What India Really Tastes Like
Samosa House offers authentic flavors beyond the familiar standards
By Richard Foss
Imagine a typical meal at an Indian restaurant, and tandoori chicken, seekh kebab, lamb curry and naan bread fresh from the oven may come to mind. These dishes are delicious and popular all over the world, but they aren’t common throughout most of India.
This is actually the cuisine of the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, where people eat lots of meat and wheat-based breads prepared in a charcoal burning tandoor oven. About 80% of the people in India are Hindus, many of whom eat little or no meat, and in most of the country rice is the staple grain.
In the United States, we have many restaurants serving the cuisine of Punjab and its neighboring states because more Sikhs and Muslims move here to start restaurants. As a result, we’re less familiar with the cuisine that is most common across that vast subcontinent.
But want not. One of the best places to sample the most popular kind of food in India is Samosa House, a lunch counter inside a market that sells Indian prepared foods, spices, fresh vegetables and even religious supplies such as incense and altars.
What you won’t find is meat, as everything sold or served here is vegetarian. I’m a dedicated omnivore, but while eating here I didn’t miss meat for a moment. After a few thousand years of vegetarian cooking, you get pretty good
Those unfamiliar with Indian food may find the ordering process confusing. When you come to the counter you see a set of trays full of different curries and breads, some of which are identified only by their Indian names. The menu board behind the counter is the same, and the few pictures of food posted around the area aren’t particularly informative. If you don’t know an idly from a chaat, have a browser open on your phone and read up, because the people behind the counter usually pay attention only to the person at the front of the line. Posting descriptions in English would speed up the ordering for people who aren’t from South Asia.
The easiest way to order is to get one of the combination plates called thalis — metal plates with sections to hold rice and various curries, which are served with lentil-vegetable soup called sambar and your choice of either naan or roti bread. (I recommend the whole wheat roti, which is freshly griddled to order.) You can get a two- or three-item combination plate any day, and on Fridays and weekends Samosa House offers expanded thalis in the style of Gujarat or Rajasthan. Gujarati dishes have unexpected combinations of sweet and salty flavors, while Rajasthani features spicier dishes balanced with cooling yogurt.
I usually avoid buffets because most cuisines deteriorate while in the chafing dish, but Indian foods are a special case. Unlike sushi or Chinese stir-fries, curry that has been simmering for hours does not go downhill after a little while in the chafing dish. Nevertheless, I rarely get those curries because Samosa House serves two items that are hard to find anywhere else on the Westside: dosas and uttapam.
Dosas are a kind of crisp crepe made with a rice and bean-based flour that has been slightly fermented to create a flavor reminiscent of sourdough bread. Four types are offered here: a paper dosa that is just the crepe with chutneys and condiments for dipping, masala dosa that is stuffed with spiced potatoes, spring dosa with lightly sautéed vegetables, and Mysore masala dosa with a spicy, garlicky potato vegetable mix.
The spring dosa has a light, fresh flavor, as the mix of cabbage, carrots and onions has the texture you associate with Chinese stir-fries. The vegetables are cooked with noodles in a sauce made with butter, tomato sauce, vinegar and soy, and it’s mild enough that the natural flavors shine through.
On a recent visit I tried the Mysore dosa for the first time, and I think I may like that even better. The curried potatoes were combined with lentils, garlic, cilantro and a type of bean called channa dal, and the result was full of complex flavors and textures. It was a little spicier than the other dosas but not really hot — most items served here are richly and fragrantly spiced but don’t raise a sweat.
A warning, though: while the spring dosa can easily be eaten with your fingers, the moister filling of the Mysore dosa means it falls apart about halfway through. I know that people from South Asia can eat these neatly without utensils, but a look at the front of my shirt as I left proved that I can’t.
The other unusual South Indian item at Samosa House is the uttapam, made with that same slightly sour batter cooked like a pizza and topped with onions and chili. It is served with a bowl of sambar soup, and you can dip the uttapam into the soup to enjoy a spicy crunch along with the rich soup flavored with tart tamarind. Some cooling coconut chutney is also included in case the spice level gets too intense, and you’ll appreciate it as themeal goes on.
The other thing I always get when visiting the Samosa House? A samosa, of course. Whatever else you get, a potato and pea turnover makes a great side dish.
Since almost every meal here is under $10, you’ll have enough left over to get one — and some chai tea or lassi, too.
Samosa House also operates a restaurant (sans market) at 2301 Main St. in Santa Monica.
Samosa House 11510 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City (310) 398-6766 samosahouse.com