Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cultural Revelation

In my sometimes-successful quest to eat healthy, I have also recently begun expanding my dining repertoire. I always seem to eat the same things: broccoli, asparagus, chicken, beef, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with those. But I wanted to get outside my culinary comfort zone and try something new. Which is precisely what I did last weekend. One of the guys I work with sometimes gets lunch from a place called Aroma here in Bentonville. It’s a Pakistani restaurant. The first time he brought the food in—chicken biryani, he said it was—I thought it stunk horribly. But over the next few times, I began to break down the complex scent into its pleasing components: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, mint, cumin, garlic, chili powder, and turmeric. It’s a hearty smell that may offend at first. But like making a new friend, once you get to know what it’s made of, you settle in comfortably.

I decided to visit Aroma. Mary, though reluctant, agreed to go. I promised her that if it was horrible I would take her somewhere else immediately. I also wondered how my middle-aged digestive system would process Pakistani fare. I was prepared to have regrets, either in the restaurant or in the bathroom. We arrived at Aroma, and even getting out of the car, we could smell the strong spices on the breeze. Mary made the comment that it smelled really good, and I agreed. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. The gentleman taking food orders at the front counter was obviously of Middle Eastern descent, but when I told him we wanted 2 chicken biryanis he said (with no trace of an accent), “Dude, you don’t wanna do that. Get the buffet. It’s like 4 bucks cheaper and you get everything.”

So we did. We sampled a small portion of everything: chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala, chicken vindaloo, and dal masoor, as well as roti (also called chapatti) and naan, baked flatbreads with amazing texture and flavor. It was, in a word, wonderful. Each dish had so many contrasting flavors that work together so well.

Admittedly, Pakistani food, like traditional food of any culture, is probably not terribly healthy, what with its liberal use of cream and butter. But I’ve already found several websites that offer healthy versions of the dishes we enjoyed. So now when we get tired of plain chicken and rice with vegetables, I have a whole other culture from which to borrow.