I understand why — to a newbie thinking about trying Indian food — terms such as briyani, curry, tandoori, dosa, naan, rogan josh and masala can be intimidating.
Although many traditional meatloaf, mashed potatoes/gravy and vegetable diners here in B-N have told me they would like to go to an Indian restaurant, they are uncomfortable because of their lack of knowledge of Indian food and their concern about the taste and spiciness plus not knowing what to order.
I have experience with this, since my wife Kay was a little slow in coming around to enjoying Indian food until we were introduced to the milder north Indian food at Puran Indian Restaurant.
We have four full service Indian restaurants in B-N: Puran Indian Restaurant, Signature India, Bloom Bawarchi and Aroma. I asked the owners of all four for suggestions on how an Indian food newbie with concerns or questions should approach Indian food the first time at their restaurant.
All were in agreement: If the Indian restaurant has a noon buffet, the first-timer should go for the noon buffet and ask for the owner or manager and explain about being a newbie.
The owner/manager will ask a few questions about the type of food you prefer and your preferable level of spiciness, then walk you through the buffet, which maybe has 12 to 16 different foods, making suggestions and explaining individual foods and spiciness.
Indian food generally is served with four levels of spiciness: mild, medium, spicy and extra spicy.
I would suggest taking small portions of several buffet items and sampling each. Then go back to the buffet for more of the ones you like or venture into some additional dishes.
Another suggestion is not going at the busiest time at noon, since the owner/manager will have more time for you at a slower time, and you will not slow buffet traffic.
Bloom Bawarchi does not have a noon buffet because of lack of space, so it offers a traditional Indian thali, which simply is a tray of different Indian foods, spices, soups and desserts. The owner will discuss your food and spice preferences, then decide what foods to include on your thali and bring it to your table.
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The Indian restaurant owners tell me three traditional Indian regional cooking styles are offered here in B-N: north Indian, south Indian and Indo-Chinese.
Three of the full-service Indian restaurants — Signature India, Bloom Bawarchi and Aroma — offer all three traditional regional-style foods.
The fourth — Puran Indian Food — offers only north Indian, both for the noon buffet and dinner menu. I asked the owner why, and he very simply said, “We do not know how to cook south Indian or Indo-Chinese food.”
The restaurant owners agree the north Indian food of Puran is the mildest. The Aroma owner says he specializes in south Indian food and his is the most authentic and spiciest. The Bloom Bawarchi owner describes his cuisine as Indian homestyle and the Signature India owner says he has largest variety of Indian dishes.
For a newbie, it is not necessary to know the difference between north Indian, south Indian and Indo-Chinese.
The owners of Signature India, Bloom Bawarchi and Aroma are from south India, and the owner of Puran and his chef are from north India.
The Indian restaurant owners estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the B-N Indian population is south Indian, which is why three of the full-service restaurants emphasize a south Indian menu, and they agree that south Indian cooking generally is more spicy.
I have not mentioned a fifth Indian restaurant in B-N. The Indian Street Food Center is a small restaurant with a limited menu and limited hours located inside Namaste Plaza, an Indian grocery store. The husband/wife owners only serve “Indian street food.” I enjoy the Indian street food, but Kay does not — too spicy for her.
Because of its spiciness, the owners suggest Indian food newbies not try their street food for their first Indian dining experience.
Of course, websites and Facebook pages for the five B-N Indian restaurants are available for more information.
Readers: After interviewing the five local restaurant owners, I have enough material for a second column later this year that will feature the Indian regional styles of cooking.
Carius, of Bloomington, is a former food program and plan review supervisor for the McLean County Health Department. His Facebook blog, Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene, has 24,000 followers.
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