My taste for Indian food was cultivated by an unlikely masala (mix): a Trinidadian and a Tennessean who married, became our friends and cooked Indian food nearly every time we got together.
The Indian food my Trinidadian friend cooks comes from his travels all over the map as well as his homeland. The Indian food my Tennessean friend prepares comes from Trinidad, Tennessee and India. I sometimes wonder who is more exotic: the Southerner or the sojourner.
Either way, this couple comes in handy when I'm looking for a good Indian restaurant. The place they recommend is Manoher's Delhi Palace in Orange.
Delhi Palace specializes in foods of the Punjab, the northern state now divided between India and Pakistan. Here tandoori--meats and fish marinated in a spicy yogurt sauce and cooked in a hot clay oven--is the maharajah, or king, of cuisine.
Punjabi dishes are made with inventive sauces of turmeric, garlic, ginger, cilantro, coriander and cumin freshly ground or fried briefly in oil to release their fragrant magic.
Stews in gravies made with cream and ghee (clarified butter) are common, as are vegetarian dishes, yogurt marinades, mustard seed mixtures and homemade cheese.
While southern India is known for spicy hot dishes, northern Indian cooking is milder--rooted in the aromatic mixtures of the Moghuls, invaders from Central Asia who ruled for 300 years.
Fans of Indian food, and many families, head for this all-you-can eat buffet of about eight meat and vegetarian dishes, salad, dessert and all-you-can-drink champagne.
This $7.95 bargain begins with an assortment of pappadam, crispy breads dotted with flecks of black pepper. The pappas, as they are affectionately called, are eaten with an assortment of chutneys..
The buffet also includes saag paneer, spinach with homemade cheese; chana masala, a curried chickpea stew; chicken tikka masala, chicken roasted in a tandoori oven with a tomato and butter sauce; vegetable korma, mixed vegetables cooked with cashews and cream sauce; daal, stewed lentils with luscious spices and cream; chicken curry; basmati rice; and your choice of plain or garlic naan (leavened flat breads).
We ventured away from the buffet to order catfish tikka: a tender and delicious grilled fish marinated in lemon juice and spices, served on a sizzling hot platter.
We also chose boneless lamb karahi, a rich stew in cream sauce; several tasty naan; and malai kofta, fried vegetable balls with cheese in an orange-colored cream sauce. These fritters, along with the tandoori meats and grilled fish, are among the best dishes at the restaurant.
For the uninitiated, Indian food need not be intimidating. The tandoori chicken tastes like barbecue; saag paneer, like a rich spinach puree. And there are plenty of meat and vegetable kabobs for picky eaters.
As for spiciness, everything can be made to order: medium, mild or hot, says owner Manoher Lal. Our kids have eaten Indian food for years, and the only things they can't handle are the spicy potato filling in the stuffed naan, samosas (fried dough stuffed with vegetables and potatoes) and certain hot or salty chutneys.
One of the biggest delights came late in this feast. After experiencing many strong flavors and fragrant sauces, a creamy tea masala brewed with milk soothes the palate. Pair it with the buffet's rice pudding or golab jamoon--sweet almond fritters in syrup--and you have a heavenly meal.
Manoher's Delhi Palace, 220 E. Katella Ave., Orange. Buffet: $7.95, includes soft drink or champagne (all you can drink). Children younger than 8 pay half price. Brunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (714) 516-1813.