Turmeric serves the magic spice

by Gus Lubin

Turmeric serves the magic spice

Whether he recognizes me as a food critic or not, the waiter at Turmeric is thrilled to talk about the menu. “India is so big. There are 600 specialties. That is too much for the menu. I must keep it to 60, or the chef, he will complain.” Jay regales us about the sub-continent for 15 minutes. He boasts about its people’s amazing tolerance for spicy food and its record-hot Ghost Pepper. He recites a long list of Indian spices and explains the significance of each one, especially the restaurant’s namesake, turmeric: “Indians put turmeric in everything. Everything. It is used for color. It is also a very good digestive. It can even cure cancer.” Maybe we set the tone with our leisurely conversation, or the service is just generally slow. In any case, he brings two lassis in 15 minutes, our appetizers in 30 and our main course takes more than an hour to reach our table. We leave after nearly three. I like it this way. There is enough time for midmeal digestion, for spice to slow-burn in my gut. Enough time to be lulled by the symphonic pop music and hypnotized by elephants and gods on the wall and by white-shirted, dark-skinned waiters who bowed, called me “sir” and bob their heads as they talk. Turmeric doesn’t feel like India, but it doesn’t feel like Main Street either. It is a legit Indian restaurant, a cross-cultural state of its own. This was on the night that terrorists attacked the tourist district of Mumbai. Before we enter the restaurant, as we stand outside in the Healy Drive strip mall, my date and I wonder if the waiters would be fixed to the TV, watching CNN. They were not. The TV showed a football game and the waiters seemed happy. When my date orders a salty lassi, Jay bobs his head and says, “Oooh. It is not so good. It is good on a very hot day for thirst, but no, I don’t like it.” Feeling adventurous, she insists. The salty lassi tastes like an airy, yogurt seawater smoothie. At first she cringes; later she admits, “It’s better on the fourth sip.” At least the salt slows her down. I’ve chugged my mango lassi — a raw, fruity delight — in five minutes.

Our first course is composed of two south Indian specialties, dosas and vadas, also known as onion-lentilcrepes and savory donuts. These dry delicacies come with a cool coconut curry, a slightly sweet and spicy lentil curry and a flavorful dahl — which tastes like a lentil sweet-and-sour soup. For me the vada is too dense, too dependent on the dip. For my date it is just right. “Krispy Kreme should make this donut of the month,” she says. Our second course is a mud red chicken tikka masala and a lamb saag. Jay brings them to us with a tremendous smile. Then, in response to a stray question, he tells us all about the modern spice trade — how their spices are grown in India, shipped to warehouses in Atlanta and purchased wholesale by Turmeric. Indeed, the restaurant goes through nearly 100 pounds of turmeric every month. While Jay talks, I touch a fork’s edge of masala to my tongue. I shiver. It was creamy, sweet, spicy, turmericky, gingery, cardamomy, delicious. A paranoid thought flashed through my mind: “Did they sniff me out as a reporter and prepare a special, extraordinary dish?” The masala is even better with a soft hunk of chicken. The saag is an equally pungent dish of pureed spinach and lamb. It has a strong spinach taste, which is well contained by the creamy curry. Both dishes come with fried potatoes and peas and plenty of rice and naan to wipe up sauce. Turmeric, which opened in the past year, is a very good Indian restaurant. But it’s hard to say if it will succeed where other Winston-Salem Indian restaurants have failed. Kabab’s lasted only a few years in a beautiful space downtown. Basmati used to occupy the exact same Healy Drive strip mall. Let’s hope it survives. A city our size could use a few Indian restaurants; and we could all use the turmeric.

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TURMERIC Indian Restaurant 3088 Healy Drive, W-S 336.794.8280

Jay,a server at Turmeric Indian Restaurant in Winston-Salem, demonstratesthe restaurant’s affinity for exotic spices with the use of a visualaid. (photo by Gus Lubin)