Friday, July 29, 2016

Sneha Indian Cuisine

The Catonsville/Ellicott City area has become a bastion of Asian cuisine and we're all better for it. The new, elegantly decorated Sneha Indian Cuisine is a welcome addition to the scene. Recently, the Minx and I were invited to try out a selection of their menu items. Our host for the evening, general manager Ravi Kuriseti, hails from Andhra Pradesh in southern India where the cuisine is richly seasoned and often quite hot in the pepper sense, so we looked forward to seeing how different Sneha's spicy fare would be compared to other Indian restaurants we've tried.

Mr Kuriseti strives to make his dishes authentic and has secured for Sneha what he thinks are some of the best recipes from cooks all over India. Though he's from the south, the dishes at Sneha represent several of the various native cuisines of India. This includes many of the Punjabi dishes that come to mind when most Americans think of Indian food, such as items prepared in a tandoor oven.

Sneha doesn't have a liquor license, but if you don't want to BYOB, there are plenty of beverage options, from the yogurt drinks called lassi, to masala tea, to typical Indian soft drinks. The Minx is an avid reader of modern Indian literature, so was eager to try the drinks she had read about again and again - Thums Up and Limca. Thums Up is a cola that's a bit sharper in taste to something like Coke or Pepsi. Limca is a lemon/lime drink which seems to have that similar sharp quality. Not sure what's going on there, but it's definitely different from what we're used to in the U.S.

We started our meal with a simple tomato soup, which was pleasantly creamy with a light black pepper bite. We also sampled the Tandoor Mixed Grill, featuring chicken, shrimp, and both lamb seekh kabobs and lamb chops. Everything had that wonderful smoky flavor and light char that can only be achieved with a tandoor oven.

Something new for me was the chat, typically a savory snack served by Indian street vendors. Sneha serves three varities of chat, the favorite of which is kale, lightly coated in gram flour and butter, then flash fried. Served with red onion and a sweet tamarind yogurt sauce, it's a delightful way to eat your vegetables. We gobbled it up.

It's super crisp when it comes to the table, but gets soggy fast so is best eaten quickly.

Pakoda, or pakora, when made with vegetables, tend to be like fritters. Chicken pakoda, however, are more like chicken nuggets: tender pieces of boneless chicken thigh that are lightly battered and fried. They're crispy, spicy, and juicy - definitely the best chicken pakoda (or pakora) we've ever had.

We also were treated to paneer grilled in the tandoor. Paneer is a firm, fresh cheese that can make for a great meat substitute. Giving it the high-temperature tandoor treatment makes perfect sense, as this cheese doesn't easily melt, and is quite tasty with grilled vegetables and the lovely coriander achaar (Indian pickles) sauce that came with all of the grilled or fried appetizers.

On to entrees. I chose the lamb roganjosh: boneless lamb in a hearty sauce of onion, cumin, and yogurt. I always felt that Indian dishes like this are wonderful comfort food. Hearty sauce, tender meat, complex seasoning, and (often) tongue-numbing heat. Served with basmati rice and naan, this made me very happy.

The Minx opted for the palak Lababdar, paneer nestled in a rich, spicy, sauce of tomato, onion, and chiles. It was also quite hearty and delicious, traits that make Indian vegetarian dishes as satisfying as those with meat.

The spicy shrimp fry enjoyed by others in our party is a hometown favorite of Mr Kuriseti. Tiny shrimp are dry-fried with onion, green chili, curry leaves, and cumin. The dish packs a kick that seems almost mild at first but quickly builds in intensity. The spice is addictive in that good way that entices one to keep eating more.

The chicken dum biryani is a little different than what most Americans might expect from this familiar rice dish. The "dum" part of the name refers the layering of the dish. The spicy chicken is on the bottom of the dish, with the rice on top. If you only take some rice from the top, it will seem mild. You must dig deep with your serving spoon to pull up the chicken in order to get the full impact of the chiles.

We also sampled three kinds of excellent naan--plain, garlic, and chili garlic--that were thinner and crisper than the pillowy stuff we were used to eating.

The desserts were also new to me. Rabri is milk that is cooked with sugar for six hours to create an almost milkshake consistency. Essentially a non-sticky sweetened condensed milk, it reminded us of a sweet, very smooth, rice pudding.

Junnu is a lumpy concoction made from jaggery (concentrated cane sugar) and cow's colostrum milk. (The colostrum is the first milk a cow makes after giving birth, and is high in nutrients. )That might sound a little off-putting, but the end result is a sweet, vaguely yogurt-like, custard with a subtle caramel flavor.

In addition to some old favorites, Sneha Indian Cuisine introduced me to several Indian dishes I had never experienced before. In fact, there is also a whole world of unfamiliar southern Indian foods represented on the menu. I'm looking forward to going back and trying some of the various dosa (thin crepes made from a fermented rice batter) and idli (steamed savory cakes).

While many of the dishes we tried were familiar to us--the roganjosh, and the biryani, for example--they were far from typical. Much of the Indian food we'd eaten in the past was clearly geared toward the American palate, sweet and creamy. While there was no shortage of richness and cream at Sneha, the flavors were far more intense and there was a bit of heat in most of the dishes we sampled. It was an eye-opening experience and a meal that left me feeling quite contented.

Sneha Indian Cuisine
6600 Baltimore National Pike
Catonsville, MD 21228

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