India Palace

Words by Tom King, photos by Jamie Roper"We prepare your meal carefully for your taste and health. All dishes are cooked individually in traditional Indian style" --[India Palace menu][1].Population of India: 1,027,015,247 (2001 census)."...Folk knowledge has told us that a new dialect emerges every 24 miles and the taste of food changes each leap of 48 (miles)" - Shekhar Deshpande, in The Cultural Diversity of India. ![][2]Diversity, thy name is India Over a billion people -- castes and tribes, "big men" and "little men," urban and village dwellers, those who are pure and those who are polluted -- Indian society is an complex tapestry of clashes, contrasts, complements and compromises. A culture in flower under Mughal (Moghul, or Mongol) rule from the 16th to the 18th century, then ruthlessly "civilized" by the British until the 1930s, Indian culture has also registered the influence of Chinese, Turkish, Persian and Portuguese visitors.Though Buddhism once flourished in India, three-fourths of the Indian population are now adherents of Hinduism. Of the remaining faithful, nearly 130 million are Muslims. Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism are also practiced openly, true to India's tradition of religious tolerance.While Hindi is the national language of India, English now also has official status. Fifteen other "official" languages are spoken, with a staggering 1,568 recognized dialects in use in rural areas.Indian cooking is equally diverse. It isn't helpful to classify Indian food as typical of 'Northern,' 'Southern' and so on. Indian cooking varies dramatically within regions, and often between cities and towns. The broadest of classifications allow for eight distinct regional cuisines: Kashmiri, Punjabi, Mughlai, Bengali, Maharashtrian, Goan, Gujarati and Rajasthani. Those who frequent Indian restaurants are familiar with the Punjabi and Mughlai cuisines; many restaurants in India and most Indian restaurants abroad compose their menus primarily of dishes typical to these two regions. The region of Punjab gave tandoori to India, a method of cooking which uses a wood-fired clay urn to both "grill" and roast foods simultaneously. An astonishing variety of flatbreads are cooked on the superheated sides of the urn, and leavened breads are puffed quickly (and charred perfectly) by the inferno within. Highly spiced and brightly colored marinades are used to flavor meats before cooking -- the orange-red hue of tandoori meats is unmistakable.Mughlai cuisine is, literally, food fit for royalty. The Moghul emperors were great lovers of the arts, and architecture in particular (a Moghul emperor built the Taj Mahal). Reigning over India for over two hundred years, the Moghuls left a deep and long lasting influence on Delhi's cuisine. Rich, dairy-enhanced sauces and butter-based curries, highly seasoned, roasted meats, and elaborate, heavily sweetened desserts were devised to pamper the sophisticated palates of the court. Biryani, a spectacular casserole of spiced meat and rice, enriched with cream and ghee (clarified butter, a staple cooking fat in India), became a favorite celebration dish. Good ingredients, rich spices and slow cooking were, and continue as, the hallmarks of Mughlai style.Balhar Choong Mr. Choong is a hard-working man. His office is the cramped and cluttered sanctuary of the busy owner-operator: calendars, clipboards, a bottle of aspirin, trade magazines and a toothbrush in the pen cup. Coats and trousers -- cooks' uniforms -- take up much of the tiny space, boxes of dishes and boxes of supplies take up the rest. Brightly colored posters of deities and spiritual leaders and a small silver shrine, deity unknown, set the space apart from countless similar restaurant offices, as does a mysterious, magic marker notice scrawled in Hindi on the wall. The snoozing couch, however, is a universal fixture."I'm now working about seventy hours a week at this restaurant," Choong states without a trace of complaint. He works lead position on the line during lunch and dinner service, a hands-on leader. Show me a beloved and successful restaurant and -- in most cases -- I'll bet the owner is always on the premises. Between meals, Choong tends to the endless business of restauranting.Mr. Choong is Punjabi, and he cooks primarily in the Punjabi and Mughlai manners. He opened his first India Palace in Boston, seventeen years ago. Choong still owns the place -- currently run by a member of his family -- and he visits several times a year. In 1991, he opened the second India Palace on 87th Street in Overland Park; in 1998, the Lawrence location debuted. Lately, he's mulling over a fourth India Palace, location as yet unknown. ![][3] Sunday Night Faced with an interested yet inexperienced public, language-limited foreign cooks tend to explain their dishes with broad and often vague descriptions. The menu at India Palace follows this pattern -- the specific and predominant spices of individual dishes aren't listed. Instead descriptions are limited to: "...marinated in special sauce," or "...cooked with exotic Indian spices." Indian cooking employs an exceptionally large number of spices in infinite combinations, difficult for the diner to isolate and identify. A little more information would be nice, perhaps on a future menu printing. Thanks to our media-made global village and our cultural melting pot -- and our penchant for sending the military (and attendant reporters) to foreign lands -- we in the U.S. are becoming increasingly savvy about foreign cultures. And people know more about food these days. Taking any opportunity to inform the dining public only fuels enthusiasm and understanding.Blogging photographer Jamie Roper was in the mood for something spicy. The only items denoted HOT on the menu were the vindaloos, either chicken, lamb or shrimp (you can request that other dishes be prepared according to your own spiciness threshold). Vindaloo was originally made with pork and stewed with onions, garlic, wine and vinegar. It was a dish brought to the province of Goa, on the western coast of India, by the Portuguese, and was soon adapted to the local palate through the additions of chiles and masala. A masala is a seasoning base, most commonly a mixture of ground dry spices, used as a marinade or a sauce base. Indian cooks blend dried spices in ever-changing combinations to suit both personal tastes and the characters of specific ingredients. The most well-known masala is curry powder, actually a British invention, an attempt to approximate Indian seasoning for curry-starved old soldiers back in Britain. In India, curry means gravy or sauce -- masala flavors the sauce. And it's the vinegar aspect of vindaloo curry, as well as its chile heat, which sets it apart from other curries. Sharp and tart, the vinegar cuts through the fattiness of pork and mutton -- a common vindaloo in India -- and complements the slight gaminess of lamb. Mr. Choong's version is lighter on the vinegar -- off-putting to many Americans -- but solid on firepower. Choong's vindaloo seems tame at first taste, but the effect is cumulative: a few bites into it, a pleasant, back-of-the-tongue burn had blossomed and Roper and I were wiping our noses.The other components of this meal were a celebration of gluttony, a vice easy to indulge at India Palace. The starter was vegetable soup -- a spiced broth given body by creamy lentils and flavored with coriander -- with a crisp, cumin seed-studded papdum made of lentil flour; the paneer nan, a wheat flour bread stuffed with homemade paneer (a fresh curd cheese similar to cottage cheese), and flavored with fresh cilantro leaves. Then there was the Palace Platter, a sampling of hot appetizers: vegetable pakoras, bits of onion, potato, peas and carrots bound by a chickpea-flour batter and deep fried; vegetable samosas, little conical turnovers stuffed with potato and peas; the tikki, a deep-fried potato croquette; and paneer pakora, pinkie-sized slices of pastry stuffed with cheese. Mint chutney, known as Pudina chutney in India, is the traditional accompaniment to fried foods. An emerald green puree of fresh mint, maybe a few sprigs of cilantro, some hot green chiles, a little acid (citrus juice, tamarind juice or vinegar) then thinned with water, pungent Pudina cuts the fat of deep fried foods and sets the tongue to tingling, hot and cool at once.And because you can never really have enough peas and potatoes, we also ordered up an aloo mutter (aloo means potatoes, mutter means peas), with a dense rich gravy of ginger and tomatoes spiked with turmeric, coriander and jeera powder (ground, toasted cumin seed). We washed it all down with a shared bottle of Taj Mahal beer -- light and faintly sweet, the 22-ounce bottle yielding us each a beer and a half.Buffet I eat at India Palace about once a month, usually the lunch buffet. At $6.95, its one of the best lunch deals downtown. On a recent visit, the buffet offered the following items:A thin and pleasantly astringent chicken soup, pakoras and samosas (fritters and turnovers), channa masala (chick pea curry), a very tasty vegetable korma (potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and peas cooked with cream, yogurt, coconut and coriander) and aloo bell pepper (stewed chunks of potato and sweet red peppers with turmeric and cumin). There was Chicken Tikka Masala (more later), chicken tandoori, lamb curry and the intriguing egg mushroom -- sauteed white mushrooms bound with scrambled eggs and garnished with scallions. Spicy-sweet mint chutney, tart-sweet tamarind sauce, a mild, pickled onion chutney and a cooling raita of cucumber and yogurt made up the condiment selection. Sliced cucumbers, chunks of pineapple and wedges of crisp iceberg lettuce provided fresh textural counterpoints.The restaurant was nearly full (about 100 seats), and carry-out business was brisk.The lunch buffet at India Palace is a boon to time-pressured downtowners; our party of four was in and out -- well-fed and comfortable -- in under forty minutes. CTM Dry spices common to Indian restaurant cooking are aniseed (a taste of licorice), cardamom, cumin, dried chiles, clove, cinnamon, fennel, fenugreek (a slight maple-like flavor), mustard seeds, white and black peppers and turmeric. Turmeric is a tropical herb, a member of the ginger family bearing a golden rhizome which, when dried and ground and added to the pot, bleeds its golden color into the preparation much like saffron, (though turmeric substitutes for saffron in color only). It is turmeric, in combination with tomatoes, chili powder and cream, that imparts the burnished orange glow to the sauce of Chicken Tikka Masala (CTM). ![][4] I rarely eat chicken anymore, the fallout of a trip in the mid-80s to the chicken "farm" of a nationally known poultry processor. But I'll gladly forgo disgust and the pangs of conscience for a plate of CTM, as it's known to the British, who invented the dish in a Glasgow curry house. Britain's Food Service Intelligence reports that 23 million portions of CTM are served each year in the U.K. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook recently declared CTM to be "Britain's true national dish." Mr. Choong concurs: "It is our most popular dish," he smiles. It has been on the lunch buffet each time I visit; it's the dish Choong recommends to first-timers -- marinated pieces of white-meat chicken roasted in the tandoor, cloaked in a luxurious sauce aromatic with ginger and garlic, enriched and mellowed with tomatoes, butter and cream, spiced with cardamom, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, mild red chili powder and paprika, fenugreek and turmeric.It's a sublime creation -- complex yet comforting, foreign yet familiar. Accompanied by the kitchen's irreproachable basmati rice -- the nutty-tasting grains fluffy and separate, cooked to the tooth, flecked with sweet gratings of carrot and a judicious scattering of toasted cumin seeds, the occasional nail-shaped clove -- India Palace presents a fine Chicken Tikka Masala, even better reheated on the following day. In the dreary times of winter, when I place a higher importance on comfort foods, there's a dramatic spike on the graph of my Annual Consumption of CTM. And Mr. Choong will gladly make adjustments to the chili factor of the dish, to stoke the fire within. Behind The Swinging Door The kitchen is clean and lean, almost spare. The line consists of a cold table, a steam table, eight burners, the tandoor, a couple of large stockpot burners, a fryer and a prep and plating area (if memory serves). Sinks and shelving line one wall; there is a walk-in refrigerator and a pantry cupboard. Four cooks -- all from India -- work the line at both lunch and dinner services, in a quiet kitchen, no blaring radio. Music is a powerful distraction, often detrimental in situations requiring intense concentration and clear communication, and involving sharp edges and extreme heat. India Palace has a menu of over 110 items -- it is essential that the cooks keep their minds on their work.The tandoor heats up to around 700 degrees -- it's extremely uncomfortable to hold your hand a foot above it for longer than a count of three. A tray of masala-marinated chicken is brought from the refrigerator, the meat bright orange in color (due in part to paprika, chile powder and turmeric in the masala, but often enhanced by red food coloring). The pieces of meat are threaded onto yard-long, stainless steel skewers, and then lowered into the blazing tandoor -- not the charcoal-fired terra cotta vessel of tradition, but a modern, clay-lined, gas-fired, steel encased unit now standard in Indian restaurant kitchens. Seven minutes later, the skewers are removed and hung on a rack to cool for a brief time. The meat is then removed and served as is, or used in other preparations.Always Returning Atithi devo bhava goes the old Mughlai saying; "the guest is truly your god." I'm always impressed by the courtesy of the staff at India Palace. The virtue of hospitality is a cherished principle of Indian society. I suppose that in a country of a billion people, there must be such principles -- sooner or later, you have to learn to get along with others. Hospitality is one of the reasons I return regularly to India Palace; cleanliness is another. I appreciate the discretion of high backed booths, and the insistent sizzle of the platters of Chicken Bombay carried high through the dining room. The music isn't too loud, the lights aren't too bright, the décor understated. I like seeing the numerous tables of Indian diners and the owner present each time I visit. The listing of fresh-baked Indian breads always affords pleasant consideration, and the sight of a condiment caddy coming my way quickens the pulse. I like the big-handled, stainless steel pans that serve up biryani and curries. I like the prices -- most main dishes are around ten dollars. I like the Palace Dinner for Two ($30.95) and Gulab Jamun, a somewhat startling dessert of fried dough balls soaked in very sweet syrup. I like feeling comfortable, and I like leaving happy, looking forward to the next time. I've yet to have a negative experience at India Palace -- not even a hint of one. Only good things happen here. [1]: [2]: [3]: [4]:


Shelby 18 years ago

My favorite IP dish is the Saag Paneer Korma, BTW...which is not exactly pretty to look at.

tomking 17 years, 9 months ago

Here's a good comment:

I am an ex-Lawrencian(?) and I lived in Lawrence, as a KU student originally from India, in an era when the closest Indian store and restaurant were in Kansas City. The first Indian store opened in Lawrence when I was leaving, in the late '80's. I still keep up with the goings-on in Lawrence, and it heartening to note that there are now TWO Indian restaurants in Lawrence.

However, I am writing to point out a few misconceptions about India and Indian cuisine, and correct the record. First, Hindi is not the "National Language". It never has been. Hindi is the most-spoken language, but it is not the National language. Admittedly, this is somewhat an esoteric point, that has escaped even most Indians, especially those who are from the North. There was a huge 'revolution' in the South in 1967 to prevent Hindi from becoming the National language. I don't want to turn this into a political issue, but I want to set the fact straight.

This leads me into the next point about the statement "broadest of classifications allow for eight distinct regional cuisines". Conspicuous by the absence is a whole swath of land which represents "Southern" cuisine: Madras, Andhra and Kerala cuisine. It is the broad Madras and Andhra cuisines which are home to the characteristic fiery dishes, and Kerala is the home of the spices (I once defended a thesis titled "The root cause of Western Civilization was the European craving for Indian food, and Kerala spices" at the erstwhile local watering-hole called "Sanctuary" following a night of indulging in "$1.50 pitcher specials"!!). There are some fantastic restaurants serving authenic South Indian food in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I now make my home.

Finally, while I agree with the sentiments of "atithi devo bhava" it's not a Mughlai saying. That is last line of a four-line verse from the Rig Veda, in Sanskrit, which antedates the Mughals by at least 3000 years (Original: "Mathru devo bhava; Pithru devo bhava; Achaarya devo bhava; atithi devo bhava" meaning "May my mother be my God, may my father be my God; may my teacher be my God; may my guests be my God"). The Mughals were (at the earliest) from the 13th Century, and spoke Urdu, a language derived from Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit.

I do immensely appreciate the author taking time to point out the Chicken Tikka Masala is a totally British creation (I doubt that you'd ever find that in any restaurant in India, perhaps only as an inside joke), similar to American Chop Suey served in Chinese restaurants, which was a San Francisco invention.

Thank you for indulging my ramblings. We hope that there comes a day when Lawrence, Kansas, will be blessed with a restaurant serving cuisine from each major region of India. After all, I have rarely seen a city (I have lived in several; after 20 years in the US, I finally got around to live long enough in one State that I had to renew my driver's license!!) that appreciates the cultural and ethnic diversity of its population as Lawrence!

Go Jayhawks!!

Sriram Naganathan San Jose, CA

Tim vonHolten 18 years ago

finally a place that means spicy when they say spicy. i ordered the chicken vindaloo, thinking that the food was rated on the gringo scale of heat to which i'm accustomed (5 hot peppers = you're comfortable with cracked pepper in your ranch dressing). it wasn't. it wasn't long before i was nearly hallucinating. hot damn. anyway, i love the place. the masalas, the saags, the kormas. all good. and i was surprised by the reviewer who wrote of small portions; sure, your food comes out in a tiny silver bowl, but somehow i always end up taking half of it home (where it's just as delicious the next day). the brunch is excellent, and my only complaint would be that they don't rotate the choices very much. this is a minor complaint, since what's there is always great. as long as they put tandoori chicken and vegetable korma on the buffet line, i won't complain. and they're very kid friendly.

lazz 18 years ago

India Palace is terrific. So are King and Roper. This is top-notch stuff here, worthy of any publication in the world. Yes, we're fortunate to have such a worldly variety of tasty, affordable dining; we're also fortunate to have these talented guys doing their writing and photography in our own hometown. At no expense to us, the reader. Remarkable.

Shelby 18 years ago

I also like this place...but I can't go there very often because it's so pricey. Of course, the lunch buffet is only 6.95, but I never remember to go there for lunch, and each entree is around $10 during dinner hours. It seems to be way too much for what you actually get...which is good, don't get me wrong, but it's just rice and meat with some spicy sauce of some sort. I've had India Palace a lot and I can say I've NEVER been blown away by anything I've eaten.

Now, if you want to talk underwhelming Indian food, let's talk Jade Indian Grill...

Jason 18 years ago

I'm in complete agreement. All my experiences here have been nothing but good. I hadn't actually thought about how amazing that is until you mentioned it... I know where I'm eating on Friday :)

Jason 18 years ago

I have one complaint with IP. I'm hungry NOW! They should be open for brunch. 11:30 just doesn't cut it... I suppose I can wait...

Jason 18 years ago

UPDATE: It was tasty and I am too full to move. With some left over for the predrinking meal... Dinner, I think it's called...

Tanetti 18 years ago

We just tried IP this weekend. We had gotten spoiled by Ruchi in Overland Park (best Indian food EVER and love the staff) but tried this local joint and it was comparable. Much better than the place on 39th Street in KCMO, which I believe has the same name but doesn't seem to be affiliated judging by this review (which I skimmed because of its ungodly length, so I may be wrong). Anyway, BUTTER CHICKEN!!! That's all I can say -- I'm still in heaven several days later. And it may seem that you don't get much for your money, but it was at least two meals for me (granted, I ate them at once). You get what you pay for -- Ruchi is at least as expensive as IP for a similar amount of food. I would request that naan be served with all meals, and why does the crispy bread thing before the meal taste like pork sausage? Anyway, am definitely trying the buffet and soon!

jeanne 18 years ago

Nice review. I love India Palace --one of my top 2 favorites in Lawrence. I go there more often than I should perhaps. The buffet offers such nice variety and always some great vegetarian dishes (although I wish they put veggie samosas out more often, rather than the chicken ones). Love the staff as well. They are always very polite and often take the time to chat a bit (without ever being intrusive). My friends had a surprise birthday party for me there this year, and everything was so perfect. It's nice to know that the kitchen is clean and well run. I've never caught a glimpse!

jeanne 18 years ago

My favorite is anything (zuchinni, okra, you name it) masala, the pakoras, veggie samosas, and the perfect rice! The nan is so good too, and the raita is a tasty side to take a little of the bite out of the spicier dishes. Okay, I like it all!!!!!

I must say, I agree with laz regarding King and Roper. Excellent quality we're enjoying here. Thanks.

scarlett 18 years ago

Great review for a great didn't talk about the bread, not enough...the bread is D I V I N E, perfectly singed, warm, delicious (unlimited quantities at lunch)...great to have with a little curry...definitely the best in Lawrence, the bread and the restaurant, underpriced for the consistency and quality...always good...I'm going for lunch soon.

suerae 18 years ago

I love eating at India Palace. The staff is top notch and so is the tasty food. Go there twice a week!


AnotherJason 17 years, 11 months ago

Reading this article and comments makes me feel like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when he runs into that woman in Wyoming... we've all been invited to this wonderful place, and we all have the same near-neurotic drive to be there- a drive that others might see as wacky, but we see it as the only norm. I can only wish I that could get onto a spaceship full of India Palace food and just fly away forever. Or, get into a phone booth, have India Palace's food poured onto me, and be forced to stay there. Or, like, be rolled up in a big piece of nan and have someone pour a big vat of lamb biryani... ahem. Sorry. Suffice it to say that I may never leave Lawrence.

Yeah, I have only one complaint regarding India Palace, too... I don't have a second stomach. With food like this, your tongue is the Id, and sheer physical pain is the only Superego, and somehow the Id just takes over... I mean, this is the only place where I can just sit and eat and eat and eat... If you see me eating there, I've probably already been full for a half an hour. Not that I'm complaining.

Best restaurant in Lawrence, HANDS DOWN. If you don't agree, the addiction just hasn't sunken in on you yet- keep trying, it will. So many wonderful spices- nothing else seems to hit the spot any more. For instance, at first, I merely "liked" India Palace... So much for that position.

I have to say kudos to the writers- CTM (AND veggie korma) are both better the next day- especially if you have a toaster oven (it kind of crispens up the rice after a long night in the fridge, and re-cooks things, rather than merely warming them up). What a great observation.

Lastly, the staff are just wonderful, through and through- great people; very helpful.

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