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Indian Explosion

Austin gains a bounty of healthy menu choices

By Kenny Pailes, Fri., Oct. 19, 2012

Today's Austinites don't have to look far to find a quality Indian restaurant, but it wasn't always such common and popular fare here. To be sure, our city has long benefited from a few venerable mainstays of the cuisine. Since 1990, North Austinites have flocked to Taj Palace to get their khorma fix. The latter half of that decade saw an uptick in the opening of curry-scented eateries that many attribute to the area's high-tech boom: Sarovar, Star of India, and the Clay Pit still stand as monuments to those heady days. That old (tasty) guard aside, there has been an undeniable rise recently in the number of new Indian dining opportunities. What's more, these newer joints hail from a wider variety of Indian regions, deliver their goods in a range of settings – such as the quick casual chain Tarka, and the now ubiquitous food trailers (a couple of those are profiled on p.45) – and have found footholds in neighborhoods previously deprived of the delightful aroma of fresh-baked naan.

So, what's behind this sudden spike in Austin's alimentary affection for the Subcontinent? While no formal studies on the issue have been funded (yet) by UT's acclaimed South Asian Institute, one anonymous lecturer there didn't mind sharing his well-informed thoughts on the subject. First and foremost, he asserts, this time, Austin's Indian food boom cannot be tied solely to immigration patterns. In fact, it isn't just about Austin, it's part of a national trend.

While he admits that the real reasons behind the current craze are difficult to pinpoint, our sage from the Forty Acres contends that it's primarily driven by two demographics: Americans who are eager to explore new flavors in healthy food formats, and vegetarians who are doing the same thing. While some may question the labeling of fried samosas and the like as "healthy," the truth is that there is no high-fructose corn syrup here, and processed foods are all but absent, as most Indian restaurants build their dishes up from raw ingredients. The link to vegetarianism is even stronger, given that many of India's Hindu majority population have lived for generations without meat in their diet. If you find yourself eager to add new dimensions to your green dishes in America, who better to turn to for advice than folks who have been creating complex plant-only flavor profiles for thousands of years?

Perhaps the most intriguing question, though, isn't why we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by great Indian food, but rather what mark Austin will make on the genre. If recent history is any indicator, it won't be long before our city's food incubator births the next great South Asian hot spot. Who knows? Maybe that future star is already in front of us. Check out this week's roundup of Indian eateries by Chronicle contributors Mick Vann, Claudia Alarcón, Rachel Feit, Gracie Salem, Kate Thornberry, Jessi Cape, and myself, and see if you can spot it.

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