Kulcha Club

First the good news: Though not by any means new, Kebab Indian Restaurant is another plum to add to Dade County's ever-growing community of creative Indian tandoori kitchens. Located east of I-95 amidst the semi-squalor of NE 167th Street's low-rent malls, run-down businesses, and adult bookstores, Kebab has been serving up chicken tikkas, vindaloo curries, and basmati rice combinations since 1984. In keeping with the trend in America where Indian food is concerned, the setting is quiet and informal, the food is unfussily laid out, and the price is dirt cheap. A winning combination, to be sure, especially in light of the number of dissembling price gougers profiting elsewhere in Dade.

However, before outlining the sure-fire attributes of Kebab's cooking, some words regarding this extraordinary country and its cuisine are necessary to explain how such unmatchably fragrant food seems to be taking the United States -- a nation, unlike England, holding no colonial ties to the source -- by storm. The short of it is its diversity.

Given that India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and the island of Sri Lanka form what prior to the Twentieth Century was known as the nation of India, it will hardly come as a surprise to anyone that this triangular, subcontinental land mass capped by the Himalayas and flanked by the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal is both culturally and ethnically diverse. It then follows that the cuisine of India is multifaceted, a hodgepodge taking its lead from geographical and climatic considerations and especially from historical and religious consequences.

Religion has played a necessarily vital role in India. Apart from Hinduism and its three offshoots, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, the Moslem faith accounts for 65 million followers, making India's the second largest Moslem population in the world. Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persian Parsees, have likewise flourished there. As you would expect, each has its culinary prerogatives.

Unlike a country such as ours, where we democratically argue though ultimately affirm the separation of church and state, the pseudotheocratic Indian sects reconcile what is praised at the temple and served at the table. Lord Krishna was a cowherd and viewed the entire universe as a reflection of the sacred cow; Lord Shiva's carrying vessel was a bull. Thus Hindus do not eat beef. Certain Hindus, moreover, are strict vegetarians: Brahmins and Jains, in particular, can be so strict in their observance of this philosophy that not only are red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs renounced, but any food so much as resembling the color of a butchered beast -- for example, red beets, watermelon, tomatoes -- are shunned. Moslems and Jews, meanwhile, have been historical adversaries except in their prohibition of pork. Throughout India's turbulent passage through time, one compensation has been that rare cohabitation -- harmony even -- between the everlasting spirit and an all-too-solid stomach.

And what better country to delight in this multifariousness than America, a nation of immigrants? I believe there's still a way to go before you can sample expensive and elegant Indian restaurants and compare them to neighborhood facsimiles, as is often done in Britain. For now, though, the cozy mom-and-pop varieties more than compensate, especially when Mom is wearing a sari and Pop a turban. It's readily available and cost-conscious culture.

With few exceptions, most of the food served in Indian restaurants in the United States is Northern Indian, otherwise known as Moghul cuisine. The Moghuls were half-Turks, half-Mongols whose religion was Moslem and culture was Persian. They made their way to India in the Sixteenth Century, settling in Delhi on the plains of the north. Henceforward came the braised korma dishes, pilaf rice platters, and yes, kebabs. Named after the original Middle-Eastern skewered specialties, Kebab offers all the Moghul you can ogle.

Although there are seven popular skewered-and-roasted specialties eaten throughout India, Kebab serves the most famous ones, the traditional shish variety, lamb chunks marinated in yogurt, garlic, vinegar, and Indian spices, and the equally popular Sikh kebab, comprising minced lamb (both $10.95). Also accompanied by a hot-and-spicy curry sauce are tandoori chicken ($9.50 for a half order, $17.95 for a full), kalmi and reshmi chicken kebabs ($9.50 and $9.95), and chicken tikka ($10.50). The different herb-infused marinades in the lamb chunks and chicken tikka I tasted suggested perhaps insufficient resting time, but otherwise the preparation and presentation left nothing to the imagination.

The appetizer selection may not be the largest in Miami, but Kebab's delivers on many. Vegetable samosas ($1.95 for two) evinced superior khasta (that deliquescent Indian oil-and-flour pastry), along with generous chunks of curry-flavored potatoes and peas. Bhujia, or vegetable fritters with onion, spinach, potatoes, and green pepper ($2.95), were felicitously crisp and without even a hint of fatty discharge. Also available are pakoras made from chick peas ($2.95), cheese ($3.50), and chicken ($3.95). You can order a so-called "variety tray" with everything on it for $7.25, or for the same price, sample Madras fried shrimp. Indian dressings such as mango, fruit, tamarind, and mint chutneys, hot pickle, and yogurt-and-cucumber raita (all $1.50) each add immeasurably to the potent taste sensation of Kebab's Indian cuisine.

Because service is as friendly and unassuming as at a country inn, you can ask for regional modulations in your murgh shahi saag or dal and bet it will be forthcoming. It's a good move to tell your waiter whether you want your curry mild, medium-hot, or very hot. Vindaloo curries are notoriously peppery, but this is one Indian restaurant not afraid to turn on the fire. Punjabis and pyromaniacs alike should be deliriously happy with Kebab's cauldron of curry.

Some highlights: Among the chicken entrees, my "butter chicken" -- essentially a boneless bird cooked in the tandoori style in a curried fresh tomato sauce with hints of clarified butter and cream ($9.95) -- was delectable. An omnivorous friend well accustomed to Kebab's generous portions ordered the finest dish of the evening, Madras-style lamb chunks with fresh tomatoes in a sauce blazing with vegetable and garam masala flavor ($10.50). The breads were predictably fine, the unleaved nan ($1.50) and in particular Northern India's onion-and-coriander-filled kulcha ($3.25), melted like rendered butter. The lentil dal ($6.25) for once wasn't the overcooked goo it can be elsewhere; the beans were perfectly cooked and seasoned, and made me wish for the belly of a maharajah to further investigate Kebab's eleven other vegetable curries. For me the very best was a vegetable biryani ($9.25), whose moist magnificence and overwhelming blend of basmati rice, onions, tomatoes, nuts, and herbs was a fitting climax to a very satisfying cultural reconnaissance tour of India.

Desserts do not rise above Everest at Kebab, but two excellent sweets -- gulab jamun, sweet pastry in rosewater-flavored syrup ($2), and homemade mango ice cream ($2.50) -- were all this habitually contentious critic could consume at evening's end. With India's finest fare making its way down an insatiable gullet like mine, there was no room for a third dessert. In all probability, India's creamy kulfi would have started to taste like cool feet.

KEBAB INDIAN RESTAURANT 514 NE 167th St, North Miami; 940-6309. Open Monday -- Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.


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