time needed is for soaking.

                                              1. re: adrienne156

                                                You're right, meat doesn't require more than an hour, over an hour will probably make it too soft and cause it to fall apart.

                                                Dal doesn't take that long to "cook". But good dal should be simmered for hours or even overnight.

                                                1. re: Fussy Foodie

                                                  I'm sorry, I disagree about the dal. ..But then of course, I'm referring to your standard masoor dal which my family and I do prefer thick. Two hours absolute tops for us. I mean - hey, we're talking about something that is a standard side dish we have almost every night. Who has hours or overnight to cook a pot of dal??

                                                  However, I do soak the dal overnight, which may cut down on the long cooking time you're referring to?

                                                2. re: adrienne156

                                                  The beef usually used is one that is used for stewing and dishes like beef curries normally (such as for beef bourguignon), which I've found is best after 120 minutes or so. Also goat is not a 60 minute cooking item.

                                                  1. re: Blueicus

                                                    fyi - I'm also desi and I know my meat for curries. :) Stewing beef is cheaper, but too tough for my taste. I was taught to cube steaks (I can't think of which cut off the top of my head) that have a bit more fat which end up taking less time, gets a richer flavor, and yields softer meat.

                                                    You got me on the mutton and goat, but I was mainly referring to chicken and beef.

                                                    1. re: Blueicus

                                                      I could never imagine ordering a beef curry as in the UK very few places serve beef. Having had beef a few times in a curry I can only ever recommend Lamb, Lamb and Lamb

                                                      1. re: rob133

                                                        Weird.. A large portion of the "indian" restaurants are bangladeshi, run specifically by those from Sylhet, and are muslim.

                                                  2. re: Fussy Foodie

                                                    Well, if I had an Indian mom and grandmom and aunties I'd be much much pickier too and I totally envy you. But most of us in the States have to make do with what we can find re good Indian restaurants. I started cooking Indian dishes (thanks to Madhu Jaffrey) because for the most part I have not been impressed with most Indian restaurants and found that I can do a much much better job at home than most, but not all, of them. But it takes TIME to do right, which I don't always have. Thus, I'm thankful for the occasional quality buffet -- maybe once a year. I'm East Coast, not Left, so can't comment on anything in LA. And as someone pointed out, the rogan josh is sitting in a large pot in the kitchen whether served at the buffet or ordered a la carte, so in those instances ordering a la carte isn't gaining you anything over the buffet.

                                            2. re: Fussy Foodie

                                              It depends on what kind of meal you're having. Formal Chinese banquets with anywhere from 8-12 courses (have had as many as 30) tend to have a fairly specific progression of dishes. Shanghainese cuisine does tend to have a lot of small plates (xiao3 cai4) that should be eaten before the big dishes.