Honestly, I don’t think Indian food is all that challenging. It’s like people psych themselves out of enjoying it because they’re worried it’s going to be too spicy or have a weird texture.
A lot of people probably think they’ll get sick, which is pretty dumb and probably a little racist. Indian restaurants have to follow all the same regulations and rules as other restaurants. Unless you’re equally afraid of getting sick at a Chili’s, you’re an idiot.
But if you need to dip your toes into the world of Indian food, your best bet is a buffet. And in Oklahoma City, that likely means Taj Cuisine of India.
You could think of Taj as “beginner” Indian food, but I prefer to frame it as crowd-pleasing fare. There are some hot dishes and some for a milder palate, but there’s nothing I would recommend people to shy away from. I almost said, “except for my kids,” but those little jerks need to learn to eat things with spices in them and I’d rather it was sooner than later.
In fact, when my friend Christy told me she was interested in getting into Indian food, Taj was our logical first stop.
There is a menu at Taj. You can order from it. They will make you individual dishes which might not be on the buffet or otherwise tailored to your specific needs. It’s a good option for people with allergies or those who are especially spice-averse/spice-adept.
I don’t order from the menu at Taj, because Taj has very nearly perfected the buffet menu. It’s an Indian food greatest hits album and I can dance with these dishes all. night. long.
As such, you won’t be seeing prices for each item. The lunch buffet is an economical $10. At dinner it’s $12.
It’s popular to bag on chicken tikka masala as “not real Indian food” because it was created for British palates, but I love it. It is some version of bright orange or red, creamy and pleasantly aromatic. The chicken is tender. The sauce is delightful. You don’t have to like it, I suppose, but I eye anyone who says they don’t enjoy it with extreme suspicion.
IT’S OK TO LIKE POPULAR THINGS, YOU GUYS.
Indian cuisine is also ideal for vegetarians, vegetable lovers and those who need more vegetables in their diets, which is ::checks notes:: everyone in the state of Oklahoma.
Taj is so great for vegetables that I didn’t even notice until just now that only two of the dishes I got had meat in them. Two. I generally consume the flesh of at least two kinds of animals in my afternoon snack, so this is a fairly big deal.
The difference is availability and spicing. If there are more vegetarian dishes, you’re more likely to eat them. And when the spices are done right, your taste buds are too busy doing a dance of joy to miss the meat.
The eggplant masala, for instance, has a solid texture that turns creamy in the mouth. There’s a low background heat that builds slowly throughout the meal, giving your whole body a lovely warmth. Eggplant can be bitter — lots of vegetables can — but the cooks at Taj know how to work around that for an extremely enjoyable flavor.
Korma can be a vegetable or meat that is slowly braised in yogurt or broth to give it a meltingly soft texture. The vegetable korma at Taj is very creamy, with a luscious sauce that clings to the mixed vegetables and soaks into the rice. The end result is a satisfying bite that toes the line between light and heavy perfectly.
I first had upma at a breakfast at Fusion Kitchen and fell in love with these Indian-style grits. My torrid affair continued at Taj with their mixed vegetable upma. The base is a rice flour, rather than corn, but the effect is the same. And much like grits, the texture of upma is great for holding onto seasonings and spices, which gave the dish a mild pop of heat along with the crunch of the vegetables.
My history with spinach is conflicted at best. Despite a fondness for Popeye, I never could get past the grainy, slimy spinach that glopped out of cans retrieved from the back of the pantry.
So I was surprised, years later, when palak paneer — a creamed spinach with farmer’s cheese — became one of my all-time favorite Indian dishes. This version is extremely comforting, with a deep green flavor that lacks any bitterness, a smooth, creamy texture and bites of soft, tender fresh cheese that falls apart on the tongue. The spinach even mimics meat, with a heavy dose of umami flavors that immediately sate my need to kill.
A dal is any Indian soup or stew that features legumes — beans, lentils, etc. — as its main ingredient. The dal tadka uses lentils and it might be my new favorite dish. There’s something so hearty and fulfilling about lentils, but they suffer from a bad case of boredom. Indian spices are a perfect antidote to otherwise dull, earthy lentils. This stew had a great texture from lentils in various stages of breakdown and a burst of lively spicing that propels you to take bite after bite after bite.
Taj’s vegetarian fare is so good, I could have forgone meat altogether, except for the last dish. I have never been able to successfully abstain from their chicken chili and I hope I never will. This bright red curry isn’t shy about being hot, though it’s not unbearable in the least. The peppers and spices give it an underlying sweetness that surrounds each bite of tender chicken. As full as I was, I couldn’t resist going back for seconds.
Whether you’re a beginner or an old pro, Taj makes Indian food that just about everyone can love. Some folks will just never come around on this cuisine, which makes me sad. Then again, it’s just more for the rest of us. And at Taj, you can really make a day of it.