Garam Masala, the characteristic blend of ground spices used in Indian cooking, means "Hot Spice." "That's why we named the restaurant Masala ' spice," says owner Shashi Gupta. "Garam means hot, but not pepper hot, just a tingle of heat. It brings you warmth inside."
Shashi and her husband, Dr. Surinder Gupta, are natives of Punjab, a province of northern India. Surinder, whose family immigrated to Louisiana when he was 16, attended LSU and married Shashi in 1970. The couple lived in Baton Rouge and New Orleans before they arrived in Lafayette in 1981. Surinder is an anesthesiologist at Women's and Children's Hospital. Shashi is the cook and restaurateur in the family.
Her first restaurant, which she co-owns with her sister Neelam Gupta, is Picante, the Mexican restaurant on Lafayette's north side. "I always wanted to open an Indian restaurant," Shashi says, but there were no Indian chefs in town when Picante opened in 1995. "Shashi kept trying to teach her Mexican chefs how to cook Indian," Surinder says with a laugh.
The Guptas believe Lafayette's Indian community tops out at about 1,000 residents, and it took years to find chefs who wanted to come to south Louisiana. Shashi recruited Ahmed Akhlaque, Masala's head chef, from just outside of Washington, D.C. Once Akhlaque committed, she found other cooks in Chicago, Houston and Baton Rouge. Like western kitchens, where cooks work the grill or sautÃ© stations, Masala's cooks are all specialists ' some in tandoori, some in curry and gravy preparation, and others in appetizers or desserts.
A traditional Punjabi meal begins with bread. Masala bakes its own naan, a leavened wheat dough, in the tandoori ovens. It's a very old technique for flat breads ' the dough is flattened into a disk and then quickly stuck onto the interior wall of the 500-degree beehive-shaped clay oven. There it puffs up as one side browns against the hot clay. In two minutes it's done, retrieved on a wire hook, and brought steaming with fresh yeasty flavor to the table. Plain naan is delicious by itself and can also be stuffed with onions, garlic, paneer (cheese) or lamb.
Some of the more traditional appetizers are samosas, a heavy pastry filled with lamb, potatoes or paneer. Better yet are the pakoras, a fritter; try the vegetable one. But my favorite starters are on the lunch menu. Dubbed "street foods," they're meant to be finger food, eaten much the way they are on the streets of Delhi. Pick from three choices: Chaat Bombay (potato-onion patties); Papdi Chaat (wheat wafers topped with potatoes, onions and chickpeas) or Pani Puri (light and crisp puffed flour shells). Each appetizer is topped with either tamarind or yogurt sauce.
Tandoori grill dishes play variations on the kebab theme. The meats ' chicken or lamb, or shrimp ' marinate overnight in spices or yogurt and are then skewered and lowered into the blazing tandoori ovens. They're served with fragrant Indian basmati rice, a cool cucumber salsa and hot chutney. Most of the tandoori dishes are succulent, but avoid the tandoori salmon. The oily fish is too rich for the yogurt marinade and nearly inedible.
A word about the degree of heat in the dishes. Your waiter will ask if you want your entrÃ©e cooked mild, medium or hot. Mild has a delicate spiciness to it, and medium will probably suit most palates, although locals with their propensity for cayenne pepper can probably handle the hot.
There is another degree of fire offered: Indian hot. It will make you sweat. It will make you cry. It may ruin your weekend. Think carefully about challenging the cooks from the steamy sub-continent before you tell them to bring it on.
The restaurant is able to adjust the level of heat because most dishes are cooked to order. Different spices blend together to season the sauces and gravies ' once during the cooking, and another pinch at the very end to add fragrance. If in doubt, order it mild; you can always send it back for more fire.
"Indian cooking is very regional," Surinder explains. "Northern India was invaded by the Moguls who occupied the land for 300 years. Punjabi cooking was flavored by their traditions ' lots of meat cooked in robust gravies." Look for the kitchen specials with rich meat and sauce combinations. Vindaloo is a an utterly delicious fiery gravy, made with lamb. Another favorite is the Saag, creamy spinach sauce over chicken or lamb, as well as the curry, which should not be ordered hot to fully appreciate its complex fragrance and beautiful color.
Fifty percent of Indians are vegetarians, and Masala's menu reflects the Guptas' desire to give those who eschew meat a dozen intriguing choices. The daal (lentil) dishes are buttery rich, spiked with garlic, ginger and tomatoes. Spinach, cauliflower, eggplant, chickpeas, okra and the restaurant's homemade paneer all star in different spicy combinations that are served with basmati rice.
Do save room for dessert. Shashi says that Punjabi meals end with rice. Keer, an Indian rice pudding flavored with almonds and pistachios, is a gentle ending to the meal. The homemade ice cream, kulfi, is terrific as well, though Shashi says her mother would be horrified to see people eating ice cream in winter, as it's only eaten in Punjab in the summer to cool the body. The golden mango ice cream glistens under a bright pink sherbert sauce called rooh afza, sprinkled with Indian basil seeds. It's a spectacular dish. For those who want a more traditional dessert, chocolate mango mousse, a cashew pie, and sugarless cheesecake are also on the sweets tray.
The restaurant has an abbreviated wine list, some exotic cocktails like a Masala Mangotini and Indian beers Kingfisher, and Taj Mahal, which get my vote as best beverages to go with the spicy food. Non-alcholic drinks like Lassi, a yogurt shake, can be ordered sweet or salty ' a bit odd at first, but it grows on you. There are also fruit juices and chai, Indian spiced tea.
The service is knowledgeable and friendly, the atmosphere warmly informal, and the food moderately priced. There's even a small bar with a big screen TV tuned to an Indian sports channel. Cricket, anyone?
Masala, An Indian Kitchen
2208 Kaliste Saloom, 981-6373
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.