New Zafran Pot Stirs Up Top Indian Fare in Culver City
(Gerry Furth-Sides) Modest little Zafran Pot is the “baby on the block of stars” (Venice Boulevard at Motor) celebrated for authentic regional Indian food and Owner-Chef Sneh Lata Gumidelli ‘s exceptional Hyderabad-style, savory biranyi ranks right up there with the best.
The name itself, Zafran (saffron) is the spice that colors the rice in the famous dish. Nestled on the table next to its Salan gravy and Raita sauce companions, this biranyi looks as if it is calming staring at the diners about to enjoy it.
The basmati rice soaks overnight and then is cooked on a very low heat. Unlike the classic dough used to seal the pot, Chef Sneh uses aluminum foil. In addition to organic, locally sourced ingredients, technique is key here. Pumpkin seeds are used instead of the usual peanuts in Chef Sneh’s version, for example. After passing the rigorous Halal requirements, meats are marinated overnight the house-made masala. Unusual, enticing appetizers and dessert complete each authentic meal. Biranyi is to Indians what hamburger is to Americans or Lasagna is to Italians. Everyone has his favorite – “the best”- version of this stuff of legend. Yet Hyderabad-style comes up most often as arguably the best in all of the India. The key to the test of its unbroken, perfectly flavored long- grain rice is a historic slow-cooking dum technique in a completely sealed tub, plus the expertise in the seasoning and marination of the ingredients added to it.
The history of Biryani dates back to as early as the fifteenth century when Mughals invaded India. (it only takes knowing they were descendants of Genghis Khan to get an idea of their power). The word itself finds its origin in the Farsi word “Birian” which means “fried before cooking.” Improvised upon in various ways through the centuries, each region in India has its own distinct style of cooking, which often includes blending the dish with the local flavours.
How Hyderabadi Biryani came to be so special is at one time a progressive ruler, Niaza-Ul-Mulk, introduced the royal recipe to the public, starting its spread to other parts of the country, thereby promoting local variations. It was during this period that the famous Kacchi (mutton) Biryani was fine-tuned, primarily by introducing the technique of separately marinating the meat in all the herbs and spices before cooking it with the moderately done rice.
Specialties are family recipes and popular dishes from different regions of India are on the menu. Owner-Chef Sneh also knows what pleases diners. When she cooked for a company that sold packaged dinners for families, mostly in the discerning Indian community, her food became so popular she was invited to star in several videos to demonstrate her work. She personally oversees every dish with one other cook in the kitchen.
Chef Sneh may be the star chef of this little place but the beaming smile of her proud husband partner, Santosh is as wide as the room. It is, in fact, Santosh who is from Hyderabad while Sneh is from Bangalore. The menu dutifully notes “it is cooked on dum for maximum flavor” for the Hyderabad Dum Specialty Plate menu. The list reads:Organic Chicken, Organic Lamb and Vegetable, all marinated in spices, yogurt, zafran (saffron). “We put out the Lamb Dum Biryani only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Santoosh told us. Word is spreading and already every table at Zafran Pot is fully booked on the week-ends.
The small menu mirrors the size of new Zafran Pot with new dishes debuted as they are perfected in the kitchen, such as Lamb Rogan Josh and Cauliflower. Most importantly, Chef Sneh understands the universal appeal of flavors and textures. Appetizers include crunchy Samosa and Pakoda. Onions and a variety of masalas fill the Vegetable and Egg Puffs. The decadent Vada Pav ($4.95) (shown below),deep-fried mashed potato fritters inside pillowy mini-burger buns, just about make a full meal. Add the snap of red onion, the tartness of lime and the bit of cilantro with it, and it also defines umami.
Other Specialty Plates include non-vegetarian Curries served with White or Brown Rice or Naan ($10.95). Locally sourced Halal chicken marinated over night is featured in the more uncommon Chicken Chops with gravy made of spinach, cilantro, onion and spiced with cloves and cinnamon.
Khubani Ka Meetha with Ice Cream, Dried Apricots is boiled in sugar syrup served with ice cream ($4.95) is a specialty of the house not found in many local Indian restaurants. The apricots are soaked overnight to remove the seeds out.