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Nawab of India: Curry With My Grandfather

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My grandfather grew okra for me. He tended the bushes carefully, harvesting and freezing it so he’d have some when I came to Texas to visit. I’d walk out to the back porch, move the cases of Coke bottles off the deep freeze onto the painted cement floor. Lifting open the freezer, I’d marvel at the bags of frozen okra closed with a twist tie. I’d realize I didn’t go home enough.

I live in Santa Monica now and still miss my grandfather; but I can always eat okra at my favorite Indian restaurant, Nawab of India.

Sit down at certain Texas joints and a waitress slings a basket of hush puppies on your table as she heads to pick up the fried catfish for table 14. I’ve expanded my horizon. Now I crave the lighter, brighter Indian version of the southern fried cornmeal snack: Onion Bhaji, exotic mounds stuffed with onion, cumin, turmeric and coriander.

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Lightly firm onions threaded though batter. The flavor and texture of bhaji are as crisp and impressive as the bow tie my grandfather taught me to tie. I could eat a dozen bhaji, but I leave space for the other exciting dishes they introduce.

My grandfather was a carpenter. He had huge biceps that me and my three brothers would hang from when we were kids, while he spun around and flew our scrawny bodies out like a human carnival ride. The food at Nawab is also built. Layers of flavor and spices in techniques are on display that I long to accomplish.

Began Bharta is such a dish. Eggplant is roasted in the tandoor oven, then sautéed with spices,onions and tomatoes.

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The handled, brass serving bowls offer the food with gentility and flair. Layers of flavor are stirred though, and as I dig the spoon in, a warm curry aroma rises. This dish reminds me that Indian cuisine is a terrific option when your dinner party includes vegetarians. Where’s the beef? Not here.

The golden walls of the dining room foreshadow the coming saffron, turmeric and graham masala. The owner and the chef at Nawab tell stories with their food.

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Nawab India has a sister location in West Los Angeles. Their Bombay Cafe offers fascinating contemporary street food.  Here are a couple of their plates.

Eggplant Deva: This dish starts with sautéed Japanese eggplant layered with fennel and tomato conserve. The plate hits the stage fully dressed with a luscious coat of garlic-ginger infused yogurt. These ingredients have longevity qualities that perfectly fit my plan to live forever.
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New menu items are a cool, creamy yogurt against warm, seasoned eggplant, refreshing and satisfying with outstanding .  flavors.

Spotlight on Pani Puri: puffed, crisp shells filled with mung beans. Spoon cumin and mint infused water inside and then pop the entire thing in your mouth. My Indian waitress led me on the journey, excited to show me her native food. I appreciate the subtly and the sweetness of this unusual appetizer dish.

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I wish I could take this culinary tour with my grandfather while he charmed me with the poems of his childhood. He had me captivated at the dinner table with,

“I eat my peas with honey; I’ve done it all my life. It sure makes them taste funny; but it keeps them on my knife.”

His stories are now part of me. Tradition is built.

Back at the more formal Nawab, the fire in the tandoor oven burns inconceivably hot. Fresh naan bread gets slapped on the side. The chef peels it off when, and only when, his oven wall releases the final product.

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If I could go back in time, I’d take my grandfather on a long walk down our dusty road in Texas. When we reached the edge of town, just at sunset, I’d turn and we’d magically appear at my home in Santa Monica. We’d walk up my block where he’d have plenty of chances to poke me in the arm and wink when he’d spy a pretty girl.

Sixteen blocks from the beach, we’d turn into Nawab to continue our conversation over dinner. The Tandoor Chicken arrives, accompanied by a sizzle from peppers and onions on the hot platter that would echo his whistle. I’d ask, “Have you ever had chicken this plump, Pop?

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“This is the juiciest bird I’ve had the good fortune to taste,” he’d say. “Must be the California sunshine.”

Their chicken is the most succulent meat I’ve found anywhere. I’d lick my fingers and wipe the corners of my mouth with the linen napkin before he reminded me.

Ask if the chef is making the same bass. If so, order it. I’ve not had such dynamically prepared fish. Spices keep the fish bouncing.

And then, just to hear my grandfather’s trademark, “Good God a’mighty!” the waiter would whip the cover off the moment I’d been waiting for: Bhindi Masala, Okra in spices and onions. The onions stay crunchy, the spices fold into the crooks of the okra.

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Who will have my memories when I’m gone?  Who will tell my story, from the heartbreak to the glory. Someone take it over and keep the story going.
Nawab of India. 1621 Wilshire Blvd. Santa Monica, CA 90403 (310) 829-7576. Order online for pickup or delivery.

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