It’s the middle of July, and Balraj Bhasin is facing quite a challenge: running a restaurant with "curry" in the title as temperatures climb into the mid-90s.
"Sometimes business drops in the summertime, because you have people who don’t want to eat spicy food," said Bhasin, owner of Bombay Curry Company in Alexandria and a partner in the Delhi Club in Arlington. "We keep telling them ‘Hey, there are billions of people eating spicy food back over in India.’"
When the heat is on in the middle of summer, diners can easily divide the menu at Indian, Thai and other restaurants known for their scorching cuisine. At eateries like Sakulthai on South Van Dorn Street in Alexandria, the dishes either have a little chili pepper printed next to them or they don’t; at Tandoori Nights in Arlington, the hot dishes are identified as being "fiery." Like, for example, the lamb vindaloo. "It’s very hot and fiery," said Anil Migalni, who owns the 3-month-old Tandoori Nights at 2800 Clarendon Blvd., # 9000, in Arlington.
At Sakulthai, 12 of its 14 "cold" appetizers are labeled as hot and spicy. There’s truth in that advertising. The Nam Sod — a heap of minced pork, pork rind, ginger, lime juice, peanut and Thai spices — doesn’t overwhelm senses at first. Then those spices begin working on the tongue, and soon a few beads of sweat appear on the brow. By the end of the dish, there’s a new appreciation for the wonders of air conditioning and refills on water.
But can a searing dish like that actually help someone cool down on a hot summer day?
MIGALNI THINKS the answer is yes.
"When you eat hot food, you sweat a lot. That will cool your body down. When you’re sweating, you’re letting your body heat out," he said.
It’s a time-honored tradition in India and other parts of Asia not to shy away from fiery foods if the temperatures outside are high. Spicy foods are literally sold at every corner in some parts of the world, acting for the locals like a cold beer here in the United States.
Aloo Char Papri, for example, is a medley of chickpeas, potatoes, and flour crisps mixed with tomato, onion, cilantro, chutney and yogurt. "That’s a very common appetizer that you can get at every corner. It’s very, very hot. We’ve had to tone it down," Migalni said.
Indian restaurants typically offer a diner the choice to amplify the heat in a dish or tone it down. For the summer, both Tandoori and Bombay Curry offer some variations on dishes that offer relief from the heat.
At Bombay, the solution is lighter fare. "During the summer months, you find more lighter dishes — not the heavy creamy ones," said Bhasin, adding that those dishes are typically found in the weekend buffets at his restaurants.
But if it’s heat you want, Bombay Curry will oblige. Bhasin said the vindaloo lamb or chicken may be the hottest dish his eatery serves up; and if it’s too hot, don’t blame India.
"It comes from the Goa region," he said, in reference to a part of India formerly ruled by the Portuguese. "It’s actually something the Portuguese gave to us."