Food Prowl is a yearlong look at what the city's restaurants have to offer. Each month, food writer Sarah Baker Hansen, and a few guest tasters, will name a new victor in the epic battle of food.
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Winner: India Garden
2819 S. 125th Ave.
The first thing I learned on this month's food prowl for Chicken Tikka Korma, a classic Indian dish, was that I really didn't know what it was supposed to taste like.
I thought I knew. So did another panelist, Indian food lover Steve Langan.
What Steve and I learned from the other two panelists — Iqbal Ahmad and Arun Agarwal — changed the obvious course of the prowl.
Both Iqbal and Arun have families from India, and they taught us what Indian food can be. What it should be.
As a result, this month's winning restaurant is a dimly lit, delicious dark horse that you've probably never heard of.
Arun suggested that we take the prowl to a restaurant where Indian people go to eat Indian food outside their own kitchens, so we met at India Garden, a place I'd never heard of.
The restaurant is tucked snugly in a mini-mall on West Center Road; if you weren't looking for it, you wouldn't find it. It was dim, quiet and nearly empty when we arrived, but, true to Arun's word, a few parties of Indian diners began to arrive as we ate.
During lunch the restaurant usually only serves a buffet — the owner told me later that the items on the buffet are different every day and the spread is much larger on the weekends — but they made us a plate of korma to order.
It came out steaming hot, with a warm, yellow-hued sauce, plenty of spice and deliciously cooked hot rice. Visible bits of green jalapeno studded the dish, and the Indians on our team seemed satisfied at last.
Tender chicken met thick, creamy sauce with plenty of heat. Arun advised me to eat a mouthful of rice plain or sip on my sweet lassi to cool off my tongue.
"If you're not taking an Alka Seltzer after eating Indian food," he told me, smiling, "something is not right."
Iqbal said we'd found a sauce with the right flavors. The only unusual thing, he said, were the chunks of hot pepper in the sauce. Normally they would have been pulverized.
The overwhelming savoriness of the sauce met the heat when we swallowed, and the chicken was moist, tender and deeply flavored with garam masala. But the heat pushed it over the edge, way beyond what we'd tried so far.
"I feel like I don't really know what chicken tikka korma is," Steve said after a few bites. "But the newness of this is compelling."
The group definitely agreed on one thing: Omahans should experience this korma.
"I'm a Midwestern guy," Steve said. "And I think we live in a city that would be surprised by this dish. I think it's sophisticated. But I think we're moving toward being more sophisticated, and I think even timid palates could respond to this dish."
Maybe, he surmised, we've outgrown the safety of more Americanized versions of Indian food. A dish can be simple, but it can also be unexpected.
The Other Contenders:
3572 Leavenworth St.
3572 Leavenworth St.
The team met on a blustery afternoon at Mother India, on Leavenworth Street, for our first korma lunch. Mother India is a true hole-in-the-wall so deeply scented with curry that when you get back to your work cubicle, everyone will know what you ate.
While I waited for my dining partners, I overheard a man asking the waitress if he could pay her for one of the sauce recipes. She said no.
Like this guy, almost everyone I know sings the praises of Mother India, and Steve told me before we began prowling that it was one of his favorites.
Expectations were running high.
Our team ordered a round of korma, rice, naan and a couple of mango lassis, an Indian fruit and yogurt drink.
The chicken in chicken tikka korma is braised slowly in a spicy curry sauce usually made with yogurt, but it also can be made with cream, sour cream or milk. It's usually spiced with a combination of garam masala, an Indian spice blend that can contain up to a dozen spices, including pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, dried chiles, fennel, mace, and nutmeg, among other spices; tumeric; cumin; and coriander. It's spicy and rich.
Our plates arrived filled with bright red, almost neon, sauce big chunks of chicken and a sprinkle of green herbs over the top.
We spread the scoops of saffron-scented, orange and white rice underneath the red sauce. Naan, East Indian flatbread baked in the tandoor oven, is the perfect tool to scoop up chicken chunks and drag through sauce.
Steve and I thought it was good, and Arun said it wasn't bad, but that the color and mildness of the sauce surprised him. Iqbal had the most problems with it.
When we cut into the chicken, the inside was pure white, and a tiny line of demarcation around the edge showed where the red sauce had soaked into the meat.
The sauce should have been thicker, creamier, spicier and more deeply absorbed into the chicken, Iqbal said. Some of its more important spice characteristics weren't there.
"Korma is a staple in my household," he said.
Steve and I were quiet, surprised that what we thought was korma — good korma at that — wasn't, according to Iqbal.
"The gravy is the most important part of the korma," he said. "And it should be brownish in color. You should be able to feel the spice on your palette when you bite."
The Jaipur Brew House
10922 Elm St.
10922 Elm St.
We kept Iqbal's teachings in mind when we met in the dim, quiet dining room of the Jaipur, one of Omaha's two best-known, higher-end Indian spots.
The korma here was similar in color to what we saw at Mother India — bright red — but it was even less flavorful. In fact, it seemed almost bland, a first for any Indian food I'd eaten. The chicken was dry, and completely white inside. The sauce tasted more like a salty version of tomato than the rich curry-scented gravy that Iqbal described.
Arun and Iqbal agreed that the cuisine at Jaipur and at one of the city's other popular Indian restaurants, the Indian Oven, is "fusion" cuisine.
"Nobody eats Indian food seven days a week except for Indian people," Arun said. "When I go out to eat, I eat mac and cheese. That's my variety."
Steve wondered if the korma we'd eaten so far was milder to appeal to an American palette.
"Are they homogenizing it to give us a break?" Steve asked, and we all thought it might be so. It wasn't what we were looking for.
2012 N. 117th Ave.
We meet again at Paradise Biryani, the former Dhaba, another dim dining room. Indian pop music played in the background.
We started with a plate of papadam, crisp Indian cracker bread made from lentils, with a spicy green dip. Iqbal told us that his family is from Patna, the ancient capital of India, and his parents now live near Calcutta. He came to the United States as a graduate student in 1985 and to Omaha in 1994.
Arun was born in Washington, D.C., but his family is from Lucknow, in northeast India, and have been in Omaha for more than 30 years, he said.
Iqbal said his wife does the Indian cooking at home — he makes too much of a mess, he said, chuckling — and Arun said he regularly eats Indian at family gatherings.
When our plate of korma arrives, Arun and Iqbal look at it more approvingly. The sauce is brownish yellow and much thicker, and the chunks of chicken are uniformly brownish-gold all the way through.
We all liked it, though a hint of sweetness threw us all off a bit. Iqbal said it shouldn't be sweet.
1028 S. 74th Plaza
We also stopped by Curri on the Chicken Tikka Korma prowl, but the restaurant serves only a buffet at lunch and wouldn't make anything beyond that.
Because Steve had already ordered a cup of coffee and we had a basket of naan on our table, Arun suggested that we try a plate of chicken masala to learn how the dish differed from korma.
Arun said when people who have not tried Indian food ask him where to begin, he almost always recommends a plate of masala because its milder, tomato-based sauce is easier for beginners.
After eating the rich, savory, spicy sauce of korma for four meals, the thinner, milder masala seemed a wan comparison.
Arun is undeniably right masala is a good choice for those unfamiliar with Indian food or who are not fans of spice.
But for our panel, it's korma all the way.
The vote this time was different than most. Everyone knew that the food we'd just encountered — the dish at India Garden — was the best we'd had. Maybe, too, it was the best we were likely to find. We all knew it was the winner.
"Hands down," Iqbal said. "India Garden is the top."
"It had the most of what I anticipated we would get," he said. "It was a medley of different things. It was creamy, it was thick, the spice level was what I hoped for."
And even though Steve and I had just learned what the dish could be, we had a new favorite.
I love being surprised on Food Prowls, and this was the most surprised I'd been since the series began in January.
Steve was still a touch divided, though, even though it was unanimous.
"I think the korma at India Garden is gourmet. It's the most sophisticated of the dishes," he said. "But I still want to commend Mother India for its distinctive sauce. I could eat it every day."
"Mother India is great," he said. "But India Garden is better."
Steve Langan, director of a nonprofit group called the HONOReform Foundation and founder of the Seven Doctors Project at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Iqbal Ahmad, an ophthalmology professor at UNMC
Arun Agarwal, director of White Lotus Group, a real estate development firm