Budapest is a city of great restaurants, but sometimes its denizens do crave something other than the traditional stick-heavily-to-your-ribs local cuisine. And kitchen gods help the vegetarians! With its increasing return to prominence as a Hungarian cultural metropolis, though, internationalism is again becoming the name of the city’s restaurant game. Particularly growing by leaps and bounds are Indian eateries: Ten years ago, Budapest sported exactly one Indian restaurant; today that number is seven with rumors of at least two more in the works. Herewith, a trio of examples of the Subcontinent’s culinary presence in Hungary’s capital.
Kama Sutra: What’s in a Name?
First and foremost, there’s the name. “Yes, that question always pops up,” remarks co-owner/manager Allen Diwan; it is unknown whether he’s aware of his pun, but no matter, for his ready answer continues with zen-like simplicity: “The answer lies with the question,” he says, “curiosity brings you in.” After that, the bar-raising standards of Kama Sutra are what remains to keep customers coming. Thus far, it has not been a problem.
The Kama Sutra, a majestic and deceptively spacious restaurant of 345 square meters, began a mere 2-1/2 years ago from inconceivably humble origins. Diwan first came to Budapest to study medicine but, dissatisfied with his lot in life, received a Calling with a capital “C” to enter a completely different sphere. He staked his claim on AlkotmÃ?Â¡ny utca, opening a tiny twenty-five square meter space cranking out delectable no-nonsense (and cheap!) sandwiches. Together with a part-time student employee, Diwan managed to collect enough to both expand his repertoire and to attract the investing interest of Israeli businessman Josi Hansouth. An eclectic team of cooks from Pakistan, India and England to run the show behind the scenes in four languages was assembled, and the rest is history.
Sort of. After all, Kama Sutra has been open for a mere three months and Budapest’s Indian restaurant business is exploding at present. On the other hand, the Kama Sutra clientele carried over from the sandwich stall days remains loyal. And to bring in more, there’s that name…
Once you get in the door, though, the enthusiasm for restauranteuring itself is evident. The interior is generous splashed with cheerful purples and everywhere flickers candlelight. Kama Sutra is no exception in its generosity to vegetarians, a staple of all Indian food, but this restaurant’s vegetarian section is impressive with no fewer than fifteen distinct dishes for the choosing. (For the record, a nice helping of Palak Paneer helped put my fiancÃ?Â©e into labor a few hours later – we might as well foster an urban legend for this worthy spot.) And “no one,” says Diwan, “has complained about portion sizes.” There’s no doubt about this claim – wait until you see one – nor could the price of the businessman’s lunch offerings (950 forints!) draw reproach.
Kama Sutra promises not to stay stagnant, either. By the time you read this, the menu will have been further expanded. Not at all surprising for management that wants to continue evolving the cuisine, nor a place seeking to keep people titillated. So to speak.
Salaam Bombay: Redefining a Classic
Here’s the first thing you do upon taking a seat at Salaam Bombay: Order a Cobra. Not only will you be enjoying a nice rice beer, but it should help acclimatize into what you might be tempted to call Nouveau Indian, but which management has dubbed as Indian Cuisine Redefined.
Indeed, those three little words act beyond slogan and philosophy for the menu: they are sentiments evident from your entrance. To those with preconceived notions of “traditional” Indian restaurants gleaned from eateries outside the Subcontinent, the interior will immediately come as a surprise. Non-existent is the ubiquitous elephant knickknacks and dim lighting; in their place is a light comfortable atmosphere done in orange tones.
“Most Indian restaurants, whether here in Budapest, in London or in continental Europe have got this depressing look, this ‘curry house’ look about them,” says co-owner Rajesh Bathija. The funny thing is this kind of place doesn’t exist in India. Restaurants there are very modern. You would be shocked.” Interestingly enough, the entire place was designed virtually – the Bombay interior designer has never set foot in Hungary, putting together the amazing look purely via internet.
Culinarily speaking, what focuses Bathija and his Bombayite cooks is the concept of “pre-placed food,” the exemplification of which is shown in the ought-to-be trademarked “sizzlers.” He explains, “Essentially, what happens in Indian restaurant is that you order your curry, you order your rice separately, you order your naan separately. What we do is ‘replate’ the whole thing as a meal. So you’ll get your plate with a little salad, grilled vegetables, rice or bread and your main course. We’ve taken Indian food and reshaped in a European way.” This presentation is taken for granted in Western culture, but refreshing, interesting and definitely different when seen in the Indian context.
Salaam Bombay is not quite three months old, but appears already destined to establish itself as a high point on the diner’s map. Though the restaurant represents Bathija’s first foray into restauranteuring, the ideas keep flowing; perhaps a fresh perspective does indeed go a long way. While looking for new avenues of investment, rumors of the imminent closure of Bombay Palace on Andrassy ut spurred Bathija to meet with that restaurant’s owners. Salaam Bombay was the result. As for current plans with the old venue, Bathija says the locale will be filled with the Bombay Express fast-food restaurant, certain to foster further Indian cuisine addiction.
The term “salaam” can be best translated as “hail.” An apt name, then: salaam Salaam Bombay! And order yourself up another Cobra.
Taj Mahal: Exploring the Subcontinent
Before you flip that velvet-covered (!) Taj Mahal menu to the later pages loaded with a frankly impressive amount of choice, you may notice something on page one. In a brief textual introduction stands a nice reminder about Indian food: India is such a nation that, every few hundred kilometers within, the types of cuisine change. Maybe you’ll consider the sheer size of India and realize that, though you indeed love Indian food with all your heart, you’ve experienced but a sliver of the culture’s kitchen. Maybe you’ll have a revelation. Or maybe you’ll just want to eat. And who can blame you, really?
Taj Mahal has spiced its menu with a nice sampling from around the Subcontinent. Among the familiar items from northern India (according to the Taj Mahal owner, most Indian restaurants offer menus composed of about 90% northern) are selections representing locales such as Madras, Kashmir, Hyderabad and Goa. The latter, at least on this menu, apparently presents offerings for the brave of heart. Most of the Goa creations – take, for example, the prawns vindaloo – carry that delicious warning “very hot!”
What was that about an impressive amount of choice? One look at the vegetarian section alone should convince all. Vegetarians, of course, already savor Indian cuisine for its outstanding range of non-meat items. They’ll be thrilled to hear that Taj Mahal has some twenty-three choices; this is certainly one of the highest totals in Budapest. Taj Mahal also boasts fourteen types of bread and some dangerous-looking cocktails with names like Dalhi’s Devils, Babur’s Passion and the mighty Royal Bengal Tiger.
Dotting the Taj Mahal menu are dishes “made with a karahi pan” or “a traditional balti” or “handi.” Haven’t heard of these before? All right then, here is a trio of new terms for use in conjunction with tasty food.
The kahari is a cooking implement that might be best described as akin to a cast iron wok but with one vital difference: Sealed between exterior and interior walls of the pan is an insulating liquid. Your wonderfully warm food heats up the liquid which in turn keeps the dinner that temperature you like it. Want to see one of these swell little doodads? No problem. Select appropriately – choices begin with the Karahi chicken, beef, lamb, and paneer dishes – and you’ll get it served up in a miniature version of this neat kitchen item. The traditional balti and handi use the same cast iron and these, too, will serve as serving dishes; try the Balti chicken or lamb. And doesn’t the Handi lamb with saffron and tomato sauce sound goodÃ¢Â?Â¦?
No matter how you sate your yen for Indian at the Taj Mahal, you just might walk away with an even greater appreciation of the nation’s bountiful kitchen. Simply put, the Taj Mahal’s menu reflects India’s diversity and variety, and that, says its manager, “is good for India and it’s good for us.” He could have meant the restaurant or perhaps us lovers of an Indian cuisine that could be explored forever.