Residents of India are walking time bombs. So said Time magazine in 2004: “So vulnerable is the subcontinent to cardiovascular ailments that the World Health Organization estimates that 60 percent of the world’s cardiac patients will be Indian by 2010.” Experts blame the crisis on—what else?—America, which has not only colonized India with countless fast-food franchises but also exported our business model of working peons to death in cubicles.
Raj Kapoor, owner of the recently opened Indian Ocean in Van Ness, calls bullshit on the experts.
The restaurateur even has evidence: his family. Kapoor’s 67-year-old father died in 1994 from a heart attack. Several months later, his brother, just 41, dropped dead at the breakfast table after suffering an attack. Three years after those tragedies, his 63-year-old mother died from a heart attack. Then in 2002, Kapoor had his own run-in with heart disease, which required the insertion of two stents to keep his arteries flowing.
The Americanization of India can’t be the culprit, Kapoor believes, “because I lost my dad when there was no McDonald’s. I lost my mom. She never went to McDonald’s.…She was vegetarian.”
It may be easy to point fingers at Western imperialist pigs for spreading heart disease and death, but Kapoor isn’t afraid to look at causes closer to home, namely Indian cooking, with its love of fried samosas, the artery-clogging clarified butter called ghee, and dishes like butter chicken, whose name speaks for itself. Kapoor’s not necessarily blaming the dishes of his native country for killing several family members—he believes he may have a genetic flaw that keeps his “good” cholesterol too low—but he’s not taking any chances either.
There’s not a stick of butter to be found at the restaurant, says Kapoor. Check for yourself, he dares me. “Not today. Come a week later. Come a month later,” he says. “We don’t use butter.”
Indian Ocean chefs, Kapoor says, brush their naan with olive oil, not ghee. They substitute oil for butter (or shortening) in the samosa dough. They use a yogurt “cream” instead of butter and heavy cream in their chicken tikka makhani. It’s all part of Kapoor’s belief in ancient ayurvedic medicine, which, among other things, attempts to “cleanse the body of substances that can cause disease,” according to the National Institutes of Health.
Kapoor’s approach got me to wondering about Indian cuisine and how it impacts human health. I mean, I had always assumed that, compared to classical French cooking, Indian cuisine didn’t require chefs to install a butter pipeline in their kitchen. Dieticians seem to call it a tossup: Yes, the Mughlai cuisine of Northern India leans hard on heavier, creamier dishes (although its tandoori cooking technique drains fat from meats), but Punjabi foods can easily be made healthier by using small amounts of oil instead of ghee. And Goan cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh fish, practically defines healthy eating.
“If it’s cooked right, [Indian cuisine] is very healthy,” says Ashok Bajaj, the veteran restaurateur behind the Bombay Club and Rasika. “Why wouldn’t it be cooked right? Because…a lot of cooks are not professionals.”
The cooking at Indian Ocean seems to require more than professionalism. It practically requires surgical skills. After all, if you look at the body of Indian cuisine as a whole, it does have fatty deposits, and Kapoor has established his kitchen as a place where butter chicken and samosas go for liposuction.
If I’ve learned anything during my days of professional eating, it’s that you can’t always trust your palate—or a restaurateur with a business to promote. So I tell Kapoor that before I write a single word about his “healthy” cuisine, which blends Northern Indian and Goan influences, I’d like to visit his kitchen. He agrees to give me a tour on a Sunday afternoon.
For the demonstration, Kapoor has called in curry chef Francis Monteiro, who normally has Sundays off, and tandoor chef Manoj Sharma, who splits time between Indian Ocean and Kapoor’s other subcontinental outpost, Bombay Garden in Fairfax. Monteiro is a voluminous man with a jolly round body. With a tall toque resting atop his head, he looks like a stopwatch. He doesn’t speak much English, so Kapoor translates as the chef prepares a pair of dishes: chicken tikka makhani, otherwise known as butter chicken, and aloo gobi, a potato-and-cauliflower entree.
Monteiro barely says anything, though. Kapoor knows the food well enough on his own. As Monteiro simmers chicken meat in a cinnamon-laced tomato sauce and fenugreek, Kapoor lets me sample the tangy yogurt cream they use to lighten up their butter chicken. The owner then shows me a small container of clover honey before handing it to Monteiro, who squirts several streams of the nectar into his sauté pan. The honey, Kapoor says, provides the sweetness that typically comes from cream and sugar.
In another pan, Monteiro simmers diced potatoes and turmeric-tinted florets of cauliflower in a pair of aromatic, house-made sauces. At first glance, I’m not sure why Kapoor wants me to witness this demo, since it doesn’t seem too far removed from the traditional preparation for aloo gobi. But then Kapoor tells me his cooks steam the vegetables first, rather than slow-simmering them into mush. Steaming retains the veggies’ nutritional value. It’s an ayurvedic thing.
Out in the dining room, Kapoor and I sample the dishes, which I won’t bother to critique since they were made specifically for me, gratis, with complete knowledge of the owner and chefs. But I will say this: The chicken tikka makhani and the naan tasted exactly the same as they did when my wife, Carrie, and I visited Indian Ocean two days earlier.
At the time of the meal, I had already known much of Kapoor’s story and cooking approach, and I was trying like hell not to let it influence my judgment. I have this knee-jerk tendency to despise any attempt to defang potentially dangerous dishes. I believe in moderation, not adaptation. So when my chicken tikka makhani arrived in a petal-shaped bowl, I had to resist the urge to dismiss it out of hand for its soupy appearance.
And true enough, the dish had little of butter chicken’s usual heft. The sauce practically skittered across my tongue. I’m used to it weighing anchor there. But I surprised myself when I told Carrie that I didn’t miss the heaviness. There was enough body to ferry all the flavors—the cinnamon, tomato, nutmeg, fenugreek, and those moist morsels of yogurt-coated chicken. I think it’s the first low-fat dish that I can honestly say I love.
Indian Ocean, 4221-B Connecticut Ave. NW (202) 362-4444.
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