Ann About Town: Swagath, Welcome to Heaven on Earth

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Photo courtesy of Swagath.

Enjoy the samosa chaat at Swagath.

If I had six weeks to live, and my doctor green-lighted white bread, fried chicken, and gelato, I know exactly what I would be eating for the next 42 days. I would not even have to go through the gastronomical alphabet (Alsatian spaetzle to Zabars’s bagels).

It would be all about the Indian food.

In East Lansing, we are blessed with an abundance of Indian restaurants, and I like them all for different reasons. Swagath Indian Cuisine in the Trowbridge area had me the first time I walked in and found a large pan of hot, fragrant, samosa chaat on the way to the dining room. Chaat is often a street food snack with miscellaneous crispy things, chickpeas, spices, and (at Swagath) chopped up samosas. Samosas are heavenly fried pockets of dough with something spicy and delicious inside, often peas and/or potatoes with onions and spices.

Because we could not, actually, order everything on the menu, there were choices. We knew we needed butter naan – the soft, chewy flat bread. My husband, Captain Carnivore, could probably live on naan and particularly likes to use it to make sandwiches filled with some flaming dish or the other. Swagath’s version did not disappoint, and we wrapped some in foil and kept it in a low oven so it would be warm and soft for, you know, all those sandwiches.

Photo courtesy of Swagath.

Captain Carnivore swears by using the naan from Swagath to make delicious sandwiches.

We also ordered a house specialty, chicken dum biryani. You may have had biryani before; it’s typically a spiced rice dish with meat and vegetables, and, around here, the meat is generally chunks of boneless chicken. Unlike it’s cousin pulao, biryani is eaten not as an accompaniment to another dish, but as a main dish in its own right. Swagath makes Hyberabadi biryani, which has not only chunks of chicken but entire, bone-in pieces of chicken.

Garnished with herbs and a hard-boiled egg, it was kind of like a treasure hunt. The Captain and I may or may not have engaged in gentle fork fencing to get the tender, marinated drumsticks and wings buried in the fragrant, fluffy rice. The dish is gently spicy – more so than the biryani you might get at a local Indian buffet – and comes with two accompaniments: a creamy, white, yogurt-based raita and a heartier, spicier gravy called salan that is a standard side dish with Hyberabadi biryani.

Photo courtesy of Swagath.

Biryani is a favorite for Ann and the Captain.

For the Captain’s entrée, the goal was to get as close as possible to actual flames while retaining some flavor. Curry is good. Chicken tikka masala has the benefit of velvety-tender chunks of tandoori chicken. But, at the end of the day, vindaloo is the gold standard for hot Indian restaurant cuisine. It was spicy, flavorful, and full of tender chunks of potato, which he particularly enjoyed. If you order vindaloo, don’t be alarmed by the vivid redness of the dish. The use of food coloring is fairly common and used in a variety of preparations including tandoori meats to give them their signature flame-kissed color. He made small, drippy, sandwiches of naan and vindaloo and hummed quietly to himself in delight.

When I dine in an Indian restaurant, I always prefer to do what I was taught to do by my parents: order a variety of dishes and share them, with everyone at the table choosing a favorite and debating critical variables such as spice levels and tolerance for consuming goat and/or okra. But when I’m ordering my own food, it tends to be vegetarian. This isn’t because I’m a vegetarian but because the dishes I love best are the lentil dals, chickpea curries, and dishes showcasing creamy chunks of paneer, an Indian cheese somewhat similar to farmer’s cheese.

When ordering for Swagath, I dismissed anything I can make for myself, like those very lentil dals and chickpea curries that would be more delicious than mine, but still not special. I flirted with aloo gobi, a classic cauliflower and potato dish and baghara baingan, a silky baked eggplant puree. In the end, I went with my old favorite of navratan kurma. Kurma, or korma (the Swagath menu includes “Chicken Korma,” which is chicken in the same sauce) is rich, creamy, and smells like (my) heaven. A bite of vegetables cooked in the sauce along with a smidgen of rice is as good a bite as it gets. It’s a mild dish, and I had enough for dinner and a substantial lunch the next day.

So we were beyond delighted with our order from Swagath, from the delivery process to our dinner, and agreed that it would please most eaters, even if they aren’t familiar with Indian food (yet). There are abundant choices for vegetarians, as well as entrees made with chicken, lamb, goat, mutton, and seafood. There are sauced dishes with rice, and many offerings made tandoor style – marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in an incredibly hot clay oven.

Photo courtesy of Swagath.

Tender tandoori chicken is a crowd pleaser!

If you are a novice and/or a child, try starting with naan bread, samosas, and maybe an order of papadums, which are thin and crisp like crackers. Butter chicken is a mild, delicious choice, as is chicken or lamb tikka masala or korma. Biryani is another safe, relatively mild dish, but, if you have children likely to pick things apart looking for offensive bits, stick to the vegetable version. Tandoori chicken, or really anything from the “Tandoori Entrees” part of the menu, is guaranteed to be tender, a little smoky, and utterly addictive.

If you want to be absolutely safe, you can order chicken tenders and some naan or plain Basmati rice to feed the pickiest child or that person who will eat nothing containing onions or garlic. But you, dear reader, you must order yourself some tandoori shrimp, some gingery Madras chicken curry, some garlic and cheese naan, along with that eggplant dish I still wish I’d ordered, and some saffron-rich rice pudding to share after dinner. Breathe it all in, close your eyes, and be glad to live in a world that, on its worst day, still has Indian food.

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