Punjabi home cooking in Simi Valley
By JR Grant 11/07/2013
1750 E. Los Angeles Ave.
Several years ago I worked at the Simi Valley Library, and despite a community demographic with a vast number of Indian residents, there were no Indian restaurants or markets to frequent. Fortunately, that fact has now altered, and after a favored restaurant changed ownership a month ago, it is now fast becoming a food destination for locals and Indian cuisine seekers alike.
Many people only think of curry when they attempt to describe Indian cooking. Curry is sold as an individual spice, but in truth Indian chefs use a wide variety of many spices (commonly used yellow curry powder is actually often just a mixture of garam masala and turmeric) to create an exotic blend of flavors, fragrances and culinary magic. The new co-owners of Haweli restaurant are Kameljeet Bandesha (who came to Simi Valley via the noted Gunga Din restaurant in Studio City) and his chef brother-in-law Nirmal Singh, who brings to Haweli recipes from his native Punjab region of northern India.
Punjabi flavors are more delicate and less spicy than the fierier and bolder piquancy of southern India. For example, here the chicken tikka masala has chunks of cubed chicken roasted in a tandoor (a clay oven) and cooked in yogurt with garam masala. It has a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth richness and distinct flavor, but does not overpower your palate in any way. Similarly, the lamb dopiaza is boneless meat cooked in onion, garlic, tomato and a fragrant spiced gravy. (Dopiaza is a Persian term meaning “two onions.”) While all flavors blend beautifully, no single taste overwhelms, which is a classic attribute of Punjabi dining.
The new owners of Haweli have made the unprepossessing restaurant feel like a stop at a local diner in northern India/Pakistan. The greetings are warm, friendly and familiar, and the smiles of welcome and attentive service are genuine. There is absolutely nothing fancy about the restaurant: brown functional shellacked tables with black leatherette banquette seating, a few silk cloths on the walls, Indian background music and a silent screen with an Indian epic movie rolling. This is a functional facility serving familiar northern Indian home-cooking-comfort-style food.
Certainly the best value and method of familiarizing yourself with Punjabi cuisine is the daily luncheon buffet. At $7.99 there is always a vast assortment of daily offerings: two or three chicken dishes; the same number of vegetarian offerings (almost always my favorite, aloo gobi, a cauliflower and potato mixture with coriander, garlic, ginger and other Indian spices); a samosa (fried or baked pastry with a savory filling) or pakora (fried snack) of some sort; and the day’s variety of lentil dahl and/or saag (a spinach-based side dish). The other day the selection was saag paneer, which is chopped spinach with little squares of homemade tofulike cheese (paneer) and creamed together amidst cumin, coriander and garlic flavorings. This is not a fancy dish, but rather a great example of Punjabi local comfort food.
One disappointment for me is the lack of variety in chutney accompaniments. There is always a creamy blended mint, chili paste and also a tamarind/mango sweet syrupy sauce; and of course a large bowl of cucumber, mint and cardamom raita (yogurt dip) is always available. Mind you, none of this is brought to you in a fancy sort of way, and if you are familiar with the cuisine, you can ask the server for suggested accompaniments to whatever dish you have ordered. But this is very much downhome cuisine, and subject to the chef’s mood of the day. I find many of the dishes here a little liquidy, meaning “more gravy than stew,” but as the new owners develop the menu and presentation, I’m sure some of the kinks will work themselves out.
Whether at the buffet lunch or with whatever meal is ordered, the one staple (and best-known) of Punjabi cuisine is always available: naan, the light, chewy and addicting Indian flat bread, always freshly made to order. I will admit to individually consuming two full orders of garlic naan; it is that good. I suggest as an accompanying beverage the salt lassi (blend of yogurt, water, spices and sometimes fruit), and salt and cumin seeds give it a refreshing flavor.
If you long for northern Indian comfort food, head to Simi Valley and enjoy the delights of Indian-Haweli.