5 Things I Learned About Indian Food from Eating at Babu Ji

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We don't often write about buzzy new restaurants, but we couldn't help catching a little bit of the fever around Babu Ji. The Alphabet City spot, which opened last summer, has been widely credited for shaking up the Indian food establishment with its cheeky decor and delicate, flavorful fare. Chef Jessi Singh, who hails from northern India and helms the kitchen, and his wife, Jennifer, a native of Brooklyn who runs the front of the house, are not the first to bring a lightness and playfulness to curries and chutneys — but they do it exceptionally well, from the opening bite of gol gappa, a paper-thin fritter filled with yogurt and tamarind, to the sweet kulfi finale.

The couple decided to open Babu Ji (a Hindi term used to offer respect to village elders) in order to fill what they saw as a deficit in the Indian dining scene. "The options were limited to the Indian delivery joint down the block or the fine dining options that can be very delicious but feel a bit soulless," explains Jennifer. "The food at Babu Ji is creative, thoughtful, and bright."

The Singhs, and indeed the entire waitstaff, are obviously enthusiastic about the food they're serving. When I visited, Chef hovered excitedly as I popped one crispy, tangy gol gappa then the next into my mouth. If anything, my waiter was a bit too anxious to clear away the various platters — thank you, I was still enjoying that Colonol Tso's cauliflower — in his effort to make room for the main event, an array of dishes as bright and fun to eat as they were to look at.

The scallop coconut curry with turmeric and mustard seed and the no-butter butter chicken, marinated in yogurt and served with a sauce of tomato, garlic, ginger, and fenugreek, were favorites and excellent examples that a few ingredients can yield a vibrant dish — no ghee necessary.

5 Rules of Indian Food According to Jessi and Jennifer Singh

In the event you don't live in New York or have plans to visit, we asked the Singhs to share a few tips for home chefs — which should hold you over until we convince them to reveal the recipe for their Indian nachos.

1. Real Indian food is layered (not heavy).

Food in India is not as weighted as it often is in Western restaurants with cream, ghee, or extreme amounts of chili spice. In India, home cooking is quite simple and straightforward. The recipes are not belabored or planned out; they are never from a cookbook. They are decided at the local veggie walla or in the garden, and simmered with the particular spice blend of the home.

2. Measuring spoons are not required.

Put away your measuring spoons! Nothing in terms of the spice combinations needs to be set in stone with Indian cooking. If you like cardamom, add more of it; if you don’t like clove, omit it. Blending spices to your taste is fun and encourages you to follow your own intuition.

3. You don't have to buy a whole new spice cabinet.

Of course, there's nothing like starting with whole spices and grinding them yourself. But for the home cook, there are lots of garam masala mixes out there that are so convenient and add so much flavor to anything you want to use them on. They’re not just for curries, either! Rub them on meats, or roast veggies with them.

4. Turmeric goes well with basically everything.

We love turmeric. It’s mild, earthy, and makes food look so vibrant. We add it to everything whether it’s meant to be an Indian dish or not. It’s great in scrambled eggs or on potatoes. And it’s so incredible for the body, we just feel healthier after eating it.

5. Everything tastes better in smuggled ice cream molds.

Kulfi is a traditional Indian ice cream. Ours is house-made and all-natural. We serve it in traditional hand-beaten tin molds that we bring back from India when we visit. We love the old-school molds and the memories they inspire. And we love seeing our guests enjoy defrosting their pop from it’s mold by rolling the tin in their hands.

(Image credits: Mikey Pozarik)