October 30, 2007 and November 12, 2007
Cuisine: Indian, Halal
241/1 Pham Ngu Lao Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Keema Samosa (25,000 VND)
Vegetable Samosa (20,000 VND)
Salad – tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, vinaigrette (complimentary)
Chappati (8,000 VND)
Plain Naan (10,000 VND)
Garlic Naan (15,000 VND)
Plain Parauntha (10,000 VND)
Palak Paneer (25,000 VND)
Mutton Curry (50,000 VND)
Mutter Keema (40,000 VND)
Plain Daal (20,000 VND)
Mutton Korma (55,000 VND)
Chicken Tikka Masala (50,000 VND)
Since my arrival in Saigon three months ago, I have not strayed far from local fare. I am a purist at heart and staunchly oppose eating non-Vietnamese cuisines while in Vietnam. Personally, the idea of going out for Spanish paella or Brazilian churrascaria just strikes me as unnatural and completely out of context.
No nuoc mam, no thanks!
It was not until recently when I was taken out to lunch by The Astronomer that I began to rethink my preconceived notions about locality and cuisine. Our midday destination was an Indian restaurant located in a narrow alleyway within the backpacker quarter. The restaurant’s sheltered location assures that the distracting sounds of the city are kept in the background.
Muhammad Zaman opened Taj Mahal eight years ago after he noticed a shortage of South Asian cuisine on a visit to Vietnam. In addition to owning the restaurant, Zaman also serves as its executive chef. With over 20 years of cooking experience under his belt, Zaman takes great pride in preparing Halal dishes from the northern region of India. His personal favorite dish served at the restaurant is the Chicken Korma.
A surefire way to begin any meal is with an order of samosa, which are served fresh out of the deep fryer and paired with cilantro chutney. The pair of Vegetable Samosas (20,000VND) have a crisp exterior, spicy interior and are stuffed with potatoes, cilantro and onions and seasoned with cumin and curry. My personal favorite starter is the Keema Samosas (25,000VND), which contain a savory blend of lamb and chicken. Spiced just right, these meaty hot pockets really whet one’s appetite.
Taj Mahal’s extensive menu offers an array of dishes highlighting lamb, chicken, seafood and beef. According to Zaman, the Chicken Tandoori, an Indian-style barbecue dish, is the favorite among patrons. The Lamb Curry (50,000VND) was recommended to us by our waitress and did not disappoint. After growing accustomed to gnawing the meat off bones in Vietnamese cuisine, it was pleasant to encounter meat so tender that it fell off the bone with ease. Another standout is the Mutter Keema (40,000VND), an intensely flavorful collection of minced beef, peas, garlic and classic Indian spices.
For a lighter dining experience, a slew of vegetarian dishes are also available at Taj Mahal. Palak Paneer (26,000VND), creamy spinach dappled with cubes of un-aged Paneer cheese, is always a crowd pleaser. The Plain Daal (20,000VND), stewed lentils mildly spiced with turmeric, cumin, onions, and tomatoes, provides a welcomed contrast for the palette.
The best way to experience both meat and vegetarian entrees is with a selection of Indian breads, which range from 8,000-20,000VND. Taj Mahal serves several varieties of Naan, Chapatti and Parauntha. Each type has its own unique texture and density, but all provide excellent vehicles for sopping up the aromatic and delectable gravies. Even though the Chapatti’s light and flaky texture means it’s not the most practical utensil, I find it to be irresistible.
For a change of pace from the usual Vietnamese fare, Taj Mahal offers an ideal and affordable escape.
Indian wins the prize for the least photogenic genre of food.