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Wednesday, November 9,2011

Southern Indian seasonings

By Clay Fong

One of my more ill-advised college misadventures involved a midnight competition with a classmate to see who could consume the most Tabasco sauce straight. While I prevailed, I learned a valuable lesson (actually one of several) in that heat for heat’s sake isn’t a good thing. The best spicy dishes are ones that don’t up your fiery pain so much that you can’t enjoy the rest of your meal, and are tempered by other intriguing flavors lurking beneath the surface.

 

I recalled this youthful indiscretion during a visit to Boulder’s new Tiffin’s restaurant, which spotlights vegetarian southern Indian street fare. The bulk of what’s touted as Indian food is primarily northern Indian, and its southern analog tends towards lighter but potent flavors, and stresses such seasonings as ginger and tamarind.

Not everything here rates high on the spice quotient, and peppery flavors are expertly balanced out by subtle, cooling influences. As a matter of fact, the skillful melding of ingredients easily catapults Tiffin’s into the first tier of local Indian restaurants, and some may quickly discover it becomes their favorite. Of course, the strip mall cafeteria atmosphere probably won’t help that impression, but the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff more than compensate for the ambience.

Being a novice of southern Indian food, I asked for an assortment of representative dishes for our party of five. I’d recommend going with a larger group, as this provides ample opportunity to treat the many offerings as small plates, and to identify favorite dishes for future visits. Also, vegan and gluten-free options are available.

We sampled a few soup selections, including the $3.95 rasam vada, tangy tomato soup with fritters, and the similarly priced Idli Sambar dal (lentil) soup with lentil rice cakes. My top choice was the medu vada, a $3.95 dal and rice donut served in lentil soup and noteworthy for its heartiness and warming qualities.

Clear favorites included the addictive $6.95 plain dosa, a large cylindrical rice crepe accompanied by potent red chile and soothing coconut chutneys. Another favorite was the vada pav, a serving of $4.25 potato fritters on a bun featuring an assertive chile chutney, which provided a pleasantly clean burn. The same fritters were available without bread as the aloo vada plate for $3.95, with tamer condiments of both tamarind and herbal chutney. The $6.95 samosa chat was akin to a smothered burrito, featuring potato and vegetable stuffed pastry topped with onions, cilantro and curry. Lastly, there was the $6.95 bhel puri, touted as a “trail mix” of puffed rice, noodles and vegetables, which provided a cooling, citrusy counterpoint to the potency of the spicier chutneys and chat.

For dessert, we tried the $2.95 Gulab Jamun, a familiar Indian treat described as “donut holes” on the menu, and soaked in syrup. These were overly dense, without typical spongy qualities. I favored the $3.25 Shrikhund, a thick yogurt with a consistency resembling Greek versions, and possessing the right degree of sweetness and saffron scent.

Despite the absence of meat, there’s no shortage of flavors and satisfaction here. If one desires freshtasting Indian that’s not going to appear on menus elsewhere, the top-flight Tiffin’s is a must-visit destination. Spice aficionados who favor intriguing flavors more elevated than spoonfuls of Tabasco will also find reason to celebrate here.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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