Chef Nabin Paudel pulls out a large wok and sets it on the front burner turned up to high heat. The air in the kitchen is already steamy from the open pit Tandoor oven mixed with the humid day outside. He opens a container of Clabber Girl cornstarch and dumps a handful into a bowl, then another handful. Now for the calamari rings. Paudel shakes the thinly sliced rings around in the cornstarch until they are fully coated.
He drops the rings into a deep fat fry basket and lowers them into the hot oil. "They will cook until they look brown and crispy. This whole dish only takes 10 minutes." He is making masala calamari at the Nepalese-Indian restaurant Namaste on Rose Hill Drive.
Paudet turns back to the wok, now sizzling with hot vegetable oil at 350 degrees. He slips in chunks of red and green pepper and purple onion, which will get sprinkled with, salt, white pepper and sugar, then tossed in the air to coat thoroughly. "This will take 2 minutes." Paudel checks the calamari and lifts the basket to drain off the oil before tossing with the vegetables in the wok. "Now a drizzle of Sriracha sauce to add some heat."
Paudel carefully arranges the calamari on a narrow white plate festooned with shredded lettuce and carrots and a plump lemon wedge for garnish. He adds a cup of homemade chili sauce for dipping. "I make this sauce by the gallon with vinegar, sugar, salt, chili paste and a little cornstarch to thicken." Before serving, he arranges green strips of spring onions on the top.
Paudel says he learned his skills from one of the best chefs in India. "He had a TV show, and I liked his style of cooking." Paudel came to America in 2006 from Nepal and has been at Namaste for five years. He says it is difficult to really define Nepalese cooking or to distinguish it from Indian because there are regional styles that specialize in different dishes and spices just as in China or in America.
One of the customer favorites is momos (little dumplings) filled with chicken or vegetables. "Everyone loves those." Or maybe Takari, which is layers of goat meat, great mustard leaf, black lentils and potato pickle, steamed with spices and served with rice. "Some people order the same thing every time. Some of them come here just for the butter chicken."
On to the Tandoori lamb chops. Paudel removes a lamb chop from a container full of chops that have been marinating for 24 hours. "I use plain yogurt, ginger, garlic paste, and spices including chili powder, garam masala, cumin, coriander and meat masala. He threads the first piece of meat on a long metal skewer. And then follows with three more chops. "This is for one person." Paudel lowers the skewer into a Tandoori oven, a deep pit with flames shooting up from the bottom. "This will take 15-20 minutes to cook. We don't do anything. The heat around them cooks them. We can tell when they are done by looking at them."
The lamb chops will be served with lentils (often referred to as dal) that have been cooked in water for about two hours. He puts a hearty spoonful of garlic in a small skillet followed by fresh ginger and cooks it on high heat with unsalted butter. "Some people are allergic to dairy, so then we don't use it." He says they try to accommodate people's allergies and wishes.
Paudel adds the lentils to the skillet and stirs briefly, then walks over the check the lamb. "Look at it now. Did you see it before?" The lamb chops are arranged on a circular plate with fresh cilantro scattered on the top. A small dish of creamy lentils sits aside. "We add a scoop of basmati rice on the side." He stands back and looks at the finished dish and with a second thought arranges two peas atop the rice. "There. It's finished. Looks a little bit like eyes."
Want to see how to make the bread? With choices like roti, cheese naan, mint paratha and onion kulcha, it's difficult to choose. So this lesson waits for another day.