Deepavali or better known as Divali in north America is the festival of lights celebrated in India and many other countries including Malaysia, where I grew up. This holiday always resonated with me because it always falls around my birthday and sometimes, falls right on my birthday (like this year) and we get a day off from school.
Over the weekend, I met Jag Kambo, one of the owners of Royal India in San Diego (his brother Sam is co-owner) where they will be welcoming their guests with a Divali celebration this Saturday, the 17th with a special Divali prix fixe menu — the festival of lights is actually today, November 13th.
I have been eating Indian food since I was a child and through the years, I’ve had all types of Indian cuisine from the north to the south. One of the best meals I remember eating was in Hong Kong prepared by an Indian friend’s mom who was also a cooking instructor. I remember how wonderfully delicious everything was, how fresh it all tasted, and how different it was from what you get in restaurants.
The restaurant is housed in a historic 125 year old building, home of San Diego’s first jazz bar. A lot of history here and it was even more befitting when I tasted the food at Royal India, that I was transported to a part of my own history, a “ratatouille moment”, if you will. The dishes are created with love and care, each step of the process executed with precision and perfection, supervised by both Jag and Sam in the kitchen.
We sampled some of the items featured on the Diwali prix fixe menu ($29/person with appetizer, entree, naan or rice, complimentary glass of champagne and dessert).
We began with Pakora, we tried the shrimp (normally $12 on the menu) and there are a variety to choose from including chicken and vegetables (offered on the prix fixe). Pakoras are battered and fried using chickpea flour as the base resulting in a nutty and light consistency. It isn’t greasy at all and is absolutely delightful.
Samosas are another choice on the prix fixe and let me tell you, these are not like any samosas you’ve ever had. We tried the lamb ($6) which was nicely seasoned and not gamey.
The vegetable ($5) samosa was also great filled with potatoes and peas.
What was instantly noticeable was the samosa wrapper — really flavorful, crispy throughout and very thin. I normally eat around the inside and leave the outside, but I ended up eating the entire thing here. I commented on how light these were and Jag was proud to say “everything is made in-house”, and it shows.
Everyone loves Chicken Tikka Masala ($18) and this is one of your available choices for entree for Diwali. What stood out for me was the color — not that intense unnatural red you usually see in Indian restaurants which possibly includes red dye. Here, it was a beautiful red hue from tomatoes and other spices which they grind by hand before cooking. I loved how I was able to detect the various spices in each bite and how the sauce was subtle yet sublime.
Your other entree choice is Lamb Korma ($20) and I suggest you order this if you are a lamb fan. The coriander, ginger and cumin are evident and I could taste the shards of ginger on my tongue. I love eating foods which are made from scratch and not from a sauce packet and it makes such a difference when you’ve tasted what real Indian food is all about. The lamb is so tender it melts in your mouth — it certainly did in mine! Just divine!
Vegetarians have the option of vegetable chili ginger masala or vegetable tikka masala for their prix fixe entrees.
The prix fixe is served with Pulao rice or naan (plain or garlic). The rice is dotted with raisins and brightly colored with the yellow of tumeric. It is so tasty on its own and requires no additions for you to enjoy.
Naan ($5) is deliciously fluffy and topped with fresh garlic and cilantro and I highly suggest this over the plain. We also tried Kabuli, a naan filled with raisins and sweetened coconut. I’m normally not a fan of coconut, but I loved this slightly sweet bread which frankly would suffice as a dessert for me.
Homemade sauces are also perfectly executed. The Raita ($3) cucumber yogurt helps cool your palate from the heat. Mango chutney ($4) is sweet and chunky and also serves to cool your palate from anything too spicy. The home made chili sauce is what I relished. I like heat on almost everything and gleefully added dollops of this fiery sauce to my rice and curries. I was pretty much speechless, savoring everything, simply floored to find Indian food of such caliber in San Diego of all places.
No Diwali celebration is complete without something sweet and what is more traditional than Gulab Jamun ($8), little beignet-like doughnuts soaked in a sugar syrup traditionally infused with cardamom, rosewater and saffron.
Dessert is complimentary with the Diwali prix fixe menu and if gulab jamum isn’t your thing, then definitely do not miss out on the pistachio ice cream ($11). Creamy and sinfully rich, each bite of this home made deliciousness offers up large pieces of pistachios, rasins, coconut and slivered almonds. It was very addicting and hard to stop eating.
I’ve had many people ask me why Indian food (not buffet) is expensive, well the answer if really quite simple. It is a very time consuming process to make Indian food correctly. There is the grinding of the spices, which usually means the use of a mortar and pestle. Then, there is the roasting of the spices to bring out all the natural oils, creating those wonderful aromas you smell before you even taste the food. The cooking time is usually long, several hours, often around 8 hours or more. There are no short cuts when you make Indian food and if corners are cut, then the taste will suffer.
At Royal India, you will find the best of Indian cuisine in California. That of course is my opinion, but once you taste the difference, you won’t go back to ordinary Indian food again. At $29, the Diwali menu is a steal, and the perfect opportunity for you to partake in this celebration with some of the best Indian food I’ve had to date.
329 Market Street
San Diego, CA 92101