Abu Dhabi is teeming with chaat stands, cafes and restaurants run by Indians for Indians, offering a unique choice of regional dishes and snacks as expansive and diverse as the subcontinent itself. Hallie Engel takes a tour. India has a population of more than a billion people, and probably as many varieties and types of food. To sample the breadth of native cuisine, you would need to dedicate a lifetime to traversing every inch of the country, eating your way through villages, towns and cities. If that sounds a little daunting, you could opt instead to explore Abu Dhabi, where the Indian expatriate community has imported food from every corner of the subcontinent.
I work night shifts, returning home from my office around 6:30 each morning, my stomach growling. With no International House of Pancakes in sight, I usually go for an Indian breakfast at Saber Cafeteria. Tucked away in a dusty alley near my flat in Al Markaziyah, it's a modest affair with no menu. I receive a few curious stares every time I walk through the door: I'm probably their sole female customer, definitely the only American, but the other diners shuffle down the bench to make room for me at their table. I smile at the waiter and he brings me my usual: pieces of bread known as Kerala perotta, some coconut chutney and a plate of potato curry. The bread is warm and flaky, the chutney intensely sweet, and the potatoes bright yellow from a liberal dose of turmeric. This, along with a cup of tea, leaves me full and very content.
The Indian dining scene in the capital is as diverse as it is authentic, unlike its counterparts in the West, with menus of safe, standard dishes prepared for foreigners. "Restaurants here are run by Indians for Indians," says the Calcutta-born expat Gilgamesh Kabir, a pilot whose travels expose him to Indian cooking throughout Europe and the United States. At the end of the day, though, he's partial to Abu Dhabi. "You get a massive variety of food here, because there are people here from all over."
In my central neighbourhood, I've found a haunt to satisfy every craving. For vegetarian, I head to Evergreen Restaurant, situated next to a Bollywood cinema. I study the posters advertising the coming films before going in, staring at pictures of moustachioed gangsters, coquettish leading ladies, and once, a man astride a giant rooster. Distractions aside, Evergreen is a great place for a lunchtime thali, an assortment of dishes served in small bowls on a steel platter. It's a chance to try a little of everything, and roaming waiters spoon out extra portions until I wave my napkin in surrender. To heat things up, I grab some mango pickles or a few green chillies from the the condiments tray in the centre of my table, and cool the burn with sips of buttermilk.
For something sophisticated, there's Mughlai cuisine from the north, described by India Palace's head chef, Rashid Raza, as very rich; full of cashews, cream saffron and ghee. A softly spoken man with a gentle smile, Raza grew up cooking with his uncle, and honed his skills at the Taj School in Delhi, where he was taught to "make gravies, find the right temperatures to work with, and create the real taste of Mughlai".
I can't resist the butter chicken, a perennial favourite in India and the West. Consisting of rich orange gravy filled with smoky hunks of tandoor grilled meat, it's an indulgent meal I can never finish in one sitting. While it doesn't quite match the version I had in Mumbai, it comes close. Raza explains, "We make it the same here as we do in India. It has a classic taste, famous there and all over the world."
To sidestep the usual bread-and-curry routine, Indian-Chinese is worth a try. When I first moved to Abu Dhabi, I was confused by the sight of wontons and noodles on the menu at Indian restaurants. I decided they must just be offered to placate curry-phobes. Gilgamesh Kabir corrects me: it was cooks in India's lone Chinatown, located in Delhi, who created a new type of fusion cuisine: "Chinese food done to Indian tastes: extremely spicy, with ginger, turmeric and onions, basically, Indian food with soy sauce." Imported to Abu Dhabi, many dishes are native staples in their own right. Ghobi Manchurian, cauliflower fried in a hot, garlicky sauce is to India as chop suey is to the US, born of immigrants to please to locals.
Chaat, Indian street snacks, are perfect for a quick bite. Served at open-air stands, there are sweets and savouries galore, but I like samosas. A few weeks ago, I ordered a couple for takeaway from Evergreen and watched in horrified silence as the server mashed them with a fork, destroying my dinner. He kept going, though, adding chickpeas, a ladleful of watery yoghurt, tamarind sauce, diced tomatoes and a sprinkling of shredded coriander. The final product was an overload of tastes and textures, from the crunchy shells to the soft filling, tangy yogurt countered by sweet tamarind, and a mellow aftertaste from the coriander. If only it were so easy the world over to saddle up to a counter for something cheap and delicious, no need to wait around for an overpriced appetiser served on a bed of wilted lettuce.
Still, the most interesting experiences always seem to happen in the most humble of places. One morning at Saber, I decided to try something new and pointed at the meal being consumed by the patron to my right, a flaky white roll of some unknown substance and a bowl of brown lentils. When my order arrived a few minutes later, I tried asking my server for an explanation, but he didn't speak English, nor I Hindi. Before digging in, I gathered evidence like a culinary Nancy Drew by snapping a picture of it with my mobile phone. With my fork, I broke the mystery loaf into chunks. It was firmer than I'd expected, dense and heavy enough to stave off hunger until lunchtime. Taking my first bite, I found it bland and a tad gritty, but a good match for the curried lentils. After a few more mouthfuls I headed home, determined to get to the bottom of things. The next week, I dropped by Kabir's apartment and showed him the picture of the mystery meal on my phone. He studied it in silence before going to his bookcase. Filled with titles on Indian culture, history and food, he scanned the bottom shelf before selecting a tiny volume of recipes from the southern state of Kerala. He leafed through several pages and handed it to me. "Puttu," he said, a note of triumph in his voice. Made of steamed rice powder, it's a traditional breakfast in the south, but so regionalised that he, a northerner, had never had it. We agreed to meet up for a morning meal soon, so Kabir can give it a try. As Raza said, "With Indian food, the taste, the colours: everything is good." And in Abu Dhabi, everything is available, from high end to humble, northern to southern, within the space of a few blocks.
With no menus or ones bearing little description of what's being served, experimenting with Indian food in Abu Dhabi can feel like a crap shoot, especially at a chaat stand. Chaat items are often billed as appetizers in the west, despite the fact Indians generally don't do starters, instead relying on these small dishes for a quick, between-meals nibble. There are a lot to try, but start with one of these: Panipuri: Bite-sized flavour bombs consisting of a fried shell filled with a watery mix of chickpeas, onion, tamarind and sundry spices, depending on the whims of the chef. Panipuri taste great dipped in a sweet or minty chutney and are a traditional finale to a chaat session. Bombay Mix: Filled with puffed rice and squiggly chickpea flour noodles, Bombay Mix resembles edible confetti. It's spicy and crunchy, heavy on salt and sweetened by diced tomatoes. It's easy to inhale an entire order, but it also makes a nice side; just add a couple spoonfuls to a plate of chicken tikka. Pav Baji: A spicy curry of mashed potatoes and vegetables, pav baji is served with a pair of toasted buns and topped with tomato, onion, coriander and a pat of butter. It's perfect in size: just enough to tide over the single diner until supper, but eaten with a few crispy pakoras, it makes a satisfying meal. Jalebi: Originating in Iran, this sweet has been adopted by India and most chaat stands will have a pile of these chewy, pretzel-shaped deserts. Orange or yellow in colour, jalebi is made from flour flavoured with saffron and rose water to form a batter that is drizzled into oil for deep frying. Where to go for authentic Indian food * Evergreen Restaurant: El Dorado Cinema Building * India Palace: Al Meena Street * Saber Cafeteria: Corner of Hamadan and Electra, behind the Greenhouse Centre Building