Tamarind: Savoring India

By | January 23, 2007

Tamarind: Savoring India
2101 Greentree Rd
Greentree (South Hills), 15220
Tues-Thurs & Sun: 11:30-2:30, 5-9:30; Fri-Sat: 12-3, 5-9:40

In Week 5 of the mad dash to find the best Indian restaurant in town, we decided to treat ourselves to something that would hopefully be a bazillion times better than the disappointing junk we had last week at Prince of India. I’ve heard from several people that Tamarind: Savoring India (the location in Greentree) was pretty much boss, plus at least one person from India that I talked to said that he thought that he heard it was alright, but he had never actually been there. So, we decided to give it a try. Results: good, but by far not the best. They do have a lot of Southern Indian dishes, which they prepare exceedingly better than the Northern recipes, and they use REAL spices (bonus!), but the overall experience left a little to be desired. Also in this issue: a special Finnish guest lends our rating panel an international edge, AND we solve the mystery of the Jal Jeera…Sweet!

I have been trying for a while now to get a person who is actually from India to accompany us on this eating spree, but they all refuse. They say that none of it is any good, compared to what they make at home, and I believe them. They scoff at the idea of eating at any of the Oakland restaurants, and the only name that I have heard consistently come up as worth a damn is Udipi (which is freakin’ delicious, as our panel will find out in a few weeks). I also want to note, though, that most of the Indian people I have talked to really haven’t eaten at a lot of the restaurants and just get their information word-of-mouth. Not that they are wrong though – they are so very right, as evidenced by our ratings thus far!

So I can’t get someone from India to come…but this week we at least had an internationally-fed individual join us on our adventure. Lauri P. is a dude from Helsinki, where apparently they have 10 or so Indian restaurants from which to choose. He is also well traveled, which presumably means that he has been eating Indian the world-over! Actually, I don’t know if that is true, but regardless he has eaten most of the dishes we have on our list, and thus brings a whole other set of expectations to the scene. For example, while we are comparing each restaurant’s Samosa to our conception of a pyramidal vessel for potatoes and peas, Lauri is used to a flat, triangularly shaped package of the same. You may think this doesn’t matter, but at Tamarind some of us were disappointed by the ‘irregular’ shape and may have marked it more poorly as a result. Lauri, on the other hand, was evaluating it solely on its flavor and texture. In either case, we found a few peanuts, which neither culture is used to in their Samosas (though oddly enough this is the second time we have found a peanut in a samosa, the other time being at Bombay Grill).

It wasn’t just Samosas where the cultural difference came into play. Lauri described the Nan as, “just quite different from what I am used to”. Well, it was kinda crappy Nan to begin with, leathery and without flavor, so I think it was just quite different from what any of us were used to. Bread should never be described as ‘tough’, and needless to say we had a lot of leftover Nan. I will mention, though, that when I popped it in the toaster oven as a leftover it was much improved.

Tamarind describes itself as a Southern Indian restaurant, and so a large portion of their menu is devoted to varieties of dosai, uthappam, and other treats such as the vada lentil doughnuts. These dishes were generally better than the Northern stuff, but still not perfect. The Dosai crepe was much crispier than at Taj Mahal, and seemed to be about right, but the potato filling was not all that cohesive in flavor, plus the potatoes were a little undercooked. The accompanying Rasam (like a vegetable soup) was better than everyone expected, but the coconut chutney was not so good. It wasn’t exactly bad, but it missed the mark.

The Uthappam, on the other hand, was well liked by all. It was very pancake-y, like an American pancake, with a little bit of a crispy top, and some chilis and whatnot thrown into the batter. I am not sure that Uthappam is supposed to be so fluffy, but it was tasty anyway. We also ordered Dhai Vada (lentil doughnuts in yogurt) because it is my favorite thing at Udipi and I wanted to see how it measured up. Most people at the table hadn’t ever had it before, and it got mixed reviews. Sarah S. appreciated the nuttiness of the doughnut, while Sam S. said, “not for me”. Personally, I thought it was not as good as Udipi’s version, which has a slightly better doughnut and a tangier yogurt. I will be keen to see Sarah’s reaction when she has Dhai Vada from Udipi.

All the other dishes on the rating list were so-so or bad. The Tandoori Chicken, for example, was so uninteresting that I am bored right now as I write this sentence about it. Plus there was no mango chutney on the menu to help choke it down! Perhaps the best-liked dish was the Saag Paneer, which was reminiscent of creamed spinach. Unfortunately, it did not have enough cheese chunks to go around. Serving sizes were not quite as bad here as they were at Prince of India, but they were served in these miniscule little dishes, making it seem like we were hardly getting anything at all.

Also ranked fairly high was the Channa Masala, but I want to specify that the ratings were all over the map. Some people really liked it, while others found no other flavor but chickpea. Daal ratings were also all over the place. Some liked the texture and others found it lacking character. Of the color, Sam S. said, “yellow means slow down”, which just makes me laugh every time I read it. In general, the flavor had some real spices and there were chunks of veggies in it, but the texture was mushy. Whatever lentils went into the daal were clearly obliterated by the cooking process.

I want to say a little bit about the pappadams as well. I don’t believe that I have addressed the pappadam predicament yet, but that is just because we really hadn’t found any that were worthwhile. The pappadams at Tamarind: Savoring India had a nice, crispy texture, and had some real spicy bite to them without being too bitter. Oftentimes they can taste sour or stale, but these were genuinely nice. There were maybe too spicy for some, but they were at least a much better stab at the pappadam than any of the places we have been to before this (caveat: three restaurants ranked higher on pappadams, but that may be a result of these being too spicy to handle and our not really knowing what we were looking for in a pappadam until now).

And finally, as promised: the story of the jal jeera! If you have been following the Indian Food-A-Thon, then you may remember that we had a truly awful drink at Taj Mahal in the North Hills. It reminded us of sewage, or the smell of a stagnant bog. Jal Jeera (jeera=cumin) turns out to be a spice mix that is often stirred into lemonade and is considered refreshing. At Taj Mahal it was mixed into tamarind juice, and it left such an impression that weeks later when Thiago H. ate a tamarind digestive pill he had a flashback! He is ruined forever!

Well, this week at Tamarind Laura H. needed some cash, and upon asking the waitstaff where to go, she discovered that the India Mart right next door had an ATM (good to know)! She went, and while there she asked to see some Jal Jeera mix. The woman first brought her to a box of mix with a delightful looking orange drink on the front. Laura thought to herself, ‘the drink we had at the Taj Mahal did not look quite so delightful’, and asked for something more green. The woman who was helping her knew what she meant and brought her to a box of green jal jeera as well. She bought them both, so now we can do a taste test, as well as foist it upon all newcomers! Heh heh heh…

That’s not all! The orange-drink box was all in a Sanskrit-like language that none of us could read, but the green stuff had a little English translation! AND, the last ingredient on the list was asafoetida! Upon a little investigation, Reed found that asafoetida is dried resin extracted from the stems and roots of a plant in the Ferula family. Web sources claim that it aids in digestion, but at the same time they state that the odor is so pungent that it will contaminate other nearby food items unless carefully stored in airtight containers. Not only that, it is nauseating in large quantities! Perhaps these were the quantities in which we were drinking it.

Reed found that asafoetida has a name in very many different languages, one of which happens to be Finnish. Since we had a Finnish Friend, we laid it on him: Pirunpaska. He just laughed, but we got it out of him later that it translates to “Devil’s Shit”. No doubt! It turns out that back in the day, it was known in some English dialects, as well as about a dozen other languages, as Devil’s Dung! Well, shiiiiiiiit…. And remember that we commented about jal jeera tasting like rotten eggs? Well, we found out that ‘-foetida’ is a Latin word referring to sulfurous odors! ‘Asa-’ is apparently the Persian word for resin, but I will maintain that it simply refers to the assiness of the whole ingredient. Also worth noting is that a relative of the asofoetida plant was historically used in both Central Asia and Colonial America as a way to induce abortions in the first trimester. YUM!

Another historical fact about asafoetida is that in India it was meant to be eaten by the trader caste, which was not allowed to eat onions. Apparently, after some cooking the flavor changes from ‘devil’s dung’ to ‘delicious onion’. Sounds a little bit like substituting carob for chocolate to me, but actually I wouldn’t mind trying it just to see how it goes. In any case, we have two giant boxes of this stuff now, so I hope to be continuously trying it just to see if I will develop a taste for it.

And now that I have wandered far away from the review of Tamarind itself, I would like to conclude by saying that Tamarind it not that bad. Sarah S. says that the lunch buffet is better than the dinner, but also I think that the dinner is A-OK. Certainly, it is better than Prince or Star. I am not sure it is worth traveling a long way to, except maybe for the Southern Indian, but even then I think that Udipi’s is better (though I guess that our ratings panel will be the judge of that). In any case, I am pretty sure that I would I go here again. There may not have been any standout dishes on this trip, but because they use real spices (we found many, if not too many, cardamom pods in the biryani for instance) I am fairly confident that there exists a totally awesome dish or two here. It is definitely worth some further exploration.

Gobi Manchurian (see Sneaky Tip!)
Veggie Biryani

Tandoori Chicken

The waiter recommended that we get an appetizer called Gobi Manchurian, and on Reed’s whim we decided to get it. It turned out to be an excellent choice. It was totally original, and totally different from anything Indian. Cauliflower, or Gobi, was battered, deep-fried, and tossed in a Chinese Manchurian Sauce. This resulted in a General Tso’s like appetizer that was loved by almost everyone, and described by Laura H. as “pretty much fuckin’ great”. Even Lauri, who was perhaps the most discerning rater on this trip, called it “great”. So, if you go, try this little tasty appetizer and see how ya like it. For ratings of the other dishes, see below:
Week 5 - All - Indian Food-A-Thon

Week 5 - All

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