|

Nirvanam: Savor the subtle spice of South Indian cuisine

by Robbie Swinnerton

What’s the best season for eating Indian food? Summer, when all the spices help you sweat out Tokyo’s clammy heat? Or in the chill of winter, to put fire in your belly? The answer: Any time at all, if the cooking is as consistently good as it is at Nirvanam.

It is far from Tokyo’s biggest, plushest or most sophisticated Indian restaurant, nor the most renowned. But many of Nirvanam’s fans — including those who should know best, expats from the subcontinent — rate it as their favorite in the city. Or at the very least, top when it comes to the cooking of South India.

It’s a crucial distinction. As anyone who has traveled through the country will know, Indian food is no more a single unified cuisine than is China’s. Each region has its own culinary tradition, none more distinct or delicious than those of the deep south, especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

If you are familiar only with the heavier, buttery dishes of the north — oil-rich curries; meats and breads from the tandoor oven; or that perennial Anglo-Indian favorite, chicken tikka masala — prepare to be astounded. Lighter, sharper, more aromatic and with much greater emphasis on seafood, the contrast is as stark as between, say, German food and Greek.

Nirvanam was not the first place in town to establish South Indian cooking on the Tokyo dining map. But it didn’t take very long after opening its compact second-floor premises close to the Kamiyacho Crossing to rival and then surpass the reigning hotspot, Kyobashi’s excellent (and still thriving) Dhaba India. Even after six years, the flavors at Nirvanam remain every bit as forthright, with no hint of compromise.

Where to start? Go straight to the section in the menu entitled Tiffins and delight your eyes with the list of eight dosas. Besides the standard masala dosas — thankfully, these rolled-up crepes stuffed with spiced potato and other vegetables are not so unusual in Tokyo these days, though Nirvanam’s are some of the very best — there are also some more unusual varieties.

Rava dosas are made with a coarse-ground “semolina” rather than flour, giving them a crunchier texture. Meanwhile, the onion, cheese or carrot dosas are thick and fluffy, like Western-style pancakes, though they too are made from a rice-flour batter.

Arguably the best of all, though, is the Set Dosa. It features two of those thick pancakes — a short stack, you might say — but served on a tray with the classic dosa dips. There will be a small bowl of rassam, a soup of spiced lentils, accented with tamarind; and another of creamed coconut, also mildly piquant. And you will find a generous blob of chutney made from creamed channa (chickpeas), tasting like a distant relative of hummus. Dunk the dosa into the dips or spread the dips over the top. Refills are offered, so there’s no need to stint.

Another starter that goes well with your opening bottle of Kingfisher beer is the parippu vada. These patties of yellow split peas and chopped onion are fried crisp and served with a light-green dip of mint blended into refreshingly sharp yogurt.

Faced with a menu this long and complex, the temptation is always to order too much. As at any Indian restaurant, it’s inevitable. But to avoid too much food wastage or strain on your waistband, there are two good strategies.

The first is to order one of the set meals. The basic ¥3,000 menu is an ample introduction, although the ¥4,000 course offers a better ratio of variety and volume to price. The second is to pace yourself, ordering slowly a dish at a time, rather than loading up the table and your stomach too fast. Instead of turning straight to the curry menu, order up plenty of tiffins and appetizers served in smaller portions.

Seafood plays a much more important role in southern Indian food. One of Nirvanam’s best dishes is the one it calls Roast Fish. The chunks of whitemeat fish are coated in a spicy yogurt marinade, then deep-fried and served with an aromatic sauce. As well as plenty of small, fiery red chilies, you also find fresh green kari leaf and a good sprinkling of cashew nuts. The balance of heat and subtler spices is excellent.

As a main course, another classic South Indian dish is the Andhra mutton curry. The chunks of meat — and they are definitely from mature sheep, not tender young lamb — are served in a coconut-based curry sauce that is described on the menu as mild. Indeed, it is not witheringly hot. But the underlying spice from the other aromatics give the dish an intensity that connects with all the right receptors on your tongue, and the pleasure centers of your central nervous system.

Obviously you need a bowl of long-grain rice to go with this, but also put in an order for nool puttu. These soft-steamed rice noodles, better known (especially in Sri Lanka) as string hoppers, make a great alternative. They’re lighter on the digestion than rice, but absorb just as much of the fragrant spicy sauces. Or try the vella appam (aka hoppers), the same rice-flour mix but steamed in pancake form.

Needless to say, with food this good Nirvanam rarely has a free seat in the house. As the tables are squeezed in close together and everyone is having such a good time, there is always a good hubbub filling the air. Given this demand every night of the week — and you are likely to be turned away unless you book ahead — it seems strange, perverse almost, that there is a short row of tables in the dining room that are never put to use, and just hold an array of empty serving containers.

Consider this not so much a waste of space as an advertisement for Nirvanam’s other great attraction: its excellent all-you-can-eat lunchtime buffet. If you can’t get a reservation for dinner, if you’re curious about what makes South Indian food so special, or if you’ve just got a big, empty stomach to fill with some of the best spicy food in town, this comes highly recommended.

Nirvanam has a second branch close to Toranomon Station, with identical opening times and menu. 1-1-20 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5510-7875. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.