South Asian Dishes Beckon with Bold Flavors

29 Nov 2021

The changing culinary landscape of the Sandhills


What is causing the amazing increase in the popularity of Indian food?

Food experts say that the American palate is growing bolder and that we are craving dishes with sharper flavors from all corners of the globe, particularly South Asia. Although this trend is clearly noticeable in urban areas, is it a surprise to you that the number of Indian restaurants in the Sandhills keeps growing?

The unique, hard-to-duplicate flavors of Indian cuisine may be the reason for its rapidly increasing popularity in our country and region. Not many other cultures use the herbs and spices found in typical Indian dishes.

Put your holiday leftovers back in the freezer and save them for when you really want something boring to eat. Where should you step out instead?

Bodhis Indian Fusion Grill recently opened in Southern Pines in the Morganton Park South retail complex. Among its popular offerings is beef biryani, which is marinated beef slowly cooked over a low flame with basmati rice. (The Basmati grain expands more than twice its dry length during cooking. Because it expands only lengthways, unlike other types of rice, it retains its characteristic length and slenderness when cooked.)

Want to challenge your palate with a bold approach? Try Bodhis’ paneer butter masala. It’s a rich and creamy dish of paneer (cottage cheese) in a tomato, butter, and cashew sauce.

At Bodhis, lunch specials usually include several types of curry dishes. Its menu also includes Indo-fusion pasta dishes that offer a creative twist on the classic penne pasta dish of Italy by cooking beef or chicken in a homemade rich and creamy tikka masala sauce.

Crave chicken wings? Forget the sweet and sticky sauces. Bodhis captures our obsession with wings but takes it to a new level by marinating them in herbs from the Middle East. Garlic, yogurt, and regional spices are other options for how wings are marinated. Be bold and break away from your old eating routines.

Probably the most extensive menu of Indian cuisine in the area belongs to Hennings Taste of India on U.S. 1. Its multipage menu has just about everything that you could think of plus more. Owned and managed by Kamal Pokhrel originally from Nepal, Hennings is building on the following it developed when it first opened in 2019 in the restaurant space of Days Inn.

“Our focus is on what this area’s American community likes about Indian food. We are featuring favorite South Indian and Nepalese dishes. Very popular are butter chicken and chicken tikka masala,” Pokhrel says.

Not surprisingly, Hennings is a winner in this magazine’s Best of the Best contest. In the category of vegetarian food, it was the clear first-place winner. The list of vegetable entrees at Hennings is almost endless. Specialties that feature spinach, eggplant, green peas, chickpeas, lentils, black and red beans, cauliflower, potato, okra, and other vegetables are just as tempting to carnivores as well. Several vegetable appetizers also can begin the meal on the flavorsome path.

Closely rivaling Hennings’ extensive menu is that of Zayka Indian Cuisine, which took over its former space in Days Inn. Among the specialties at Zayka are tandoori dishes, such as tawa chicken, chicken seekh kebab, and chicken malai kabab. Tandoori dishes are prepared by roasting meat marinated in yogurt and spices in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven.

Other special menu items include rice and biryani dishes. (Biryani is a spiced mix of meat and rice cooked traditionally over an open fire in a pot.) At Zayka, the biryani choices include lamb, shrimp, chicken, goat, and vegetable.

With an obvious love for the food and culture from their home region of Northern India, the culinary team at Zayka also shares its appreciation of Indian flavors in how it fuses traditional Indian spices. For example, lamb and goat specialties are prepared with a variety of sauces such as korma, masala, curry, chukka, and vindaloo, each one bringing out bold aromas and tastes based on the chef’s special selection of spices.

Also consider Jaya’s Indian Cuisine where a loyal following has been nurtured by Ekambaram (Maran) and Jayarani (Jaya) Elamaran, who have served the Sandhills with Indian food for more than two decades.  Three years ago, they expanded their fan base with a takeout kitchen on May Street.

Now this area favorite is open for dine-in service at its new location on Northeast Broad in Southern Pines, although the menu is limited because Jaya’s philosophy is more of the home cooking/comfort food approach to Indian cuisone. They have core favorites and terrific daily specials that they post on its Instagram account (@jayasindiancuisine), an easy way to see which curry dishes, salads, wings, and appetizers are available. In addition, they also continue to operate a food truck.

Don’t forget The Sly Fox in Southern Pines. Although its menu as a British gastropub is wide-ranging, some of its most popular choices are Indian dishes. Its butter chicken, a popular curry that has a silky-smooth rich texture, is my family’s favorite. Another dish not to miss is the lamb shank biryani that is served over Kashmiri rice (a delicious rice dish from Northern India) with cashews, raisins, craisins, and walnuts.

Why is the culinary landscape of the Sandhills changing, and why are Indian dishes becoming more popular? Is it the influence of social media or word of mouth? Are the younger families and eaters moving in more adventurous and experimental with their food choices?

A recent study indicates that 52 percent of millennials are more likely to visit restaurants that offer new or innovative flavors — and will spend extra money on these dishes. Join the crowd and enjoy!

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