Rediscovering Kashmir
BENT ANTENNA - Audrey N. Carpio () - February 7, 2009 - 12:00am

Manila is seeing an unprecedented number of restaurants opening, and with it, a developing taste for more adventurous cuisine and a discriminating palate that won’t settle for mediocre renditions of tried-and-tested dishes. Just five years ago, food blogs would not have been popular or even possible, nor would the idea of trying a new restaurant each week. While Filipinos have always been big eating fans, “foodieism” has reached a whole new level, and the average diner will be able to tell you with absolute certainty what their top 10 non-fast food places are to eat around the metropolis.

Indian food, once considered “exotic” and feared as being too spicy, is now a favorite among Filipinos who travel and discover and who come looking for that extra lash of fire, that contrast of tastes and textures found in a mango chutney, a mint sauce or a yogurt dip, and the depth of flavor that can only come from the magic of the masala. And if you were to ask people, “Best Indian?” the name that would be at the top of their list — or perhaps be the only one — would be Kashmir.        

The name Kashmir is not one to be used lightly. It brings to mind the breathtakingly beautiful valleys of the disputed territory, and, for me at least, one of Led Zeppelin’s greatest songs, Kashmir, which, while having nothing to do with the actual place, evokes an epic journey to a mystical, far-off land. Finally, it reminds me of one of Salman Rushdie’s recent books, in which he sets a story of love, betrayal and vengeance amidst the paradise-turned-battleground that is Kashmir. The restaurant Kashmir on Arnaiz Avenue, Makati, is like that other world. With bold but classically decorated interiors, rows of little mirrors and high-backed chairs, one can’t help but feel one has entered into the reverent chambers of a Mughal emperor. 

The dishes at Kashmir have been perfected for over 30 years, evolving also with trends from the home country as well as the changing modern palate. In 1974, three sisters, Indra Mirchandani, Kamla Singh and Sita Advani opened up a pension house in Makati called Villa Cristo Rey, with a restaurant at the basement. There in that kitchen the sisters cultivated their passion for the traditional flavors of Indian cooking — the cooking of their youth. The restaurant, serving homemade meals, proved to be more of a hit than their rooms, and they decided to focus full-time on the restaurant instead. Presently they maintain two branches: one on Padre Faura St., Ermita, which opened in 1979, and the Arnaiz Avenue branch (formerly Pasay Road), which opened in 1990.

The restaurant industry is notoriously fickle, and the fact that Kashmir still stands today is a testament to the sisters’ dedication to excellence and authenticity. It has become the reference point for the Indian community here, and a gathering place for weddings, events, and traditional and religious occasions. Sushmita Sen, 1994 Miss Universe, feasted here, among other famous visitors. Kashmir is the only recommended Indian restaurant in Manila listed in a Frommer’s review available on The New York Times’ website — and it mentions the kesri pullao, a saffron-flavored rice dish, sure to be a “palate pleaser.”

I like ordering biryani rice, the rogan josh Kashmiri, a dish of tender mutton pieces cooked in a rich gravy, the palak paneer, cottage cheese and spinach simmered in a tangy, creamy sauce, and of course, some fluffy, freshly baked naan to scoop up the rich sauces with. But there’s so much more to their menu — they also serve Middle Eastern dishes like tabbouleh and Malaysian staples like nasi goreng and chicken satay. What these regional specialties have in common are an assertiveness of flavor and the ability to surprise and delight even the most jaded tongues. So if you think you know Indian food from some samosas you picked up at the mall or the curry you ordered in a hurry, you’ve only tasted a fraction of what this varied and wonderfully diverse cuisine has to offer. Behind Kashmir’s beaded curtains is a culinary adventure waiting to happen. And while you can order everything “mild” — I suggest you don’t. Spice, after all, is the variety of life.

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Erratum: An article I wrote for a supplement published last Dec. 14, 2008, erroneously linked Kashmir to The Kebab Factory at The Podium Mall. They do not have the same owners.

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