India is a dizzying melange of cultures, climates and dialects — 28 states, eight union territories and 122 major languages (spoken by 10,000 people or more) spread across more than 1.3 billion residents.
It’s no wonder the country’s cuisine is so dazzlingly complex, much more than simply North Indian and South Indian delineations.
Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bengal, Hyderabad, Kerala, Tamil Nadu — the states, regions and cities have their own ways of cooking and emphasis on different dishes, ingredients and spices. Keralites love their par-boiled rice. Sambar (lentil stew), according to “The Essential South Indian Cookbook,” is the “quintessential dish” of Tamil Nadu. In Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal state, no meal is is complete without fish. In Hyderabad, capital of South India’s Telangana state, biryani and haleem are immensely popular. And so on.
”From childhood onwards an Indian is exposed to more combinations of flavors and seasonings than perhaps anywhere else in the world,” says Madhur Jaffrey, author of “A Taste of India” and other cookbooks.
While we won’t dare to break down every single spice used among New Jersey’s best Indian restaurants, we will tell you where to find the best chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo and other representative dishes. Plus some with perhaps less name recognition. Write this down now: lamb karahi. We’ll explain later.
New Jersey has the fourth-highest population of Indian-Americans in the country (only California, Texas and New York have more), and Indian-Americans make up the largest population of Asian-Americans in New Jersey, comprising about 400,000 people, so it’s no surprise that the state is a hotbed of Indian cuisine. Oak Tree Road in Woodbridge and Edison and India Square in Jersey City are the best-known Indian food neighborhoods, but our list takes in everywhere from Bergen to Gloucester counties. The state’s reputation as an Indian food destination is well-established; CNN, in fact, called New Jersey the best state for Indian food.
So let’s dive in! The restaurants are not ranked, but listed alphabetically by town.
Indian food, according to Nirvana’s website, is one of the few cuisines to use “the whole palette of flavors — spicy, sour, sweet and hot all at the same time — making it something that wants to jump off the plate.” Well, the Kashmiri Murgh here came close to doing just that. It’s a sweet, spicy, creamy curry seasoned with garam masala (a spice blend), and dry fruits in a tomato-onion gravy. When I see the words “chef’s special” on a menu, I order it immediately. For vegetarians, the aloo gobi (spiced potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes cooked with ginger and cumin seeds), is highly recommended. (PG)
Sonny’s Indian Cuisine, Chatham Borough
“Chaat” is used to describe snacks found at Indian railway stations (for an excellent introduction to the subject, read “Chaat,” by Maneet Chauhan and Jody Eddy). At Sonny’s Indian Cuisine, the sweet potato chaat combines boiled sweet potatoes, chopped onions, chick peas, tomatoes, roasted lentils, fresh pomegranate, cilantro and chutneys (notice the complexity of ingredients in such a small dish). Sonny’s butter chicken was probably the best of all those sampled on this mission, but my favorite dish here is the mango and coconut shrimp; pan-seared Gulf shrimp with a sweet, spicy mango chutney, homemade coconut reduction glaze and fresh coriander. I almost wanted to dive into the intoxicating broth. (PG)
Tiffin, Cherry Hill
In the coastal city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), “tiffin” refers to the practice of delivering homemade lunches in metal canisters. “Keep calm and curry on” is a slogan at Tiffin. The restaurant spans the Indian food globe — samosas, paneer, chaat, kebabs, naan, curry, tandoor, biryani and more. The chicken tikka masala, rich with coriander, cumin, ginger and fenugreek, is recommended, but my favorite dish is the tandoor chicken (photo), with a great smoky/grilled flavor. (PG)
Delhi Garden, Edison
It’s takeout only, and parking can be a challenge, but don’t let it stop you from visiting Delhi Garden, on Route 27 — proof that not all great Indian food in town is along Oak Tree Road. I’m told lines can be epic on weekends; glad I stopped there on a weekday. Both Northern and Southern Indian dishes are featured here. A quick primer: Northern Indian food prominently features naan and samosas, and chicken and lamb are mainstays. The South is more vegetarian and seafood-based, with beans and vegetables playing prominent roles. South India is also known for its dosa, a thin pancake or crepe. North Indian curries are tomato-based; South Indian, tamarind-based. Another important term to know: tandoor, the clay oven used in Indian cooking, particularly in the North. Chicken and lamb are tandoor favorites, but seafood and vegetables are cooked there too. At Delhi Garden, the chicken tikka masala may have been the best of its kind sampled, but the showstopper here is the lamb bhuna, a spicy and aromatic mix of onions, peppers, tomatoes and coriander. Forget the more formulaic lamb vindaloo and lamb rogan gosh; lamb bhuna is a must-order. The lime juice, both sweet and spicy, makes for a bracing beverage. (PG)
Moghul Express, Edison
Moghul may be the state’s best-known Indian restaurant; neon-lit Moghul Express, its smaller and more casual sister restaurant, offers a wide range of North and South Indian dishes. There’s a newly-added bake shop (red velvet jars with cardamom cheesecake frosting!), but to me its biggest calling card is the assortment of sweets. “No place in America has the variety we do,” a manager once told me. The next time there, I want to try Golden Milk, a chilled drink made with slow-cooked milk, raw turmeric, honey, black peppercorn, cinnamon and saffron. “It helps the body to fight infections, boosts digestion, helps with cholesterol (and) diabetes,” according to the restaurant’s Facebook page. I don’t know about any of that; it just sounds great! (PG)
Ruby’s Ke Kitchen Se, Edison
Rupali Nigam, owner of Ruby’s Ke Kitchen Se, was born in Shadol, Madhya Pradesh (central India). Her food is solidly Northern Indian. Chicken and lamb are tandoor favorites, but seafood and vegetables are cooked there too. The paneer tikka (photo), served with coriander and tamarind chutney, is a terrific vegetarian option. I also liked the butter chicken here. (PG)
The Nizam’s may now be my favorite Indian restaurant in the state. The Nizams were the 18th-through-20th Century rulers of Hyderabad (in Southern India). Hyderabad cuisine, according to Madhur Jaffrey, “combines the very best of Muslim foods — kebabs, pilafs, kormas and yoghurt —with the hauntingly aromatic, tart-pungent and creamy flavorings of the South — mustard seeds, cassia buds, cinnamon, curry leaves, hot chiles, peanuts, tamarind and coconut milk.” If that doesn’t get you to visit The Nizam’s, nothing will. The tangri kebab, chicken cooked with “special spices and herbs” in the tandoor, may have been my favorite chicken dish of all those sampled. The lamb ashari (in Hindi, ashari means pickle; lamb ashari is cooked with spices used to make pickles) is hearty, spicy and downright delicious. Wait, I’m not done. Their pistachio-topped kheer is a sweet sensation; it’s so good, it might as well be on another rice pudding planet. (PG)
Jersey City’s India Square isn’t just one of the best places in the state to get Indian food, it’s one of the best places in the country for the cuisine. Jersey City’s population is more than 11 percent Asian-Indian, a higher proportion than any other major American city according to CNN, who also gave India Square a major shoutout in its feature on New Jersey Indian food. Newark Avenue is lined with delectable eateries, and you won’t do any better than Rasoi, which boasts a simple but elegant white tablecloth aesthetic, massive portions at reasonable prices and an excellent wait staff. The menu specializes in North Indian cuisine with an impressive arsenal of curries along with classics like Tandoori Chicken, though they also feature Chinese-Indian food like Chili Paneer and Chicken Manchurian. (JS)
Once located in the Jersey City Heights, Sapthagiri is now in the heart of India Square. But Indian food fans were happy to make the trip up to their original location for their impressive selection of vegetarian delights. Their thalis, or plates, with different themes including North Indian, South Indian and vegan, are excellent combo meals that are great for getting to try a variety of different dishes — featuring different lineups of vegetable dishes, rices, sauces and more. The North Indian thali comes with paneer, dal, the vegetable of the day, sambar, chana masala, pickle, a special rice, chapathi, white rice, yogurt, papadum and a dessert — an absolute feast for $15.99 that can easily serve three people. Their dosas are massive and delicious as well. (JS)
Shadman has been a Jersey City standby long before the town was known as a food destination — Zahid Iqbal and Fareed Khan opened it back in 1991 and it has been serving up Indian and Pakistani food in a fast-casual set-up ever since. The straight-forward menu is a good entry point for those just diving into Indian food. Choose from Shadman’s selection of hand-rolled tandoori breads including several types of naan, roti and partha, platters centered around goat, beef, chicken and vegetables, kebab rolls with chicken or beef and weekend specials like the nihari (slow-cooked beef simmered with bone marrow and garnished with ginger and chilis.) Go for the curried goat, it’s succulent and saucy. (JS)
Palace of Asia, Lawrenceville
“Vegetable balls” may not sound particularly enticing, but the malai kofta at Palace of Asia are indeed vegetable balls cooked in a thick, creamy, coconut-and-nuts-studded sauce. The sauce is so good I wanted to sip it with a straw. Palace of Asia, open 30 years, specializes in Northern Indian cuisine. Their tandoor chicken consists of two breasts instead of the usual chunks of meat. The kheer, with clumps of rice providing a teasing texture, is second only to its counterpart at The Nizam’s. There are other locations in Maple Shade and Kingston. (PG)
Mrs. Kumar’s Indian Cuisine, Monroe (Middlesex County)
Mrs. Kumar’s “is the most preferred destination for culinary adventurers in New Jersey who seek to savour the original flavours of Indian food,” according to the website. Well, okay! One difference here is the emphasis on Indian breakfast; the weekend special breakfast combo includes idlies (savory rice cakes), medu vada (fritters), pongal (rice mixed with boiled milk and sugar), poori (deep-fried bread), and kesari (a sweet made with cream of wheat, sugar and ghee or clarified butter), served with chutneys and coffee. My favorite dish here: goat sukka, a hearty stew-like concoction coated with masalas and coconut powders. The menu calls it “lip-smacking.” I won’t disagree. (PG)
It’s not easy to break into the elite Montclair food scene. Yet Brick Lane has managed to not only stick around on Valley Road but become one of the town’s favorite restaurants. The menu is a bit pricy compared to some Indian restaurants around New Jersey (though the lunch special one of the state’s best) but their absolutely phenomenal curries are worth every penny. Feeling bold? Take the “Phaal Challenge” in which diners attempt to finish a blazing hot curry the restaurant claims is the hottest in the world, described as “excruciatingly hot” and “more sweat and pain than flavor.” Those that complete the challenge win a mango lassi — a yogurt-based drink that’s similar to a very creamy smoothie — and a certificate commemorating their spicy sacrifice. I did it and barely survived. (JS)
Monsoon, Mount Laurel
The photo shows the orange-glowing, tender tandoor chicken at Monsoon, but I want to steer you to the butter chicken, also known as murgh makhani, a curry in a spiced tomato, butter and cream sauce. It’s similar to tikka masala, which is made with a creamy tomato gravy and onion sauce. The butter chicken is my favorite dish at Monsoon, which opened in 2008. The kashmiri naan, with fried fruits and nuts, is a tasty twist on traditional naan. At this time, it’s takeout-only at Monsoon. (PG)
Jhopri boasts one of the more handsome Indian restaurant dining rooms, with padded booths topped by elephant statues. The tandoor cuisine of India’s former North-West Frontier region is on display. But start with the chicken soup. Really. It’s a broth, almost miso-like, studded with scallions and slightly spicy, a winter warmer if there ever was one. The malai chicken kabab — chunks of chicken marinated in ginger and garlic and broiled in the tandoor, is a standout. Raita — grated cucumber in homemade yogurt with mint leaves — just begs to be dipped with naan. (PG)
If you love Chipotle but wish there was an Indian food equivalent, you’ve found your food nirvana. Masala Bay owner Anita Amin combined the two to make one of the most delicious and fun food concepts in the state. Instead of burritos, she’s serving naan wraps filled with amazing Indian ingredients. Countless veggies, spices and sauces are at your disposal, not to mention the fresh proteins: lemon chicken and chicken tikka, Moroccan tofu, French lentils, chickpeas, paneer and falafel. Oh yeah, and everything bagel naan. Amazing. (JS)
Years ago, I once lived across the road from Pooja. Did I ever visit it back then? No, not until a week ago. This shrine to “exotic Indian cuisine” offers 161 menu items, from soups, chutneys, samosas and pakoras (spiced fritters) to curries, biryanis, tandoor dishes and more. The goat curry is downright delicious; those with an aversion to goat — I know you’re out there — should try this post-haste. And the mango chutney makes for a sweet little condiment. (PG)
Spicy Affair, Swedesboro
Spicy Affair features the most unique setting of any Indian restaurant in New Jersey; it’s headquartered in a former bank. The owners, Cindy and Nik Minhas, came to town from Vancouver. I am in love with lamb kahari (photo). Forget the familiar lamb dishes — lamb vindaloo, lamb rogan josh — and order this peppery, oniony lamb stew, astoundingly fragrant. The fiery-red chicken tikka features terrifically tender meat, and the kheer is crazy-good. Spicy Affair is vibrant proof that great Indian food can be found far from Woodbridge or Jersey City. (PG)
I love pepper (salt has no place in my world except on sliced tomatoes), and if there is a better pepper-centric dish in New Jersey than the Chicken Pepper Chettinad at Coriander, I haven’t found it. Chettinad is a region in Tamil Nadu state (South India) said to introduce black pepper to the world. Chef Vipul Bhasin offers on-site cooking classes. His lamb vindaloo, cooked with onions, potatoes and a blend of spices, is aromatic to the max. (PG)
Spice Bazaar, Westfield
Spice Bazaar, once on Quimby Street, is now on Elm Street, in a space once occupied by Ambeli Greek Taverna. The fig naan — fruity and nutty — and the saffron chicken, cooked in the tandoor, are both tasty changes-of-pace from traditional naan and tandoor chicken. But my favorite dish is the Lamb Chettinad, rich, hearty, spicy. I made note of the astounding chicken pepper Chettinad at Coriander; maybe I should just move there. (PG)
Downtown dhaba, Westwood
Dhaba refers to no-frills roadside restaurants in India, often next to a gas station or part of a truck stop. At Downtown dhaba, Chef’s Signature Dishes are noted on the menu — Noorani Kebab (chicken and lamb kebabs cooked in the tandoor); Jhinga Baghari (shrimp coated with mustard and curry leaves: and Country Style Dhaba Curry. Chicken tikka masala may be a cliched dish, but here it swims in rich, creamy, delectable sauce. (PG)
A staple of the section of Oak Tree Road that runs through Woodbridge’s Iselin neighborhood, Chowpatty (named for the Mumbai beach) opened in 1990 and specializes in food from Gujarat — a western state of India. Chowpatty, which is part of one of the largest South Asian catering companies in America, has an all-vegetarian menu highlighted by sandwiches, dosas, chaats, and even Mexican and Italian fusion dishes — how about some pizza naan or paneer tacos? That variety helps it stand out in a county loaded with amazing Indian food. (JS)
Don’t be fooled by the modest storefront on Route 27 that houses Sri Dosa Palace, some of the best dosas in the state are just inside. Never had dosas before? They are South Indian crepes made from a fermented batter of lentils and rice that are then stuffed with delicious fillings. The all-vegetarian menu has curries, biryani, lentil doughnuts and onion chili tomato uttapam among other items. But it’s the dosas that you’re here for. The special dosa, filled with mint, tomato chutney, curry leaf powder, potato, onion, chillies and chickpeas, is can’t-miss. (JS)
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected].