Most of the Indian food we are familiar is from the Punjab, a region of Northwestern India and Eastern Pakistan.
It is a cuisine characterized by the liberal use of ghee (long-cooked clarified butter), butter and cream. The main seasonings in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes are onion, garlic and ginger.
The primary grain is wheat; rice is for special occasions. Classic dishes include: meats and breads from the tandoori oven, saag (smooth spinach or mustard green sauce) and mah di dal, a stew of black lentils and beans. Home cooking is much lighter, with less butter.
All of this is by way of introduction to Punjab Cuisine of India in Fountain Valley, where we recently dined. Red-tufted valences accented the windows and mirrors, echoed by red cloths on the tables and gold draperies. A chandelier gave a touch of kitschy refinement to this pleasant strip mall establishment.
Our two appetizers could almost have been a meal by themselves.
Two vegetable samosas (large, deep-fried, savory-stuffed pastries) had a lovely thin flavorful crust. The mashed potato and pea filling was lightly spiced but the accompanying condiment tray provided some zesty pickled vegetables, sweet chutney and neon green mint chutney to liven up the stuffing.
We found the combination of the sweet fruit chutney mixed with hot vinegary pickle a nice complement. Mint chutney is usually our favorite but here the off-putting, vibrant color and lack of heat made it uninteresting.
Tandoori chicken wings are marinated in yogurt and spices to make them tender and flavorful. They are baked in the hot clay oven, which gives them a tasty subtle char. We really enjoyed these delicious meaty wings, served in a generous portion.
Instead of rice to accompany our entrées, we ordered the garlic naan, a soft, flat bread baked in the tandoor oven. It makes a perfect scoop for thick sauces.
Terry particularly liked the shrimp saag, with a darker, earthier flavor than any spinach sauce she had previously tasted. The medium shrimp were nicely cooked and juicy. This sauce is also available with potatoes and peas, chicken, lamb or paneer (fresh, unripened, pressed cheese).
Elle preferred the malai kofta, vegetarian "meat" balls in a rich creamy sauce. The balls are made from a mixture of potato, paneer, shredded carrot and subtle spices. They were a little dry, but they were swimming in a bath of delicious tomato onion sauce made creamy with ground cashews, almonds and a hint of cream. The curry was redolent with tumeric, ginger, garlic, chilies, coriander and other spices.
Chicken is featured in Madras curry. Traditionally, this is a curry from the South. As with all the dishes at Punjab, you can decide how hot you want it on a scale of 1 to 10. We opted for 7 for all of our dishes, and it was perfect for our palates. We chose it because the waitress said it had coconut in it. We were expecting a coconut milk curry but it only had shreds of coconut, which made the sauce gritty without giving it enough coconut flavoring. We found this to be the least interesting of our dishes.
We loved their wonderful house-made ice cream called kulfi. This dense Indian frozen dessert is traditionally made with long-cooked milk but nowadays it's often made with evaporated and/or condensed milk or light cream.
It comes in a variety of flavors. One of the most popular is the pistachio, flavored with cardamom, which is what they make here. We are guessing that Punjab's is the old-fashioned kind. It tasted creamy but was finely textured from the ground pistachios. We especially liked it because it was not too sweet.
Complete dinners include: samosa or pakoras, soup or salad, raita, daal, rice, naan and a choice of entrée. The vegetarian is $17.95 and non-vegetarian is $19.95.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Punjab Cuisine of India
Where 18687 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (Seven days)