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Sitar of India: A culinary adventure

May 06, 2011

By Anne Chovey

Special to The Herald-Mail

I confess: I don't know much about Indian food.

I think tandoor is an oven and curry is blend of spices, but I am stumped when it comes to vindaloo and masala. What I do know is that I like it. A lot.

So my friend, Pap Ricka, and I were excited to see that a new Indian restaurant, Sitar of India, had opened in the Railway Lane shopping center at Hagerstown. Pap and I invited our friends Penny Pasta and Sam Osato join us. Penny and Sam love Indian food and were our guides in making our selections.

As we entered the restaurant we were greeted by the host, who seemed genuinely pleased to see us before showing us to a booth. Our waitress immediately came over and filled our water glasses. She was available to answer any questions we had.

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Sitar was in the process of getting its liquor license so soft drinks, tea and lassis (an Indian yogurt shake) were our beverage options. The restaurant is full of booths along the outer walls and tables and chairs down the middle. A chest-high wall splits the room into two sides. The walls are light and have Indian-themed paintings on them. Glass pendent lights hang over each table.

The menu had appetizers of all sorts, which ranged in price from $3.99 to $8.99 for a platter of assorted choices. Breads included plain naan, an unleavened bread that is baked until crispy on the outside, yet soft inside; naan stuffed with chicken or vegetables or dried fruit and traditional chapati, a whole-wheat bread cooked on a griddle.

Then came the entrees: a multitude of vegetarian selections, most of which were $9.99 to $10.99; chicken ($12.99 to $13.75), lamb ($14.50) and seafood (14.99).

Each of these selections had similar offerings. We could order "saag," which is a spinach dish with either cheese, chicken, lamb or shrimp. Or "Korma," which is a mildly spicy cream sauce with nuts and raisins also in all varieties. Each menu selection gave a brief explanation of the dish so you could understand what you were ordering.

We decided to begin with vegetable pakoras. There are small vegetable fritters with a crunchy chickpea batter. The plate was brought out piled with golden brown dollops with the chopped vegetables peaking through. A plate of chutneys was served with them -- a very spicy green sauce, a slightly sweet spicy red sauce and a pickle of something that looked like red pepper.

We took bites of the pakoras plain and then with each of the sauces. Each sauce turned the dish into something unique. The flavors were exotic and difficult to describe. Hot, yes. Spicy, yes. Hint of sweet, yes. Mouthwatering, absolutely yes!

Now it was on to the main dish. Penny loves spinach so she immediately knew that she wanted the aloo palak: potatoes and spinach in a creamy sauce of onions and tomatoes. Our waitress explained that the food can be prepared mild, medium or hot.

"Hot,"  Penny said firmly.

Her boyfriend Sam is a vegetarian who grew up eating a lot of Indian food. He easily sorted through the menu and chose Matter Paneer: green peas cooked with homemade cheese and spices. He, too, asked for the food to be "hot."

Pap and I took much longer to decide. We read the different sections and all the preparations under each section.

Pap eventually decided upon lamb vindaloo: marinated lamb with potatoes and spices in a tangy, hot sauce. He selected the food "hot."

I decided to go an entirely different direction and chose "Sitar Special Biryani." A biryani is basically spiced rice and the "Sitar Special" included everything but the kitchen sink: shrimp, chicken, lamb, paneer (cheese) vegetables, nuts, and raisins.

Wow!  I like hot food, but not blistering so I asked for mine to be medium. We also ordered plain naan so that we could scoop up all the sauce.

Large white plates were placed before us, then our dishes in small silver bowls along with individual platters of rice. My dinner was different as my meats and vegetables were already on top of my rice. My rice had nuts, raisins and peas in it as well. We ploughed in. The rice is thin and long and almost crispy. Unlike Japanese or Chinese rice, it doesn't stick together. It is flavorful in its own right, but it becomes the perfect accompaniment to the spicy food.

Penny's spinach was dark green and creamy. Sam's peas were a lighter green. Pap's lamb was a rich red brown. All of them were making appreciative noises as they shoveled in their food.

When I looked over, I had to laugh:  Pap had beads of sweat on his upper lip and forehead. Penny and Sam were draining their water glasses. At Sitar, "hot" means hot.

Meanwhile, I was thoroughly enjoying my biryani. It was plenty spicy for me and I was fortunate to have a dish of raita, a cucumber yogurt sauce, which I could spoon on my plate and cool down my mouth with. I passed it around so others could share.

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