When the longing for fragrant blends of coriander, cumin, and cardamom woven into rich gravies strikes, Miami's choices are few and far-flung. You could head toward Coconut Grove and grab a table at the now-larger Bombay Darbar. Or you can make the trek to Imlee Indian Bistro in Pinecrest to satisfy your pining for murgh makhani, palak paneer, or a searing vindaloo.
So there seemed to be a collective cheer when three former roommates opened Zaika (Hindi for "a sense of flavor") in North Miami more than two months ago. "We would always have little Indian parties at our place, and people loved the food," co-owner Manoj Patel says. He still works days as a waiter at downtown Miami's Hyatt Regency before zipping north to join Shiva Malabanti and Avanish Shrivastava, who man Zaika's kitchen.
The trio installed a clay tandoor that yields several varieties of the tender, flaky flatbread naan. One of them, keema, is filled with juicy shreds of simmered lamb. The Kashmiri one is sweeter and packed with crushed almonds and cashews, slivered raisins, and a dusting of coconut powder. Basketfuls whirl around a 65-seat dining room that has remained mostly unchanged from its previous incarnation as a kosher Thai-sushi joint. There's a fresh coat of beige-orange paint and glittering tapestries of gold and silver elephant herds. White-linen-topped tables are dressed with red napkins folded and propped up like papal tiaras.
Yet the most interesting things are the southern Indian specialties courtesy of Malabanti, a Bangalore native who worked in kitchens of that city's famed Taj hotels. There, in southern India, the cuisine and palate of ingredients are vastly different from those of the north, once the seat of the British empire and portal to the West for Indian food.
Mulligatawny soup $4.95
Kerala pepper chicken $15.95
Balchao shrimp $17.95
Bhindi do pyaza $12.95
Lamb biryani $15.95
Keema naan $4.95
Carrot halwa $4.95
Near the equator, seafood and coconuts reign. Malabar, on India's southwest coast, is famous for its black pepper, which is the preferred spice in a panoply of dishes. Such offerings have been mostly absent from Miami except for Sunny Isles Beach's Copper Chimney, which specializes in the manhole-size crepes made of fermented rice batter called dosas.
At Zaika, the mulligatawny soup veers from the traditional lentil-filled cauldron of vegetable broth. Malabanti infuses the stock with cinnamon, cardamom pods, and bay leaves before pouring in the legumes. The brew is simmered and then blended, yielding a thick, velvety stew brightened with an unexpected splash of lemon.
Kerala pepper chicken makes smart use of juicy chicken thighs, always superior to the drier breast. Onions are gently browned in the clarified butter called ghee and then seasoned with fried cumin, turmeric, the ubiquitous spice blend garam masala, and fresh ground black pepper. The dish is a re-education in the meaning of heat — like a first taste of wasabi. Nasal passages tingle and fill with a spicy aroma that's citrusy, sweet, and hinting of bark.
The shrimp balchao is a pickled leftover from the Portuguese conquest of the tiny Indian state of Goa. Onions are simmered in vinegar until golden and then combined with crushed tomatoes, fried garam masala, coriander, and cumin seeds.
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At the same time, Zaika's take on more common dishes and curries, overseen by Shrivastava, aren't to be missed. A wide sunflower-yellow disk of lamb biryani hides juicy nuggets of luscious meat feathered with a pungent combination of curry leaves and cardamom. Crisp wheels of fried okra called bhindi do pyaza come smothered in an almost-gloppy amalgam of chopped onions, tomato, and red chili powder. It's just a touch bitter thanks to a heavy dose of ground cumin, which plays well with sweet petals of sautéed onion.
Carrot halwa queues up a similar contrast with a spongy, near-toothsome custard that offers bread pudding's texture without the starch. The roots are cooked for hours in whole milk and green cardamom until the liquid is absorbed and they practically disintegrate. Sugar and mixed nuts are added. The result offers perfunctory sweetness, but it's the spice's depth and floral complexities that make it stand apart.
Depth is what all Indian food is about. Sure, dishes are often defined by their main ingredients, but spices also make drastic differences. It's easy to oversimplify some of them, to treat them like Chinese-American takeout and slather the tried-and-true curries over fragrant heaps of basmati rice. But if you take a moment and slow down, there's a world beyond those bowls overflowing with your favorites.