Dark and Mysterious No More – Annapurna Cuisine

Annapurna is a Hindu goddess. My first introduction to Annapurna was at Cal. On the day I moved into my 3rd floor dorm room in Putnam Hall, I met my neighbors directly below me, and one of them asked me if I wanted anything because he was going to make a run over to Annapurna. I was a 17-year-old honor student from the midwest, and had absolutely no idea what he would be getting on his run to Annapurna, a head shop. A head shop? I didn’t even know what a head shop was, but it sounded very suspect to me, so I politely declined.

Since then, Annapurna has always been related to very dark, mysterious, smoky, and somewhat suspicious things. When I started to see Annapurna in a slightly rundown corner plaza inhabited by stores with no names on my morning drive to the office, I made the same association. No need to go within 10 feet of the place. Especially since the entire second floor of the mini-mall was tagged with layers of oddly ornate graffiti.

is it dark, mysterious and suspect?

Somehow, I had ignored the the Indian Vegetarian Cuisine part of Annapurna’s sign. But a few weeks ago, it finally hit me square in the forehead, and I decided I had to try it. Indian food has been on my delicious brain as of late, but I’ve only gone to the more popular restaurants like All India Cafe that serve a little bit of everything, never one that specializes in all vegetarian. I want to see what other amazing vegetarian dishes I had been missing in my habitual order of standard palak paneer, bengan bhartha and aloo gobi.

Like most Indian restaurants, Annapurna has a lunch buffet. Isn’t it odd that buffets are so common in Indian restaurants? No, it’s very understandable, actually. Indian isn’t a a cook-to-order cuisine like burgers, sushi, or Chinese. Curries simmer for hours, improving in flavor as they stew down, and meats aren’t just flash- or stir-fried – they cook for a long time time in the tandoori oven. So these things are started in large batches early in the day, so setting out reasonable quantities in a buffet serving dish is logical. Annapurna’s buffet is long, but the serving pans are small, so I know the food hasn’t been sitting there collecting germs from dirty diners all day. Annapurna’s staff refreshed the buffet at least four or five times during our meal there.

dosas – rice and lentil flour crepes

The regular menu looks long, but is deceptively so because each whole section is essentially one thing, but served with different accessories. All the appetizers are different combinations of deep-fried vegetables and either chickpea or lentil flour. Dosas are thin crepes made with rice and lentil flour, and though there are almost 20 listed under the dosa section, they are all just adorned wtih different accessories like spread with butter, or chutney, or stuffed with cheese. Uthappams are a thicker pancake, with similar ingredients in the batter, but a heavier portion of rice flour. They are similar to a pizza, as they can be topped with peas, onions, chilis, and cheese. There are rices mixed with different things, each one listed separately, like lemon rice, tamarind rice, and tomato rice.

what a dal! – yellow lentils

It took a long time for us to go through the buffet because we got caught behind a Woody Allen looking guy, but flashier, who was pulling a complete buffet-style When Harry Met Sally. Not only did he ask what every single item was even though they were very clearly identified on Post-it notes on the sneeze-guard (which, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I generally hate buffets – something that requires a “sneeze-guard” just isn’t right), he also had to know how it was cooked and if there was a flour or rice in it. Hm, I wonder who’s on the South Beach diet? I had already picked up one of the large, curled, crispy pappadums and had to start eating it standing right there in line so I wouldn’t starve to death. Standing there with Annapurna’s silver, rectangular buffet plates that felt like heavier, fancier tv dinner trays, I felt like I was watching a very bad tv movie in slow-motion – he scooped teaspoon sized portions of each thing onto his plate, taking care that they didn’t touch each other. I wanted to take the deep-fried rice doughnuts which he passed up, shove them down his throat and watch him scream about the glycemic index like the little girl he was being.

poriyal come back now y’hear?

*breathe* We made it through the buffet and I basically got a taste of everything, except the desserts. Those would have to be reserved for a second trip, since I didn’t want to walk back to the table double fisting. The server had left us a a plate with paper-thin dosas, which I thought would be a rather bland carbohydrate filler like most breads are, but they were slightly salted and a tad tangy. Closer to the edges they were thinner, crisper and tender-er, and toward the center, just ever so slightly chewy. I liked them, almost more than naan. Almost.

I worked my way around the plate, trying to keep to the same order that they were on the buffet table. I thought perhaps there was a general order, like the way sushi goes from mild to strong fish –light to heavy, or mild to spicy. *eh* Maybe I’m just making that up in my head.

I started with the mildest looking thing, the dal, lentils. They were mild in terms of heat, but nicely spiced with large seeds….coriander? I’m not sure whether the bright yellow came from the dal themselves, or if it’s the addition of yellow spices (cumin). The dal was a good way to ease into my tv dinner lunch plate.

The tv dinner plate is quite fitting a
ctually, because the restaurant is almost an Indian entertainment center. Along the top of the walls all the way around the dining room, there is a border made to look like a filmstrip with what I would guess are famous Indian actors. There are also two flat screen tvs, though I can’t figure out if they are showing a musical-made-to-film (like Westside Story) or a music video of Indian singers (like mtv). All I know is the tv directly in front of has a lot of Indian people singing and dancing, sometimes very traditional moves, and sometimes they look like the Back Street Boys.

We’re also sitting in one of the booths against the side wall. The booths are outfitted with computer screens and keyboards. I have no idea what they are for since they are not turned on, but I can only guess that Annapurna moonlights as an Indian cybercafe.

The next thing looks like very yellow sauerkraut, but tastes like, cabbage poriyal. And that’s what it is! The cabbage poriyal was fairly mild as well, but highly seasoned, as the yellow must have come from turmeric or cumin. I am horrible with placing tastes, but there was definitely something that made it unusual that I couldn’t identify. I researched later and found out that poriyal often has coconut added to the end. If that was it, then I’ve finally found a savory dish with coconut that I like (not Thai).

rasam – spicy sour tomato soup

sambar over the rainbow

There were two soups at the buffet that we ladled into tiny metal bowls that look like my one cup measuring cup for baking. Of course, I sampled both, which very similar in color on the surface, but further investigation with a spoon that was disproportionate to the bowl revealed totally different things inside. The rasam is a spicy (but not that spicy) and sour (but not that sour) tomato soup. It tasted like tomato soup with a few added spices – I could make this at home. The sambar, which also had a tomato base, was more interesting. Lentils that were either cooked down or ground first before adding made the consistency a little thicker. I didn’t want to get bloated on soup, so I fished out the zucchini, took another little sip of the rasam, and moved on to the next item in my clockwise tour of my plate.

standard vegetable curry

kadai bhindi – okra

Two vegetable curries were next. One, simply called vegetable curry, had cauliflower, green beans, and a few other vegetables that were stewed to unidentifieable but deliciously soft. It was good, but I had tasted many curries like this before. The kadai bindi, with the tiny floral shapes of the okra, deserved more attention. Like tandoor refers to the oven in which things are cooked, kadai refers to a special type of pot or pan in which the bindi, okra, or any other type of vegetables are cooked. Fairly intense flavor of the spices, though if my eyes had been closed, I wouldn’t have known I was eating okra. Or any of the other vegetables in it, for that matter.

aam aachar – spicy mango pickles

Up until this point, everything had been deliciously spiced, but not spicy. The next thing looked like kimchee to me, and I got excited. Maybe this one would make me sweat. I had absolutely no idea what it was since it was completely covered in what looked like red chili pepper powder. I put one whole piece in my mouth and started to chew. Wait. Chew. Wait. Chew. And there it was. Spicy! Granted, it didn’t throw flames from my ears, but it was pretty spicy. I thought it was a pickled cucumber, but there was a small hard piece that I had to pull off out of my mouth – it was green. If it was a cucumber, then it must have been some foreign Indian strain that had a skin as tough as wood. Later, I found out it was a mango pickle; the hard piece must have been the skin. I guess the spices killed my mango allergy. I ate the rest of the spicy mango pickle like it was a main dish, only to find out later that it’s a condiment. So I had basically been doing the equivalent of eating a bowl of ketchup with a spoon. LOL!

aloo bonda – potato croquettes

My first round plate was done, so I went back to the buffet to get more of the things I particularly liked: the kadai bindi and the mango pickles. I also picked up what was labelled as “appetizer basket” that was almost empty on my first trip so I had waited for fresh ones. Apparently, deep fried things, in any country, are popular, but this go round, they had just been refreshed on the buffet. Aloo bonda looks like a potato croquette that had been dipped in Tang powder. The crumb coating made of lentil flour (I think) on the outside was thin and crisp, and the inside was a soft, spicy potato and onion filling. Leftover mashed potatoes in my house were going to become aloo bonda from now on.

The other fried things were all in the same orange-colored family as the aloo bonda, but coated with a batter rather than a crumb. The vada was just lentil flour shaped like a doughnut hole. Pretty uninteresting, but okay with a massive dip in some raita. Onion pakoda is made with chick peas, and looked a little over fried, as it was darker than the others. It tasted over fried too, a little bit tougher. I didn’t like this one as much. The best one was the mirch bhaji, a jalapeno that had been coated fairly thickly with the spiced chickpea flour. I think it’s funny that Annapurna calls it a green chilly. The batter was a little too thick, so I peeled half of it off so that I co
uld actually taste the jalapeno. Much better that way. And alternating with bites of the mango pickle, the heat made me happy.

vada (lentil doughnuts) and pakoda (with onions)

gajar halwa – sweetened carrot dessert

I didn’t do dessert. The buffet table had fresh fruit that didn’t look all that appetizing – watermelon slices that were too pale. There was also a large dish of what looked like yogurt with fruit in it, but though everything was vegetables, I had eaten a lot. Instead, I tasted the gajar halwa, grated carrots cooked with milk and butter, and I guess sugar, since it was very sweet. Other than the fact that it was sweet, i didn’t like it all that much. I think it reminded me too much of that disgusting carrot raisin salad they used to make me eat in me elementary school cafeteria. *gag*

After finishing up, we had to sit there to digest. It was easy, since the Indian Back Street Boys were actually pretty entertaining. The final check was ridiculously low. We had gorged ourselves for only $6.95 per person. It almost felt like we were cheating Annapurna in some way. We’ll definitely be back, since the server told us that the buffet changes every day. They also have a location in Orange County, as well as two in Artesia. If Annapurna is a fairly good representation of Pioneer Boulevard, then I only have to go as far as Culver City!

Annapurna Cuisine
10200 Venice Boulevard (at Motor)
Culver City, CA 90232

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