MANILA, October 6, 2004  (STAR) By Mary Ann Quioc Tayag - One thing is certain: I was not an Indian in my past life. I cannot belly dance, I do not agree to arranged marriages and I did not instantly take a liking to Indian food when I first tried it – and it did not like me either. On my first date with Indian food, it made me so sick I literally stayed inside my hotel toilet all afternoon. That was 20 years ago when I had Indian food in a restaurant in Mumbai (then still called Bombay). The smell of spices and burning incense made me want to flee. But not wanting to leave, not knowing what Indian food is, I stayed and ate. Nothing can be as bad as it smells, I thought. I was wrong, of course.

The rest of my stay, I survived on soda crackers and toast, and occasionally cheese, in my hotel room. However, on my third day, I only needed to mention my room number and the room service staff would say, "Toast and cheddar coming up, madam." On my fourth day, Rahul, the friendly guy from room service, offered me instead the Indian bread called naan. I, of course, resisted, convinced I wouldn’t like anything Indian, but he insisted harder and lied there was no other bread and was giving me naan for free.

"Trust me, madam," he assured me. Once again, I was wrong for the warm naan proved to be really nice with melted butter. I called to thank him and he sent me crispy plain papadoms, which I munched on like potato chips.

That day marked my second affair with Indian food. Slowly, I began to like it and before I knew it, I was craving for it. And what really made me a convert was when my son Nico and I visited my good friends Irene and Calo Franchina in Delhi and stayed in their grand house for over a week. They introduced us to wonderful Indian food. Then our good friends Serge and Grace Kramer flew in from Luxembourg to attend the wedding of their Indian friend. (Gosh, how can I forget his name!)

The groom’s friendly family immediately extended the invitation to us. For five days before the wedding, we 50 or so overseas guests were treated to various Indian cooking from simple vegetarian to rich curries to grills to pot roasts. We lunched in a small wooden house turned into a restaurant. On our way to the Taj Mahal, we stopped along the road for kebabs and naan at a carinderia exactly like what we have here where cold cooked food is kept in aluminum pots.

The Indians love to have their food all at the same time. I remember the groom’s brother prodding me to pour a saucy dish of peas over my saffron rice and then added a saucy mutton and a little of yoghurt and finally what looked like an orange onion dish with cauliflower. I mixed it altogether as I was told and tried it. I did not like it. It was most probably what it will be like if you mix adobo, pinakbet, afritada and fried rice. It was awful! (So was their local version of cola, called Thumps Up, which tasted like rusty water.) But I did pour yoghurt mixed with green mint chutney on my chicken biryani. That one was heavenly.

If you are in Hong Kong and are daring enough, (remember I warned you) try Indian homecooking at the stalls at the Chungking Arcade along Nathan Road, next to Holiday Inn. I had my best chicken curry and lamb pot roast there. If you know someone who can take you to the exclusive Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC), their Indian food there is superb, especially my favorite chicken biryani, which is, in my humble opinion, the best ever. Thanks to our member friends, Fed and Peter Geldart.

Here in the Philippines, New Bombay Restaurant, a hole in the wall in Makati, serves very good and inexpensive Indian food. The only downside is you come out smelling of curry, too. If ambience matters and pumps your appetite juices, then Prince of Jaipur is the place for you. Opened at The Fort only a year ago, this fine dining place is indeed a must-visit with its priceless collection of Indian paintings and tapestry. See the antique wedding gown that weighs 20 kilos (the bride must have been a weightlifter), sewn in real gold and silver threads. Flying carpets and Indian music complement the setting.

Its house specialties are kebab, skewers, tandoori chicken and raan masala (rack of lamb). And if you like curry, there will definitely be something for you here. The crisp vegetable samosas are fantastic. Food is served family-style and in generous portions. Two main courses for three people will suffice if you have appetizers and bread as well. The dishes are not spicy hot but can be made so upon request. Its Indian breads are always served fresh and warm. Price is on the high-end but worth it with the service and setting. Or try their new Sunday brunch buffet (I will) for P599.

Another great place frequented by many for Indian food is the Spices Restaurant of Manila Peninsula. Its brilliant Indian chef Bairagi Sahani makes wonderful nali rogan josh, fiery lamb stew and tandoori murgh, roasted chicken with yogurt and spices. And when I read in a newspaper that he is tempting Filipinos with his vegetarian and non-vegetarian thali meals until Oct. 17, I got excited and started to "pretty please, Claude, take me." Especially because I have never had a thali.

A thali is a common style of meal in India where the name is derived from the type of plate it is served on. Different dishes plus some basmati rice and chapati, a little chutney and dessert are served in small cups and placed together in the thali. The dishes are specially chosen to blend and complement each other in taste and looks. The diners share the food as they dig and eat with their hands. Like what Jennifer Aniston and Ben Stiller did in the movie Along Came Polly (Though I believe that was a Moroccan meal).

Just reading about Peninsula’s non-vegetarian thali of prawns in coconut curry, lamb with coconut and coriander seeds, chicken soup with ginger and coriander roots, mixed vegetable in coconut milk and basmati rice and chapati and yoghurt was enough to convince me it will be worth our trip to Manila next week. Simply irresistible! This promotion is available only until Oct. 17 and thali is not commonly served outside India.

Reported by: Sol  Jose  Vanzi

All rights reserved