Best Bites with Robin Goldstein: Western Mass Indian food worthy of a pilgrimage

By ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

For the Gazette

Published: 12-02-2022 3:56 PM

In Amritsar, India, on the banks of a shimmering pond called AmritSarovar (Pool of the Nectar of Immortality), sits the Sri Harmandir Sahib. It is the Adobe of God, known colloquially as the “Golden Temple,” and it is one of the most important sites of worship for the Sikh community worldwide.

At this regal palace of white marble and gold leaf, in northwest India’s Punjab state, 17 miles from the Pakistani border, an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet has been served for free, since the year 1577, to anyone who comes — rich or poor, Indian or foreign, Sikh or not. Tens of thousands arrive on an average day. On some days, the Golden Temple serves meals to 100,000 pilgrims. It may be the world’s largest buffet.

Buffets are often said to have originated in Sweden with the smörgåsbord (originating in the 18th century), and the term derives from the French bufet (meaning stool or bench). The infamous American offshoot is thought to have been pioneered by Herb McDonald’s Buckaroo Buffet at El Rancho hotel in Las Vegas, which opened in the 1940s with a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet for one dollar per person, including seafood. McDonald lost money on the buffet, but made it all back, and then some, by keeping everyone in the casino.

The concept soon spread from Vegas, Orlando, and cruise ships, and national chains like Sizzler and Golden Corral arose. As a kid, I was partial to Northampton’s Ponderosa, whose mile-long salad bar was complemented by an even more exciting dessert buffet. What could be better?

But it is the Sikhs who may have pioneered the genre. At Sikh temples everywhere — which are pretty much the opposite of Vegas — some of the world’s finest vegetarian cuisine is purveyed in the simplest of ways. There is no pretense, no sycophantic service. In the temple, everyone is equal under God. Buffets are the great equalizer of social classes, and this was part of the original Sikh idea.

When I was in college, my friends and I swore by the buffets at two long-gone Indian restaurants in Harvard Square: Delhi Darbar (d. 1998) and Bombay Club (d. 2009). On college students’ budgets, we would take full advantage of the all-you-can-eat proposition and gorge ourselves with saagpaneer (an easily devourable dish of puréed spinach and cheese cubes) to the point of keeling over. We’d be full for at least the next 18 hours. It was such an important ritual that my friend Jeff Frank, front man of his college band, wrote a song about saagpaneer. It remains my favorite of all Indian dishes.

Northern Punjabi cuisine forms the basis for the vast majority of Indian food you’ll find in most of America, including saagpaneer. Other Punjabi dishes include tandoori chicken, chanamasala (chickpea curry), brown and dalmakhani (brown lentil stew). One exception to this rule is chicken tikkamasala, perhaps the most popular Indian dish in America, which isn’t actually Indian — it’s British, an adaptation of Indian immigrants who designed the dish to cater to rich, creamy Anglo tastes.

The COVID-19 pandemic sent the world’s Indian buffets — and all other buffets — into a coma. They’re still only slowly reopening, but there are two notable Indian lunch buffets now operating in our area, and they’re both great places to eat for full-service dinner too.

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In Northampton, Bombay Royale, on the opposite side of the Peter Pan bus station, has a reasonably priced lunch buffet, seven days per week. It’s an airy room with tall picture windows, a bit dark inside, and it’s the only lunch buffet of any kind in town.

Bombay Royale does a great job with the Punjabi classics in the buffet, which is laid out in a visually sumptuous way, although some dishes could use an extra sprinkle of salt. Warning: don’t come to the buffet near closing time — you might get kicked out before you’ve had your fill.

Even better at Bombay Royale are the dinner specials that span the Indian subcontinent. These are things you won’t find in the buffet. I’m particularly partial to the goat dishes, including rogan josh, in a medium-spicy curry, and luscious bone-in goat chettinadu, with black pepper, spices, and roasted coconut.

Much less well known in America than Punjabi cuisine, but equally excellent from a culinary perspective, is South Indian vegetarian cuisine. This is perhaps the most unique aspect of Bombay Royale’s menu — South Indian is hard to find in western Massachusetts.

The dosa is the classic South Indian centerpiece. It’s a long, paper-thin rice-flour crêpe, served with sambar (a deeply spiced vegetable soup) and chutneys. The masala version stuffs the dosa with curried potatoes. Idli, equally delicious, are steamed rice and lentil patties, also served with sambar.

Priya, in Chicopee, is the other local place where you can find both a seven-day lunch buffet and South Indian cuisine. They’ve got Bombay Royale beat on atmosphere: this may be the most inviting place to dine on Indian food in all of western Massachusetts.

Priya was once a nightclub, and it shows. Flashy, dark red décor is decked out with warm hanging lamps that give a gentle glow to the place. Appetizing framed food photos on the walls are enlarged to a Klaus Oldenberg scale. Indian music videos serenade you from a screen behind the bar. The big, open dining room is skillfully divided, with many intimate seating areas and no bad tables.

What’s really cool about the buffet at Priya is that it includes South Indian dishes, too, including sambar and utthapam (vegetable pancakes). At my last visit, there was also sour and garlicky rasam (a soup) and spicy fish vindaloo (a Goan dish, also from the south) — accompanied, of course, by the obligatory chicken tikkamasala and saagpaneer.

Easily my favorite dish at Priya, though – and one of my favorite dishes in the area, period – comes not from the buffet but the dinner menu. It’s their goat biryani, with irresistible meat hacked up into little pieces that fall off their bones. The goat meat penetrates the basmati rice and yields incredible richness in every bite.

Also delicious are the dosas, which come with a coconut chutney that’s like cold air breathing on the heat of Priya’s outstanding sambar, studded with chunks of eggplant so soft that they almost dissolve into the soup. Sadji sag malai is an excellent vegan alternative to saagpaneer, with a garden’s worth of vegetables mixed in with the spinach purée.

I’ll conclude with a few great non-buffet Indian options in the area. Glory of India, in Easthampton, is a small restaurant with a cute vibe and appealing menu that features goat dishes (my favorite, in case you haven’t figured that out by now). India Palace, on Main Street in Northampton, was profiled in my cheap-lunch column. Unfortunately their buffet has not re-emerged post-COVID, but they do a great job with Punjabi classics at eminently reasonable prices, especially for lunch.

Finally, India House, profiled in the Gazette in January 2022, is an iconic Northampton restaurant, in business since 1984, whose atmosphere (in a beautiful old house adorned with a museum’s worth of one-of-a-kind Indian art objects) is about the loveliest of any Indian restaurant I’ve ever seen. Prices are on the high end, but an evening here is truly romantic. Their culinary innovations include ultra-hot chicken wings and roasted brussels sprouts with sweet potatoes. India House’s kitchen also bends over backwards for vegetarians, vegans, and people with other dietary restrictions and food allergies. India House also recently received their full liquor license in a bingo-ball lottery, based on Massachusetts’ arcane Puritan consumer-hating liquor-license quota laws, and now have a full bar with creative cocktails.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.

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