What Defines a good Indian Buffet for a Chowhound?
The typical sprawl is
- saag paneer
- curry chicken
- tandoori chicken
- butter chicken
- tikka masala
- a dish made with chick peas
- either really good naan that's in short supply, or plenty of bad naan.
- doughnuts and/or rose water desserts
thanks in advance,
The buffet of my dreams (which I once encountered in real life at a New Years celebration in Goa and was so mad I couldn't take full advantage of since I was in a tight dress -- boo!) would include a chaat bar, a dosa station (where someone makes you fresh dosa to order) complete with great sambar, freshly fried vada, bhindi masala, avial, baighan bartha, tambuli, aloo gobi with tomato, lots of fresh fruit and a sample of offerings from just about every region in India.
Don't usually want Indian desserts after stuffing my face shamelessly at a buffet. But the restaurant gets major brownie points if they have a full bar with a good selection of digestifs. If I do somehow have room for sweets, I'm a fan of carrot halva or kaju katli / kalash / rolls.
The buffet of my dreams:
Chutneys, including mango
Rice cooked with powdered spices rather than whole- I like the taste of cloves/cardamom, but can't stand biting into one
CTM -thigh meat only
2nd chicken with sauce dish
Lamb (or goat) meatballs in a mild Khorma sauce
Lamb (or goat) meatballs in a rogan josh sauce
Chicken Wings- deep fried
Dry (deep fried) Okra
Aloo Gobi (heavy on the Gobi and well cooked)
A thick non watery red lentil based daal- yes, I know soupy dal is the tradition, but I like the heartier nature of thick dal
Saag- using fresh greens and coconut milk (as a change in pace from the base sauce+cream taste of everything else)
Paneer Tikka Masala- no squeeky paneer and no peas
Naan served fresh from the tandoor using a very light puffy recipe and blistering heat for good oven spring
Mung halwa- no dried fruit
Kulfi on ice
No tandoori chicken- it's almost impossible to keep warm and is far tastier with a sauce- better to allocate the buffet space towards something else.
No horribly pale lettuce
No paneer yogurt based salad or paneer based desserts- unless I'm in India and the paneer is made by someone who knows what their doing.
So far, I've tried to keep it relatively feasible. These are all dishes I've seen locally at one time or another, but never at the same place. If I were to go further into fantasy, I would love a heavily spiced beef keema (or other beef dish) as well as a seafood option. I've never seen a mulligatawny soup at a buffet, but that would be nice as well. Divided plates would same me the time of separating everything with rice (I like tasting everything separately).
Oh, and a keg of real ale (a guy can dream can't he?)
I have to agree with most of scott123's suggestions. At least those I have heard of. ;) My local Indian place has lots coconut chutney, but no coconut in the curries. I like coconut curry, but I mostly cook Thai curries. Is coconut standard in Indian fare?
How tender is goat supposed to be in goat curry, etc? At my local place, I like the taste of the goat, but it is pretty tough. The chicken and lamb are fork tender, but the goat (some sort of rib cut, I think, as it is simmered in the curry on the bone) is a workout for my jaw muscles.It is simmered for hours and hours before I taste it, but it is still somewhat tough.
And I second the view that I never see muligatawn soup on buffets. It is one of my favorites and would be a nice addition. Along with some spicy stuff.
Goat should be very tender. Slow simmering should do the trick. So does pressure cooking, which is common in Indian cooking. You must have some tough goat where you live.
As far as coconut use in curry, it is not used at all in North Indian cooking, especially the types of foods one finds in buffet restos. In South-Central and Southern Indian cuisines you will find use of grated coconut, coconut milk, and especially in the deep South coconut oil as a frying medium in curry dishes.
I've never found coconut milk in typical buffet dish in my local area (NYC/NJ), but on trips to London, I've found it in a few different restaurant saags and thought it to be a nice change of place. Where the northeast US seems to be more creamcentric, London seems much more open to coconut milk in their curries. Considering the Punjab is so renowned for both their greens and their dairy, putting coconut milk in saag is a bit of sacrilege, but, like I said before, because of the sauce base that's in just about everything, anything you can do to mix it up is a good idea.
And, as far as tender goat/lamb is concerned, much like good tandoori chicken, it's too difficult of a task/too much to ask of a typical minimum wage earning buffet chef. Let the Michelin starred joints and conscientious home chefs seek tender goat and lamb nirvana. Grinding it into meatballs is a tremendous amount of labor, but cooking them then becomes idiot proof.
"And, as far as tender goat/lamb is concerned, much like good tandoori chicken, it's too difficult of a task/too much to ask of a typical minimum wage earning buffet chef." The last buffet-lunch place we went to (Ashoka the Great, in Artesia, CA) had a goat stew that was meltingly tender and very flavorful. I think it simply requires cooking by someone quite familiar with the dish, a familiarity gained (for instance) by cooking it every day!
I understand those who don't like buffet restaurants, but when done right, they can be great. After all, it's a way for people to get to sample many different things to find out what they like and what they don't like. Ordering off the menu is an expensive experiment unless you already know you like certain dishes. Once they put that thing you order before you, you're committed to it.
To answer your questions, a good Indian buffet needs to have really great tandoori chicken and naan. That's my opinion anyway. Not that those are the only things I like. It's just that restaurants that care enough to perfect these two things usually care enough to make everything else right too. But that's my experience.
Oh, and if they have the Bhel Puri spread (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhelpuri) for you to mix yourself to suit your own taste, I call that an excellent Indian buffet.
I very much agree with your opening thesis, and will add that it's the only way a lot of people will ever get introduced to the cuisine. When I was working in a website shop in Nashville, we had a farewell lunch for an Indian woman who was leaving us, so we went to the one nearest Indian restaurant that had a lunch buffet. I think maybe four or five of us at the most had ever eaten Indian food before. This one older guy was looking a bit baffled at his plate, and as the honoree walked by he asked her, "How am I supposed to eat this?" She gave him a pitying look and said, "Bob, I'm not going to tell you how to eat your food!"
Unlike our friend UG, I do like Indian meats, and want at least some tandoori chicken in the spread. A good goat dish will cement the place in my affections...
Your description doesn't describe many of the Indian buffets here in Southern California.
I personally want a breadth of vegetables (I don't care for meat in Indian cuisine, never have). Around here a typical buffet will have dal, chana masala, palak or saag paneer, aloo gobi, chicken tikka masala (ugh!), plain tandoori chicken. For appetisers they normally put out samosas and pakoras, and for desserts normally gulab jamun and kheer.
My favourite makes a special vegetable dish for each day, like stuffed karela, malai kofta (or malai korma), peas cooked with coconut, bengan bhartha, kotthu roti or stuffed peppers. They always have one special rice (lemon rice or maybe biryani) too, and occasionally carrot halwa.
Gernally, I don't usually rate buffet meals too highly. But I think sub-continent ones can be divided into two.
First there is the exclusively buffet all-you-can-eat sort of place. These are almost universally vile, catering to the lowest common denominator. I know of only one place in our metropolitian area that is worthy of me spending money. And, as they are catering to a limited budget, dishes are either vegetarian or chicken. The key to the success of this place (and it is very successful) is freshness. The chefs work on view immediately behind the serving area and are constantly replenishing the dishes.
The second type of buffet is the Sunday lunchtime/afternoon buffet that quite a number of restaurants offer. Again, catering to a budget means lots of chicken and vegetarian but a good sign for me is a dish (or dishes) of something other than this (and I'm not really fussed what it is). Have to say I rarely eat these buffets as a large lunch on Sunday isnt our thing.
Inevitably in our part of the world, food is generically Punjabi/North Indian (although the vast majority of places are owned by people of Bangladeshi heritage)
That typical sprawl sounds like a whole lotta chicken. Luckily, I have a few decent standby Indian Buffet joints near me. They usually only offer the buffet for lunch. I would consider more varied meat options "good:"
Chicken Makhani (butter chicken)
A non dairy chicken dish (chili chicken, or chicken kerahi, perhaps)
A lamb dish (rogan josh, vindaloo, kerahi)
A beef nihari
A dal dish
rotating fried things / tandoor offerings
Hot buttered naan
I would much more enjoy the buffets that would actually use a decent amt of chile heat in the dishes they label as "hot." I understand that they have to dumb the food down for many ppl, but it would be nice to actually get that bite of heat from dishes that are typically served kind of spicy, and that the restaurant labels as (hot/spicey) on their buffet. Also, as long as the dishes are prepared with pride, and not just slopped out. I'd rather have
fewer dishes of decently prepared stuff than a sprawling buffet full of garbage.
It seems to be a standard thing around these parts (Marin County) for lunch to be an AYCE buffet for $8 - $9. At those prices you don't get high end stuff -- you see lots of rice and gloopy curried whatever and several chicken options, but you're lucky to see any lamb, and never any shrimp.
My favorite things from these lunch buffets are saag in any form - if they have it - and battered deep fried vegetable tidbits of one sort or another (cauliflower is especially good.) One local buffet has a soft-serve mango ice cream which I like a lot.
Also, I like to see them come around with nice fresh hot bread for our scooping pleasure.
To me it is not only the region of the spread (as mentioned above, the dishes in the prompt are N. Indian/Mughlai, Punjabi), but the quality of the food. Everything should be well seasoned and well made. No lumpy gloopy glop. Far too many Indian buffets just taste like flavorless mush to me. The seekh kababs are hard and have food coloring, the dishes are all too creamy and under seasoned. Yuck. A good buffet has well cooked food, period.
I don't generally like buffets of any kind, but I think many Indian dishes are very suitable for buffet style serving because they can sit around for a long time and the taste develops more. It doesn't have to be piping hot fresh for many Indian items. So one can often find good Indian buffet items as opposed to buffets of other cuisines.
The best buffets I have been to have all of the dishes that can sit around on the buffet table sitting, but the best-fresh items served fresh. The naan, roti, or in some cases baati (for Rajasthani buffet/thali) or some Gujarati breads, or dosa (a S. Indian buffet) or whatever bread is served fresh to the table. This makes a huge difference then picking up old stiff naans at the buffet table. Also, some places do a buffet/thaali combo where you pick up some foods, but they serve some things to you.
Also, the fried items like fried fish or samosa or pakora are done in small quantities and frequently replaced so you never get an old one. Same with fresh barbacued/tandoori meats.
I love a buffet place that does a varied menu, even if it is varied by day of the week only. So you get to try different things everytime you come. Also, for N.Indian, Punjabi,-Pakistani, I love it when they have a chaat and salads table, too.
If it is a regional buffet, I love it when they have extra special touches like a special drink included. Some Gujarati and Rajasthani buffets have special chutneys and also buttermilk or smoked buttermilk. Another place I go has excellent naans served fresh to you while you eat, both roghni and qandahaari, none of that stiff cracker white flour stuff. It really makes you feel like you are having something different and interesting, and you go backto the resto again for those signature things.
I think strategic placing of the food is important. There is this well known buffet place near to me which serves pretty good food and good naans, but they keep the naan basket next to the fish fry. The naans taste like fish. I have mentioned this to them, but they never change it.
I never like buffet gulab jamun. It is always milk powder or boxed mix stuff. You have to get real good gulab jaman at a sweet shop, really. Sometimes they have okay jalebis. But I prefer when they don't do those milk powder jaman and instead do home cooked type sweets like kheer or shaahi tukray. That kind of stuff always comes out better in the buffet context. The N. Indian-Pak buffet industry should leave the gulab jamans to the halwais.
In addition to your list, for a great Indian buffet, I'd add
- more than a half dozen chutneys (including a couple that are very hot)
- lamb curry, korma, or vindalu, etc
- goat curry
- hot fresh naan replenished every 10 minutes or less, or, preferably, not even on the buffet, but brought to your table as it comes out of the tandoor
Are you referring to content or execution?
A great buffet should have all dishes well prepared and presented. No poor cooking or substandard spicing. Hot and fresh naan or other breads.
About content: the two posters above seem to only like North Indian / Punjabi style buffets. Those are excellent too, but I like variety, and would seek out different restaurants with other regional foci (e.g. South Indian buffet, Gujarati, etc).
A resto in our area has a great South Indian buffet: dosais brought out fresh for the diners, and on the hot table:
chutneys, sambar, aviyal, poriyal, koormas, other dishes sometimes, eg special occasion dishes.
I prefer restaurants that specialize (i.e. don't combine different regions of food and do them poorly) and do one thing well.