Indian Food & San Francisco’s Best Cocktails
by Chris Lukens
Although I’m not Indian, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life eating Indian food. My father was very good friends with the owner of several Indian restaurants in Rhode Island, and our Friday nights were often spent enjoying Lamb Vindaloo and Onion Pakora in his restaurants. I still remember the joy and surprise of seeing my father cooking these dishes at home for the first time. I remember the smell of the warming spices and rich flavors abundant in Indian cuisine wafting through the kitchen and the piping hot naan emerging from the oven.
Having departed the East Coast for the West Coast at the age of eighteen, I often found myself longing for my parents’ cooking, whether it be Italian, American, or Indian. After years of subsiding on the hit or miss cooking of others, I finally decided to cook for myself. The first cuisine I settled on was Indian, as it was what I missed the most. During the experimental stages of my culinary adventures, my home always smelled of onions and garlic browning in a hot pan, setting the stage for a fiery curry, or in some cases, just a fire. It was during these trials that I learned the essence of flavors. The incredible complexity of Indian cuisine taught me how different flavors compliment and balance each other, which has been essential to my growth in the field of mixology.
Perhaps the most common misconception I encounter at DOSA is that cocktails and Indian food make for a poor pairing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The spices most commonly found in Indian cuisine are featured prominently in the liqueurs and apertifs seen throughout high-level cocktail menus. Fernet, St. Elizabeth Allspice dram, Cannella cinnamon liqueur, and any Italian amaro are great examples of commonly used liqueurs which feature Indian baking spaces.
Furthermore, Indian spices make for fantastic cocktails. Indian cuisine is one of the most complex in the world, with some dishes containing up to forty-five different spices. When executed properly, this dizzying array of spices create a wonderfully layered palette experience that can be simply revelatory. Using these spices—such as cinnamon, clove, allspice, star anise, cardamom and turmeric—one can create the exact same experience in a carefully crafted, balanced cocktail. The art of creating a great cocktail and creating a great dish are one and the same. To achieve a great dish or drink one must realize the significance of balance, the ease of execution, and the importance of technique in order to create an amazing product.
Balance Is Everything
The key to a great Indian dish is balance. Chutneys hit notes of sweet, savory, spicy, and sour all at once. Our Hyderabadi Lamb Chops are juxtaposed with bright, citrusy lemon rice, and our spicy curries are tempered with cooling yogurt raita. The result of this constant counteracting of flavors is a holistic, well-rounded, and satisfying dish.
Cocktails are no different than cuisine in respect to the importance of balance, except that you need to squeeze these complex flavors into a tightly composed four ounce beverage. One flavor shouldn’t dominate the rest; rather, all the ingredients should work to balance out the strongest flavor. At DOSA, we make a cocktail with a powerful turmeric-infused gin. Turmeric makes no apologies for its bitter, pungent flavor at the best of times, but when infused in alcohol, these qualities intensify. But the rest of the ingredients in the drink soften the gin to create a cocktail that hits all the right notes and isn’t overwhelming. The spiced agave adds sweetness and baking spices, the lemon adds a tart citrusy note, and the egg white adds mouthfeel and has a mellowing, harmonizing effect. Because of this meticulous balance, the Flower Child, as we call it, is one of our most popular cocktails.
Less is More
Straightforward, easy execution is important when making cocktails, considering the ingredients have their own complexity layered into each sip. Traditional Indian bread is a great example of how a few quality ingredients can come together to create something quite complex and sensational. Paratha—a pan-fried, unleavened wheat bread—and bhatura—a fried, fluffy white bread—are both made from only a few ingredients. Flour, oil, and water are the basis of both, yet they transform into delicious and heavenly breads not only because of the quality of the ingredients used, but also because of the way in which the recipes are executed.
Like these breads, great cocktails don’t have to contain more than a handful of ingredients or be overly complicated to prepare. And most of the cocktails that have withstood the test of time—like the tried and true Mojito or the classic Manhattan—are fairly straightforward to make. As with food, quality is more important than quantity; if you are using good ingredients, and you make it well, you don’t have to use many ingredients.
Our Master of None is a great example of a cocktail that uses a small number of top-notch ingredients to produce an exquisite cocktail. Just four ingredients—Tomatin Sherry Cask Scotch, Cynar artichoke liqueur, Nux Alpina Walnut liqueur, and Bittermen’s Tiki bitters—come together to form a drink in which each ingredient distinctly informs the finished product. The smoky notes of the Tomatin blend seamlessly with the nutty sweetness of the walnut liqueur, balanced by the bitterness of the artichoke liqueur and punctuated with notes of cinnamon and allspice from the tiki bitters.
Top Notch Technique
A product, whether it is a dish or a drink, only becomes exceptional when it is made with skill. A dosa wouldn’t be a dosa if it wasn’t spread thinly and evenly on the hot tava and rolled into a long, hollow log. Poori wouldn’t puff up to form a hollow, stuffable bread if it was fried at too high or too low of a heat.
Likewise, technique is also very important when it comes to cocktails. First and foremost is the idea of shaking versus stirring. If you’re making a cocktail with spirits and nothing else—like a martini or a Manhattan—you always want to stir over ice for eight seconds. This prevents the spirit from becoming bruised, a technical term for watered down. While in the past many bartenders shook martinis, this began as a technique to combat poor spirit quality, essentially watering the drink down on purpose. With top notch spirits available in almost every market, this is no longer a necessity.
The reason you would shake a cocktail is if it has a non-spirit element, such as a citrus, a syrup, or olive juice. When shaking a cocktail you want to build your drink without ice, add ice to your shaker at the last second to avoid melting, and shake vigorously overhead for 6-8 seconds.
Shaking for the appropriate time is integral to making a good cocktail because if the ingredients aren’t combined well, you won’t get a harmonious mix of flavors when it hits your palate. And if that happens, then all the good intentions that went into crafting the perfect cocktail cease to matter.
At DOSA, we use many house-made nectars infused with various Indian spices. If we didn’t shake these drinks sufficiently, the thicker nectar wouldn’t emulsify and blend with the less viscous ingredients, and you’d be left with a heavy punch of spice at the bottom of your glass. Our Peony cocktail, for example, contains a hibiscus-masala nectar and a coconut-agave nectar. Both of these have a slightly sweet finish that balances the gin, lime, and bird’s eye chili. But without vigorous shaking, the first half of the cocktail would be overly sweet followed by an unbalanced heat from the chile. Never underestimate what a good shake can do.
Making good food or good drinks doesn’t have to be complicated, but the first step is developing a good palate. Try different dishes, experiment with new flavors, and pay attention to what you notice. It’s hard to make exceptional food or an amazing cocktail if you haven’t developed a taste for them, so get out there and start sampling. To taste the difference that balance, simplicity, quality ingredients, and skilled technique can make when it comes to cocktails, come join us for a sip or two at DOSA.