Royal India is a small restaurant, nine tables in a storefront, that takes a large step toward making Indian regional cuisine available in Greater Boston. Although the usual (mostly Punjabi) menu is available, thereís a real emphasis on more than a dozen Bengali dishes offered daily, with another 12 or 13 added on Friday and Saturday nights. Although Boston and Cambridge have had a few Bengali restaurateurs and cooks since the 1960s, the home cooking of East India and Bangladesh has generally stayed in their homes. What Iíd previously gathered about Bengali cuisine wasnít much: simple, hearty stir-fries; a lot of seafood; and the use of a mixture of five kinds of whole spice seeds that often included the onion-flavored nigella. I now know more.
Although Royal Indiaís family staff doesnít push it, another Bengali custom is to eat a lot of things in sequence, more like a French tasting menu than the usual Indian-restaurant practice of putting an assortment of dishes on one table. The dishes at Royal India are very inexpensive, but portions are modest so you can try a lot of things. You should also plan on several dishes ó even for a small group ó since meat and fish dishes usually donít include vegetables.
You must not miss the chicken soup ($3.95), even though itís camouflaged on the " regular menu " without an Indian name. Itís thickened with lemon and egg, like the Greek avgolemono, but is also spicy in a way that complements its considerable chicken flavor. Iím sure it cures colds and probably helps Bengali homesickness. This soup may make you homesick even if you donít come from Bengal.
Many appetizers are fried, and the best are copi pakoras ($4.50) ó five batter-fried cauliflower fritters with a good, spicy bang. Begooni ($3.95) are five eggplant fingers in the same yellow chick-pea-flower batter, also with a little spice. They come with two dips: one of tamarind, the other a mint chutney with a refreshingly bitter finish; it might be green fenugreek.
With main dishes, youíll want to order rice ($1.95), which is extra-long-grain basmati (almost like Persian rice), steamed with a few cumin seeds and dabs of saffron. The Bengali bread is luchi ($5.50), which is like poori, only smaller. Luchi is based on a simple wheat mixture, fried until it puffs; served en masse, it tastes like unsweetened doughnuts for the first few minutes, which is when you should eat it.
Aloo bhate ($4.50) is a very provocative dish of hash-brown potatoes with mustard oil, onions, some chili pepper, and a taste of char. The same char effect also does wonderful things for begun pora ($5.95), the universal dish of mashed, roasted eggplant, made here with a lot of spice, cilantro, and onions.
Our best dish was kasha mangsho ($10.95), a curry of goat-meat chunks, mostly boneless, in a rich onion gravy. If the idea of eating goat troubles you, thereís a lamb version on Friday and Saturday nights. I was also very impressed with chingrir malaikari ($10.95), a dish of large shrimp in a rich, golden coconut-cream sauce. Our " Daal (Mushur) " ($5.50) was a filling dish of orange lentils done up with cumin seeds and a mixture of sweet spices. Another possible foil for the hotter dishes, although nothing at Royal India was served to us over-spiced, might be a glass of sweet lassi ($2.50), a yogurt-based drink.
Masala tea ($1.50) has a nice flavor of boiled milk and spices, without caffeine. This is what chai was like before it was Americanized. The Royal India menu lists some Bengali desserts and claims that Bengal is renowned for sweets, but none was available on our Saturday-night visit, so we had good versions of three familiar items. The badami kheer ($2.25) is rice pudding, improved with cardamom and almonds. Gulab jamun ($2.25) is a couple of doughnut holes, deceptively hot, served in a syrup of rosewater and a lot of sugar. Take a little at a time with coffee; these can be very pleasantly sweet and greasy. Badami kulfi ($2.95) is pistachio-cardamom ice cream, here creamier and less icy than most.
Service looks like itís all family members. The restaurant has been open long enough to attract some knowledgeable customers, but the staff doesnít mind explaining things to newcomers. Our waiterís recommendations were all excellent, but itís possible that everything on the menu is excellent. Itís hard to build much atmosphere in such a small room, but paintings of tigers and background sitar music make it clear that youíre not in Kansas anymore.
Although The Spice is Right by Monica Bhide (Callawind, 2001) doesnít do much with Bengali cooking, it is full of the simpler, fresher flavors found at Royal India. I think this kind of home cooking is much more useful than the elaborate dishes and restaurant specialties featured in so many Indian cookbooks. Bhide seems typical of a number of young Asian-American hobby cooks Iíve encountered recently who are interested in many cuisines and regions and have lived in a lot of places. Bhideís family is originally from Multan, in Pakistan; she was born in Delhi, grew up in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, went to college in Bangalore and St. Louis, married a South Indian, lived in Cleveland, traveled widely, and now lives in Framingham! Do people in Framingham know what treasure is among them? Bhide has a nose for recipes from all over and is willing to invent things, like tandoori turkey or a chicken dish rolled in tortillas, and put them next to a workable recipe for uttapam ó a South Indian pancake Iíve been searching out for a long time. She also mentions Web sites on every page of her book, so you can look up obscure foods ó although an Indian grocery will have everything you need for her recipes.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com