Don Shirley: “How is that?”
Tony Lip: “Salty.”
Don Shirley: “Have you ever considered becoming a food critic?”
Tony Lip: “Nah, not really. Why? Is there money in it?”
Don Shirley: “I’m just saying you have a marvelous way with words when describing food. Salty. So vivid one can almost taste it.”
Tony Lip: “Hey, I’m just saying it’s salty. Salt’s cheating. Any cook can make food salty. To make it taste good without the salt, with just the other flavors, that’s the trick.”
~ The Green Book, 2018 “Best Picture” Academy Award Winner
In the hundreds of restaurant reviews to have crossed my path in my decades of restaurant appreciation, I’ve seen many adjectives used to describe to Indian cuisine, but never the term “salty.” Critics tend to use such hackneyed terms as “exotic,” “diverse,” and even “mysterious” to describe the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. When my friends Nader and Elaine dined with me at Taj Mahal Cuisine of India on the day after my Kim and I watched The Green Book, I had to wonder how Tony Lip would have described Indian food. Spicy? Maybe. Different? Probably. Delicious? Absolutely! Salty? Never! Indian chefs do not cheat!
Indian cuisine is widely regarded as among the very best in the world. In fact, nearly 400,000 respondents to a Ranker poll taken in February, 2019 ranked Indian food third greatest among the world’s best cuisines. Only French and Italian food ranked higher. This means Indian food was more highly esteemed than such popular choices as Chinese, Spanish, Thai and Mexican food. Some scientists might even argue that Indian food possesses qualities you won’t find in Western cuisines–qualities which make it incomparably delicious (ergo so irresistible, you can’t help but love it). They actually support this assertion with data gleaned from an analysis of more than 2,500 Indian food recipes.
It all comes down to the unique approach Indian cooks and chefs take, an approach entirely contrary to what their Western counterparts take. While many Western cuisines attempt to pair ingredients that complement one another, Indian chefs tend to combine ingredients that contrast other ingredients. For example, in Western cooking a chef might pair ingredients that make a dish sweet or piquant. In Indian cooking, a chef would pair ingredients that don’t complement one another. An Indian dish made with cayenne will very likely not include another piquant ingredient, but might very well include tamarind for bitterness, cilantro for zesty freshness and ginger for warmth.
One of the city’s very best practitioners of Indian culinary arts is Taj Mahal, a Duke City mainstay for nearly a quarter century (established in 1996). “The Taj” as many of its habitues call it, is comfortably ensconced in a quaint split-level space almost equidistant between the University of New Mexico and I-40. You’ll want to get there early to score a table on the top floor because the stairway is in “this stairway ain’t big enough for the two of us” dimensions. The top floor is also where the buffet is laid out in gleaming metal trays displaying a colorful array of dishes. Just above and to the right of the buffet is an “I love me wall” proudly demonstrating numerous “best of” awards.
Thousands of Duke City diners who over the years have voted The Taj as Albuquerque’s best Indian restaurant certainly aren’t wrong. It really is that good! My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott has been telling me so for years. As with all memorable Indian restaurants, The Taj is equally adept at vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, but where it really stands out is with its naan, be it the garlic naan or the standard offering. Naan may be the only bread that can compare to my mom’s tortillas though I certainly wouldn’t tell her that. Visit The Taj for its buffet at lunch, but make it a point to visit at dinner and order off the menu.
14 May 2018: Another palate-pleasing category at which The Taj has no peer is with dishes showcasing paneer, the soft, crumbly cow’s milk cheese. Paneer is a fresh, never-aged cheese not made with rennet which means it’s safe for vegetarians to enjoy. The Taj doesn’t just give you token bits of paneer. There are chunks of the stuff in dishes in which it’s featured. The mutter paneer (a vegetarian dish that combines paneer and green peas in a rich, thick curry) is a must-have. It’s a deeply satisfying, soulful dish so rich that you’ll need to ladle it over rice to cut that richness. Don’t be surprised if a soft swoon escapes your mouth as you enjoy it.
2 May 2019: In a hilarious episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon brought home a take-out portion of Kadai Paneer for his dinner and proceeded to describe it in his inimitable manner to his pulchritudinous neighbor Penny: “That is the intoxicating aroma of Kadhai Paneer. A perfect culinary representation of the freedom this evening holds. Not only is it Indian cuisine, which Koothrappali loathes, it contains a generous helping of peanuts, which would reduce Wolowitz to a wheezing 97-pound blister. And finally, its main ingredient is paneer, a farmer’s cheese that would cause Leonard to render any room uninhabitable within minutes.” From Sheldon’s description you might not believe Kadai Paneer is one of the most delicious of all Indian dishes.
Kadai paneer has its genesis in Northern India and derives its name from the cooking vessel in which it’s prepared. A “kadai” resembles a deep Chinese wok and similar to the wok, is used for deep-frying. Kadai paneer is a type of cheese curry consisting of fresh paneer, onions, cream, bell pepper slices, fresh tomatoes, cumin and a variety of other spices. It’s a mouth-watering vegetarian favorite with broad appeal. Aficionados of Italian cuisine like it because it because the tomato sauce is reminiscent of a marinara though differently seasoned. Mexican food devotees love it because it’s got a bit of piquancy. You’ll love The Taj’s version because it’s absolutely delicious. It’s everything you want when you’re looking for a dish that will make your taste buds very happy.
2 May 2019: Writing for Munchies, Hilary Pollack exhorted, “When I die, bury me inside a vat of saag paneer.” That wouldn’t make Popeye the Sailor Man very happy, but if you’ve had The Taj’s saag paneer, you can understand her enthusiasm for the dish. Saag paneer may well be the most delicious spinach dish ever conceived by any culture. It’s primary ingredients are spinach and paneer, but it’s such seasonings as fenugreek, cayenne, ginger, garlic and a little lemon juice that make it so delicious. I suspect, but haven’t confirmed that the Taj’s cooks might also drizzle a little yogurt onto the dish to enhance the creaminess of the dish.
Step into Taj Mahal Cuisine of India and your senses are immediately captivated by the aroma of exotic spices wafting toward you. Those aromas are a precursor to the delightful deliciousness of the meal awaiting you. The Taj is quite simply a magnificent restaurant.
Taj Mahal Cuisine of India
1430 Carlisle Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 2 May 2019
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Kadai Paneer, Saag Paneer, Matter Paneer, Garlic Naan