Why we all love Indian food

Tandoori Grill and the science of spice

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Susan France

Tandoori Grill is a pretty special spot for me; it’s where I ate dinner the day I moved to Boulder, exhausted from three days of cross-country travel, anxious about starting graduate school, pissed that my checkbook was packed in the U-Haul (to make my rent payment) and unsure of the choice I’d made to leave my family and friends back East.

I could smell the unmistakable aroma of Indian food as I unpacked the truck in front of my new place. The universe was clearly offering me comfort on a day marked by frustration, fear and, somewhere in there, excitement.

I’ve always wondered why I love Indian food so much, as it wasn’t something I was introduced to as a kid. But it turns out there’s a scientific reason why the subcontinent’s food appeals to people around the world. 

In 2015, a group of Indian researchers tackled this question from a molecular level and found that Indian food, unlike Western dishes, combines ingredients that don’t share overlapping flavors. Flavor comes from precise chemical compounds that create tastes we can label as bitter, sour, sweet, floral, sulfury, etc., etc. On average there are about 50 flavor compounds in a single ingredient. In Indian dishes, disparate flavors run up against each other, allowing individual flavors to stand out. Furthermore, Indian cuisine uses nearly 200 of the roughly 380 known food ingredients in the world.

So that is why I — and probably you — really dig curry, korma and masala.

Going to Tandoori Grill, especially in the evening, always takes me back to that day I rolled into Boulder, sweaty, worried, my cat wailing in his carrier, my new apartment way smaller and way more expensive than the one I’d just left. The warm interior of the restaurant soothed me that day, and I find myself seeking that same comfort from time to time now, even settled into a better apartment and comfortable with my not-so-new life in Colorado.

The dining room is cozy, bounded by garnet-colored walls. Sheer valances the color of white honeysuckle separate wooden tables set with linen-wrapped silverware.

The menu is a smorgasbord of classic Indian dishes, and while it’s hard to choose an entrée, rest assured no choice is wrong.

On a recent evening, the right choice was lamb korma.

Korma is a dish enjoyed across South Asia. The word korma derives from the Urdu word for “braise,” which was derived from the Turkish word for “cooked meat,” and that’s what a korma dish is. Meat (or vegetables) are subjected to long, slow cooking using moist heat. It makes for tender, savory meat.

Lamb has to be seared first, then cooked at a low temperature for a number of hours. This is how you get an unforgettable korma, just like the kind at Tandoori.

Their version of the dish is sweet and creamy, thick and savory, with a hint of nutty flavor from ground cashews and almonds. Cardamom pods add a woody flavor, while cloves, ginger and nutmeg give the dish a spicy, sweet and pungent edge. The lamb is tender from bathing in the rich sauce for hours. The resulting dish has a gravy-like taste and feel, perfect for soothing the soul while invigorating the senses.

Long gone are the days when Indian food was seen as something to poke fun at, nothing more than smelly cuisine destined to leave the diner with a bad tummy. No, those outdated ideas are long gone, and the world now embraces the joy of indulging in perhaps the most unique, delicious cuisine on the planet.

What a comfort.

Tandoori Grill. 619 S. Broadway, Boulder, 303-543-7339.