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Food Dude

Feb 16, 2012
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Namasté India

By Jim Duncan

Onion and chili uthappam with coconut chutney and sambar at Namasté India, 7500 University Ave., Clive, 255-1698. Hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday (closed Monday) and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

The lore of most religions includes parables in which some godly presence disguises itself in humble form to test the sincerity of believers. In contemporary vernacular, the moral of such stories is “never judge a book by its cover.” Namasté India is the local culinary example of that. The restaurant and grocery store has been evolving for five years now in a strip mall in Clive, a town that shares its name with a warlord who made it possible for Britain to plunder the riches of India for 200 years. Maybe that’s why Namasté’s majestic foods hide out in such humble trappings.

When the store first opened, its restaurant was connected to its kitchen by a literal hole in the wall through which cooks dispatched divine South Indian foods that Des Moines had never seen. A couple years later, the store expanded, adding tables, chairs, waiters and a wall dividing the café from the market. A superb lunch buffet followed soon afterwards with two large television monitors running Hindi and Dravidian language movies. From my experiences, these films are all musicals from the 1970s in which lovers travel through four seasons and five continents without ever kissing, or pausing from their song and dance routines.

One can easily find sumptuous, creamy versions of north Indian dishes popular in most Indian restaurants in America: aloo saag (spinach puree with potatoes), bhindi masala (okra with tomatoes, onions and herbs), mutter paneer (homemade cheese and peas), makhani dhal (lentils in gravy), butter chicken, pakoras (breaded fried vegetables), including an onion version that is my favorite “onion ring” in town. Namasté’s menu also compiles a culinary history of India. English influences include samosas (small savory pies) and curries. Portuguese imports to India (chili rich vindaloo dishes) are given their due, along with Mughal gifts from clay ovens (tandoori chicken, naan, tikka) and “dum pukht” (slow cooking in sealed pots) kitchens.

There are four versions of biryani, the most famous “dum pukht” dish. Before the Mughal invasion, rice was simply boiled in water. The high living conquerors from Persia, particularly in Hyderabad, preferred to parboil rice and then cook it “dum style,” slowly along with marinated meats, ground pulses, spices and vegetables. The word “dum” translates “breathe-in” and a steaming plate of Namasté’s Hyderabadi chicken biryani reminded me why -aromas rose from the dish like savory perfume. This is what people were eating in India when Colonial Americans thought fine dining meant beans, porridge, boiled meat and dark bread.

Namasté distinguishes its kitchen from others in town with Dravidian dishes — South India’s dosa and uthappam. Their menu has changed slightly over five years (they no longer make the cylindrical paper dosa) because in-demand dosa chefs are a transient lot and each has his own style. Dosa is the original crepe. Its batter is made by soaking rice and black lentils then blending them with fenugreek seeds and oil. Namasté makes eight styles, with different stuffings. Potatoes, butter and cheese featured in several. Mustard seeds distinguished a masala dosa. Slightly crunchy textures were consistent to all. They were served with coconut chutney and sambar (vegetable stew usually featuring tamarind).

Uthappam is South India’s pupusa. Its batter is similar to dosa’s but rarely includes fenugreek. Several vegetables are often added directly to the batter, rather than stuffed in a cooked shell as with a dosa. Namasté has six versions, all vegetarian, several vegan. The restaurant also has a trendy (in India) Indo Chinese menu, a chaat (street cart food) menu, beers, wines and desserts.

Bottom line — divine food with delightfully bad movies.

Side Dishes

A Poll Position survey revealed that three chains (Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts) are preferred coffee vendors for nearly 70 percent of all Americans… Urbandale’s Library Board allowed its coffee shop operators to remain open after falling 14 months behind on the rent. CV

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