I was digging into a pile of lamb chops strewn with green leaves and covered with a fiery red sauce mottled with specks of brown. “I can’t name all these incredible flavors, I’ve never even tasted these flavors. So how on Earth can I write about them?” “Well,” Cathe said, “begin with that.”
I spent a year on the Indian subcontinent, trekking from the lunar landscape and Tibetan monasteries of Ladakh in the Himalayas to the palm-fringed beaches of Tamil Nadu. I ate in many restaurants along the way. But you don’t find good food in restaurants in India, the best food is cooked in private homes, served behind closed doors the tourist can never enter. (And when I did enter those doors, spending weeks in tiny villages, I was too ecstatic to notice the food.) So my dream now would be to go back to a tiny timeless village somewhere in India and eat a meal prepared by a village woman who’s a naturally talented chef and who learned traditional recipes from her mother, as handed down to her by her mother before her. But now, anyone in Tulsa can have this dream come true. Just go to Cumin.
You wouldn’t call Chef Shifali Bhullar a villager. Personable, friendly, articulate, she’s fluent in English, which is not surprising since she’s a graduate of Union High School right here in Tulsa. Her father was an officer in the Indian Air Force and her mom was a schoolteacher. But for the first fifteen years she grew up in her family’s ancestral home in the Punjab northwest of Delhi — if you’ve read “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling, you’ve read about the Punjab — and that was, says Shifali, “pretty much a village”. And the whole family cooked!
“My dad cooks, my mom cooks, my brother cooks, everyone cooks in my family”
says Chef Bhullar
Growing up, she watched, fascinated, and she started cooking herself when she was six. Mostly, she learned from her mother, a formidable personality. “She’s a great cook,” says Shifali. “She’s a lady who does not stop. If anyone comes to our house, they do not leave without eating. Even now, she still won’t sit. Each night she waits up for me to come home from the restaurant so she can cook me a meal, and each night I say, ‘Mom, I just came from a restaurant.’ We’re a close family,” Shifali adds with evident affection.
Cooking is her passion. She grew up used to the freshest vegetables. Just as sometimes happens in Oklahoma, in her Punjab childhood she “grew up with all veggies growing in the back garden, and if not there were always street vendors. Even now, my wife still gardens.” Unfortunately, her gardens can’t supply the restaurant but she does a lot of shopping in Sprouts and Whole Foods. “Expensive but worth it.” She headed back to the kitchen. I was lucky to get a chance to talk to her. She cooks all the dishes herself and takes no shortcuts.
You’ll see a lot of her husband. He manages the front of the house, and he does a very good job. Ask him anything about the food, and he’ll know. The menu… well, surprisingly you’ll see many of the same dishes you see in just about any Indian restaurant in town. Butter chicken, lamb saag, tandoori chicken tikka. But that’s because these dishes all originate from Shifali’s home region… the Punjab. So go anywhere else and you’ll get the Americanized version… go to Cumin and you’ll get the real thing. (To be fair, the owner of India Palace is also from the Punjab, and Desi Wok is above average too for authenticity.) Of course, the rich creamy dishes are not everyday village fare. They are served on special occasions, Shifali tells me, on holidays and especially for weddings.
While you study the menu, you get a free bowl of papadum, Indian potato chips. They are served with three sauces, a mild tamarind, a chutney with chopped onions, and a spicy sauce with mint and coriander. They are beautifully presented, as is the other freebie, the delicious rice studded with peas that comes with every meal. When you order, Mr. Bhullar will ask you how spicy you want the food. If you order mild, be sure to stress that you want the full range of Indian spices but that you don’t want hot chili pepper, capsaicin. Now I’ve always enjoyed telling people that in India people don’t use much heat in their cooking, that chili peppers were brought by the British and real authentic Indian food doesn’t have them, except in Goa where the Portuguese imported them. But Shifali tells me I’m wrong. “Chili in cooking? It depends on the family,” she says. “Some families don’t use it, and some families like it really hot. Our family, we love spicy food.”
The first dish we tried was Butter Chicken and that turned out to be a delight. The chicken is cooked in a traditional Punjabi Tandoor clay oven (as is all the chicken served at Cumin) and then marinated in yogurt and spices. It’s a complicated process. According to one source, “The gravy is made by first heating fresh tomato, garlic, and cardamom into a bright red pulp which is then pureed after cooling, then the chef adds butter, Khoa (an Indian cheese) and various spices, often including asafoetida, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, fenugreek and fresh cream.” “I don’t use asafoetida,” Shifali says, “that’s more of a South Indian thing. But fenugreek… that’s my favorite secret ingredient.” She also uses ground cashews to give a rich nutty flavor. The brown sauce was rich, flavor-packed and impossibly complex. As I said, I couldn’t identify by taste any of the ingredients. I loved it.
There are several other dishes I’ve tried that look just like Butter Chicken. These are Chicken Shahi Korma and Paneer Pasanda. But in each the brown gravy has a totally different flavor. It goes without saying that Shifali doesn’t use curry powder. Instead, she takes exotic ingredients such as cumin and coriander seeds, toasts these seeds separately in a hot pan, and then grinds them. This “gives a whole new aroma” to the food, she says. You can tell that just by looking at the Lamb Kadahi, served in a shiny miniature wok, called a karahi. It’s made with very little sauce and you can see the different spices as little grains studded on the meat alongside sliced bell peppers and bright red tomatoes. Another dish that just exploded with flavor was the Lamb Saag, bright green from the spinach that gives it its name. (Saag can also refer to mustard and collard greens and Shifali is thinking of using these. I assured her that Oklahomans can appreciate these greens.) David, Betty’s neighbor, was thrilled by the Saag. He thought it was by far the best dish. And I can see where he’s coming from. It had a bright vibrant citric flavor totally unlike the other dishes.
But how can I say that Saag was the best when I was eating those lamb chops? Shifali especially recommended that dish. She said it had a distinctive and totally Punjabi flavor. It was wonderful. The chops themselves were meaty and tender but the bright red sauce, rich with the taste of the lamb drippings it was cooked with, stole the show. It had more of a mellow toasty flavor but it was as complex as any.
I should have sneaked into the kitchen to watch Shifali cooking our meal. She cooked all four dishes herself on the stovetop at the same time, hopping from pan to pan. That would have been a sight to see.