Maya: My favorite Indian food in Korea

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America is a great place to live if you love food, because contrary to the prevailing belief here that American food is all burgers and fries, American food is basically a cross-section of all of the people that live in America. If you want Thai, you can probably find Thai. If you want Vietnamese, it’s probably easy to find in any big city. Folks from small towns may not have as many options for world cuisines, but they might be persuaded to try them when they visit the big city nearby and certainly see them on television enough because food television is popular all over our great nation.

Korea reminds me in a lot of ways of how America must have been in the fifties and sixties. Things like gender roles, sexual repression, and the general covered-uppedness of the social scene are working their way towards a chaotic time of liberation. This country is going to be a wild place in ten or fifteen years, I think, if America in the sixties can be used as an example. Anyway, this applies to food too. There was a time in our country when eating sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken from an Americanized Chinese restaurant was freaking worldly. Foreign foods had a distinctly American spin on them. I’m reasonably certain that I can get a good facsimile of a Thai meal in my hometown in Texas, not exactly a culinary Mecca or anything. You can’t do that in Korea quite as easily.

We’ve tried lots of ethnic foods here in Korea. Generally you get a very Korean spin on the dish, and a side of pickles. After hearing our friends talk about it for months, we finally visited Maya, an Indian and Nepali restaurant owned by a Nepali man near Kyungpook National University. The food was amazing, and there was no side of pickles. The service was great, he spoke English perfectly, and did I mention the food?

Recently Maya has opened a second, larger location just outside of exit 3 of the line one subway at Beomeo station. The menu is the same, the ownership and cooks are the same, and the food is sublime. We’ve been three times recently as it’s a hell of a lot easier to get to, and this has allowed me to try a few new things, because the worst case scenario is that we just make a return trip if we don’t like what we ordered.

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We always start with the samosas. They are a perfect fried shell wrapped around potatoes, green onions and sweet peas seasoned with turmeric, fennel seeds, and chili. They come with a fiery, and I mean fiery, red sauce that will clear out your sinuses while painting the wall behind you with your grey matter. This is a must have every visit.

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The curries are delightful. I really can’t think of a better word to use than delightful. They’re spicy, but not too spicy. The flavors are bold, the food is rich, but you can eat it all without feeling like a total lard ass. There are vegetable, chicken, and lamb curries. My current favorite is the lamb. The chunks of lamb were perfectly tender and the curry itself was almost a bit sweet with a spice that grew.

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The channa masala was a good vegetarian option, but as neither of us are super fond of raw onion it was a bit of a hard sell. We do love some damn chickpeas though, and this is a curry of…chick peas!

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We order a dal fry nearly every time we visit Maya. Dal is one of those Indian foods that I absolutely love on a cold night. For some reason I imagine myself high in the Himalayas sheltering myself from the cold and digging into dal. I believe that the dal fry at Maya is an example of the most elegant and perfect way to use lentils.

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The chicken tikka at Maya is just beautiful. Carolyn tried to describe chicken tikka to me for a long time before we ordered it, and you know what, she described it perfectly. It’s awesome. I love the marinade in the outside and the chicken is always cooked perfectly, never too dry to enjoy. The tandoori chicken is equally good.

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The most important part of a meal at Maya, or any Indian restaurant for that matter, is the naan. Maya’s naan is probably the best I’ve ever had. It’s cooked in a tandoori oven, apparently the right way, because its got crunch, pull, taste, and texture. It’s everything that I want out of naan, and with a little garlic or butter it’s worth the hour trek over from our far edge of town all on its own.

Do I think it’s worth flying all the way to Korea to eat at Maya? No, that would be nuts. Do I think it’s worth making a trip down to Daegu from Seoul? Maybe, maybe not. Daejeon or Busan? Hell yes.

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Indian food: I wanna cook it

This weekend was my 31st birthday, and Carolyn planned a very special weekend of celebration for me. We took good advantage of some of the finer bits of living in Daegu. First, we had a great breakfast, and then she started cooking again. A little while later we were off to the Daegu arboretum for a picnic lunch. She made a great couscous salad, had what amounts to an entire cold cut platter here in Korea (salami and cheese) neatly sliced and diced, and made great chicken wraps with herbs de Provence. While we sat there in the arboretum enjoying ourselves she exposed her entire sinister plan…okay, so it ain’t really all that sinister, but it rocked.

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Her plan went a little something like this: wake up, stuff me with food, take a break, and stuff me with more food, take another break, and then stuff me full of food once again. Honestly from my perspective there’s not really much that could possibly go wrong with this awesome plan. The best part of the plan was dinner, and boy was it a good one. Carolyn told me at lunch that she was taking me to Maya, the best Indian restaurant in Daegu, for dinner. We had only been to Maya once before, and my mouth immediately started watering in a big way.

After an afternoon break at a cafe we cleaned up and headed out for our big Indian meal. It’s about an hour or an hour and a half trek from our apartment here on the southwestern frontier of the city to Maya but boy is it worth it. Indian food is a bit of a recent discovery for me, and I’d much rather be a late bloomer than someone who never understands just how great this cuisine is. My first real Indian meal was in New York when we visited Carolyn’s sister before moving to Korea way back in January of 2011. Since then we’ve pretty regularly eaten Indian food either at home or in local restaurants. Thank goodness Daegu has a decent sized Indian and Pakistani population.

Anyhow, back on track. Maya. Maya is a small restaurant with about six or eight tables. The staff is actually Indian, and it’s decorated like you might expect with elephants, tourism posters, and sari fabric. The air smells of spices, lovely, rich, pungent spices. After looking at the menu for a bit we decided to order and share three items. We started with samosas, and then for our main course shared a platter of chicken tikka and a dal fry. Now like I said, I’m a bit of a n00b when it comes to Indian cuisine and this explanation of what we ate might seem pretty much flavored with weaksauce sophomoric to you but it brings me joy to talk about food and some people are actually unfamiliar with Indian food at all. I think I’m related to most of them. My brother in law once said he thought Indian food seemed to be bread and gravy, and honestly I can see how someone would get that impression if the only introduction they were given to the food was curry and naan, but even just the three dishes we ordered for my birthday dinner demonstrate quite a bit of diversity.

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The first plate to come out was our order of samosas. To the uninitiated, a samosa might look a bit like a giant fried dumpling. It’s more like a wonton or other fried dough wrapped around spiced up mashed potatoes and vegetables. At Maya they serve the samosas with a red sauce that also has a little bit of a tinge of violet to it. They don’t warn you that it’s spicy for no reason either. When broke into the samosas they were steaming and the smell of the spices (that I won’t even pretend to have the palate to successfully identify) headed straight up to my nose. I couldn’t hold back and I destroyed this thing with no mercy.

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The next arrival at our table was chicken tikka. I am in no way clear on the process that gives birth to this gorgeous version of chicken but I’m pretty sure that there’s a tandoori oven involved. The chicken was very moist, and coated in a spicy, but not too hot, marinade. It was served with a sweet red sauce that tasted of fresh red chili peppers. The chili sauce wasn’t so spicy as sweet, but what I call the vegetable flavor of the chilies really came through in a big way. I’m not sure how the keep the chicken so moist as it roasts, but it’s a really great way to cook a chicken, if you ask me.

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We were only about half way through the chicken tikka when the dal fry arrived. A dal is sort of a spicy lentil stew that’s been cooked down to a somewhat smooth texture. With the dal came an order of garlic naan, which we scooped up the yummy dal with and moved it into our mouths. It was delish. Nan is a really special bread I think, with it’s thin profile and crispy outside and that little bet of pull you get from a great pizza crust.

Now like I said, I want to learn how to cook this stuff, but not from a book. Is it lame of me to admit that I’m a little bit intimidated by the thought of traveling in and around India? I think the in your face intensity of the poverty and the constant crowds of people trying to sell a relatively rich person from a far off land trinkets and such would be a bit much for a relaxing vacation. I digress, I want to learn how to cook Indian food in India, much like we learned to cook Thai food in Thailand. I think that the magic of those spices can only truly be learned where that magic was conjured up. I mean, I’ll settle for an Indian cooking class in New York, but I think you get more out of it on its home turf.

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Just in case you’ve read this far because you want to hear more about the birthday I’ll share this fun little bit of story talk. It was my 31st birthday, right? We decided to do something numerically appropriate for a cake. I don’t know about you, but the number 31 sure as hell makes me think of Baskin Robbins. We picked up an ice cream cake at Baskin Robbins on or way home and demolished about half of it, just the two of us. It kinda self destructed in our awesome freezer over night, but it was great while it lasted.