Ramesh Sharma is tall and broadly built, gray-haired with friendly eyes and a quick smile. For the first minute or so of conversation, you must concentrate so as not to lose a word or two under his accent, still thick after three decades in the United States and Canada. A former civil engineer, Sharma is an avid reader of history and philosophy. If you listen, he will teach you.
Most Americans — and Midwesterners in particular — tend to think of cultural foods as static and categorical: Mexican food, Italian food, Chinese food. The reality is much more complex, however, and regional variations can be so divergent as to appear entirely unrelated.
Such is the case with Indian food, which is broadly divided into northern and southern cuisines and cultures.
"You travel 50, 60 miles, the habits, the language, the food — everything changes," says Sharma, who with his brother, Sanjeev, owns two Indian restaurants in Lakewood, India Garden and Namaste India Garden. The latter is his newest and focuses on southern cuisine. "You can spend all your life trying the food there, and still it will not be enough."
Picture India as an inverted triangle. To the north, India is surrounded by continental Asia: Bangladesh and Nepal to the northeast, Pakistan to the northwest. To the south, the landmass projects into the Arabian Sea and toward the Maldives.
"The basic difference is the northern part of India, being landlocked, the spice mixes used [are] very subtle," says Sharma, who is originally from New Delhi in the north. "In the southern part of India, all the spices are the same, but the mixes are different. They have more robust, strong flavor, and they are more aromatic."
This difference translates readily with a single sip of chai tea ($1.95). This is not the creamy, syrupy mix you might get from Starbucks. Instead, cardamom and clove fight for attention on your palate. The spice is only barely tempered with sugar and milk so fatty it forms a skin no matter how much you stir.
Southern India's tropical climate means the cuisine tends to be spicier than its sibling to the north, Sharma explains. While it may seem contradictory, the spicy heat actually helps cool you off. (Scientists use the unappetizing term "gustatory facial sweating" to describe the phenomenon, which works because the spices trigger the body to sweat and rapidly cool.)
"There's a difference between being hot and being flavorful hot," he says.
For example, the goat Chettinad ($14.95) — named for the region in southeast India famous for its bold cooking style — is a curry made with a paste of chilies, coconut, garlic, peppercorn and cumin, plus ginger, spices and herbs. It's flavor-forward and complex with a slowly rising but intense heat that lingers. (Ask a server for a dish of raita, a yogurt sauce, to cool your mouth afterward.)
The other major difference between the foods of the north and south is the impetus for the second restaurant.
"During our last 10 years at the north Indian food restaurant India Garden, we got such a big customer base, and everyone was asking about vegan, a lot of gluten-free," he says. So whereas dishes originating in the north such as tikka masala, butter chicken and nan use a lot of dairy, meat and wheat, the staple foods of the subcontinent's south include coconut, rice and lentils, which are friendlier to sensitive diets.
That ought not frighten away pleasure-seekers, though. For instance, a delicate trio of vada ($5.95), or fried lentil doughnuts, defy the assumption that gluten-free pastries must be dry and heavy. Each savory three-bite doughnut is both fluffy and strong enough to hold up to its three accompanying sauces.
The menu at Namaste is four pages — half the length of many other Indian restaurants, including Sharma's first. Even for an Indian emigre, the number of choices can become overwhelming.
"We got very, very basic in selecting the dishes so it's not complicated and it brings the right flavor among different vegetarian dishes and nonvegetarian dishes," he says. "But there is no end to the choices. ... So much food."
Diners less well-versed in the intricacies of the regional flavor profiles of India will appreciate the more streamlined menu, divided into seven sections including soup and dessert. About a dozen choices in each offer incredible variety that stops just short of too much.
But perhaps one of the most popular dishes with the growing crowd of Namaste regulars is the chilli chicken ($12.95), a crunchy, sweet and spicy jumble of onion, peppers and lightly battered chicken in a mildly acidic sauce. You'll find it in the section marked "Indo Chinese," which introduces yet another element of unfamiliarity.
Ask Sharma about it and his eyes shine.
"India has been occupied by the British. India has been occupied by Moguls. All kinds of people have come to India over the centuries and all of them brought their own food and culture," he explains.
Think nan ($1.95) is quintessentially Indian? It's actually found throughout Asia. How about biryani ($12.95-$16.95), the saffron basmati rice dish appearing on every Indian restaurant menu? It's Iranian.
"In America, we have a Chinatown in almost every big city. Same thing in India. The Chinese have been coming to India since ... the 14th century," Sharma explains. "They brought the Chinese noodle, chili [peppers] and Indians, they converted it to their own taste."
In many ways, India is similar to the United States. It is a nation of immigrants, a huge country that's become a melting pot of cultures. Dig in and discover, and don't be afraid to ask for directions. There's a lot here to learn.
When You Go
Namaste India Garden, 14412 Detroit Road, Lakewood, 216-221-4800, namasteindiagarden.com, Tue-Sun 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
try this: Vegetarians will love the variety of meat-free options at Namaste, but we particularly recommend the bagara baingan ($11.95). Baby eggplants are split and stuffed with peanut and coconut paste, then flame-roasted in the oven and topped with a thick, not-too-spicy sauce. Eat it with Namaste's always excellent basamati rice or a puffy, chewy poori, which offers a nice textural contrast.
good to know: Starting last month, Namaste also began offering a special lunch menu Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. The combo-style platters are designed to accommodate less leisurely lunch hours and offer more tastes, slightly smaller portions and a reduced price tag. Most entrees are $9.95.
Namaste India Garden co-owner Ramesh Sharma guides us through southern India's culinary landscape. Here are a few of his favorites.
Punugulu: Pronounced (poo-NOO-gah-loo). These gluten-free, lentil fritters are deep-fried and served with two dipping sauces, one tomato-based and the other a creamy coconut chutney. "It can be eaten any time of the day," says Sharma. "Breakfast, lunch or dinner, and it is a complete meal in itself." They're particularly popular during festivals.
Vada: One of our personal favorites, this doughnut-shaped delicacy is made from flour ground from the black gram bean and is considered a delicacy in southern India, similarly to how Americans (should) consume breakfast pastries. Instead of a sugar overload, however, vada are on the savory side, flavored with a mixture of spices and accompanied by dipping sauces of chutney and sambar, a vegetable stew flavored with sour tamarind.
Dosa: These thin, ever-so-slightly crispy rice flour pancakes are southern India's most widely known dishes. "This is big [with southern Indians] with the rice and lentil," Sharma confirms, referring to the south's reliance on these two staple ingredients. Namaste offers 10 variations, with everything from paneer cheese to a red curry and potato filling (mysore masala) wrapped up inside.
Vegetable chettinad: Chettinad is a small region found in the southeastern part of India known for its architecture and its food. Try the vegetable chettinad, an intensely spicy, vegetarian entree that includes nearly everything in the spice rack — coriander, chili powder, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, curry leaves and more — and is absolutely addictive over rice. "The region is very famous for its spices, so that gives a very good taste of that particular region," says Sharma.
Shrimp curry: "In the coastal plain, they love seafood," Sharma explains. Anything from the water will do, but shellfish contributes a briny essence that's complemented by the coconut broth in the stew. Plus, they readily soak up the flavor of curry leaves, an essential ingredient in south Indian cooking, which are not usually found in curries from other regions or countries.