By CHEF GENE GONZALEZ
I got together with Davao’s top food blogger, Dianne Sia-Luceñara of Davao Food Guide, and took her up on her promise of taking me on a new find. There we found a restaurant beside the gate of DMSF, where several foreign students are studying various medical courses. This particular restaurant called India Spice caters to the Indian students and has been on Dianne’s blog list that’s good on food and easy on the pocket. I think there is no other place in Davao like this that has a greater concentration of Indian restaurants in the country. But I had counted 16 last year and the number has been increasing.
So we go in and view this clean and decently presented food counter where the viands of the day are available and various forms of snacks, sandwiches, wraps, and authentic desserts such as barfi, jalebi, and gulabjammun are also on display.
A bubbly lady who oversees the counter named Imelda was patient and kind enough to explain the dishes and the components of the set meal or different thalis (Indian Bento) that Dianne was telling me about.
These meals are a set of four viands with accompanying bread, rice, pappadums, and a small dessert.
The wide menu offerings on the card and wall posts show a large clientele, probably a representative of various Indian states. The student prices, of course, got us ordering a huge array of dishes even though we were only a group of three.
We started off trying a breakfast item of idli steamed white muffins with spicy peanut yogurt and chutney. The spicy peanut yogurt was very tasty and had the rightful pair of sweet and sour chutney to balance off its richness with the steamed bread. We also had the paneer kathi roll with cheese cubes and spicy vegetables rolled on flatbread.
A great vegetarian snack or starter, I ordered a round of freshly fried samosa chat that had correct spicing of its potato interiors, smothered with a salsa of cooked chick peas, tomato, and topped with crispy vermicelli.
Another chat or street food starter was the bhel puri—puffed rice with tomatoes, peas, onions also topped with crispy bhelpuri for texture. Next was a mutton biryani with a side bowl of raita. The raita had a tart, homemade yogurt-base, which we tasted in its pure form, balanced the taste of the hot and spicy mutton biryani made with a good proportion of basmati rice. I guess having tried different versions of biryani from the Indian eateries here leads me to believe that it is a popular student dish being inexpensive (at P180 per order can be shared for two) and has the ability to sustain oneself through the school days.
I ordered the braised chickpeas or channadahl with some bubbly pooris or fried bread. I think the chickpeas needed longer braising as I prefer them to be buttery with a good melt-in-the-mouth quality. We did have these pooris with some paneer cooked in a tasty curry sauce. By this time, we were ready to take the four-set meals or thali that we ordered.
The Gujarati Thali had pappadums thepla chapati, or spicy chapati with turmeric, pooris, and a regular chapati, the Gujarati dhal soup had a characteristic of mild sweetness. Pieces of bread or steamed rice can foil the sweet-sour manchurian chicken kofta and a full flavored small bowl of chicken curry. For dessert is a ball of gulabjammun in lightly spiced syrup.
The Punjabi Thali had pappadums, soft buttered naan, spiced jeera rice, buttered chicken, dhaltadka, chicken masala,and a crisp translucent jalebi as a mini dessert in golden syrup.
The next two sets were equally as interesting as they were vegetarian meals.
The South Indian Vegetarian Thali has sweet yogurt, tomato rice, aloo brinjalor spiced eggplant, tomato soup, vegetable sambhar, South Indian paratha, crisp pappadums, and besanbarfi (spiced milk candy).
For the Rajasthani Thali, another vegetarian set, it was fragrant jeera rice with seed spices, dal bati, fried lentils, paneer curry, and a creamy, lightly spiced lokibarfi as a sweet ender.
After the huge lunch that we three had consumed, we seemed to have caught the attention of the husband and wife owners. Prakash Pao Patel and his Filipina wife seemed surprised with what we ate. But as our little chat came to an end, I had been equally surprised at the two Davaoeñas, having their late lunch after cooking all these dishes daily. These talented ladies were trained by the proprietor really well as the choices of this restaurant are really quite varied. Most important were their authenticity of flavors that are far better to Indian establishments one can find in Manila.