Northampton’s India House: Catering to the wary and the willing with its adventurous cuisine

Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2016
In the midst of Northampton’s constant churn of restaurant openings and closings, there’s a core of restaurateurs who’ve persisted for a very long time. Among that rarefied number you’ll find the owners of India House, a brick edifice tucked away from downtown on State Street. There, the Kanoujia family has offered a distinctive take on North Indian cuisine since 1984.

Alka Kanoujia, 53, who started the restaurant with her husband, Omprakash (Omi), 61, says she still loves her work, and “that’s not changing any time soon.”

Visit India House, and a family member will take your order. That’s easily accomplished, because Alka, Omi, son, Amit, 31, and daughter, Anjula, 28, all work there.

“I spend more time here than in my own home,” Alka said. “There’s no other way.”

Both Alka and Omi grew up in India, and immigrated to the United States as teenagers. They met in Chicago, and moved to the Boston area so that Omi could attend college. A trip west led to their falling in love with the Valley and moving here.

“We opened the restaurant when I was 21,” Alka said. “I feel like I’ve grown up with this business. It’s a big chunk of your life.”

That family-centric approach seems like a major part of India House’s staying power. Many a customer receives exceptional warmth and personal attention from the Kanoujias. As a result, you might well end up with a dish that’s not on the menu, something tailored to your tastes and needs. That’s particularly helpful to Indian food neophytes, and yet more so for those who have to work around food allergies — Alka suffers from a long list of them herself, and is readily accommodating.

And the food isn’t just standard Indian restaurant fare — the current king of the kitchen, Amit Kanoujia, has an unusual bit of training in his past that’s given him a wider, more adventurous style than you’ll find at most Indian places.

Like mother used to make

For a lot of folks, Indian cuisine is daunting; believing it’s too spicy for Western palates, they steer clear. It’s a shame.

Indian food isn’t defined by that single mix of spices we call “curry.” In fact, such spice mixes, more properly called “masalas,” are a richly varied set of tastes. As a result, Indian dishes run from maniacal concoctions akin to nuclear fission — try Chicken Vindaloo, oh brave soul — to mild, creamy creations like India House’s Coconut Shrimp and Chicken, which boasts a sauce of coconut milk and light cream with roasted cashews and raisins.

There’s also an extensive tradition of vegetarian cooking in India, and the India House menu has a large selection of non-meat dishes. The Kanoujias offer a mix of styles which includes more standard Indian restaurant fare and creations bordering on fusion, like Cauliflower Lollipops, served with mascarpone and spiced goat cheese.

As with many aspects of Indian culture, the food of the subcontinent is a complex and fascinating subject. Go to an Indian restaurant most anywhere, and you’ll get restaurant-only dishes. Those items, which include things like Vindaloo and Chicken Tikka Masala, are specific to restaurants because they cannot be made quickly at home.

“If you’re really going to make (one of these dishes) the traditional way,” Kanoujia said, “it’s a long process. But not to say you’d never make it at home. It’s more like a Christmas dish — that’s when you might go to all the trouble to do this.”

Still, Kanoujia says, part of the India House menu really is just like her mother used to make. “Our vegetarian dishes are home dishes.”

Her mother really did show her how to make many of India House’s dishes firsthand, particularly on a visit from India in 1994. And the way the restaurant creates its homemade paneer (white cheese), she says, comes straight from the kitchen of her mother-in-law.

That mix of restaurant and home fare may not seem all that unusual, but India House has another trump in its hand, one that makes India House truly a unique place.

India by way of Europe

During college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amit Kanoujia found himself on an exchange program at Cesar Ritz hotel management school in Switzerland. The school also had a culinary program.

“I never intended to go to culinary school,” Amit said. But his father stumbled across the information that Cesar Ritz had a program. “He called me up and told me about, and I never really paid attention,” Amit said.

“In his classic way, he said, ‘I’m coming to see you.’ He came in the middle of a stereotypical Swiss winter — I was snowed in. He struck up the conversation, and it started sounding like a good idea. I enrolled that weekend.”

Amit’s work-study took him to the famed resort of St. Moritz, and there he learned the details of classic European cooking, and how to run a kitchen. Amit brought the results of those lessons to India House.

“What we try to do,” Amit said, “whether we’re making one or 100 portions, is make it consistent. Ninety-nine percent of the time, customer one and customer 100 will have exactly the same experience.”

Beyond such nuts-and-bolts learning, Amit says, his time in culinary school gave him a desire to try new things.

“When we go out for dinner, we like to see what the trends are, and keep up with that. I haven’t seen that with a lot of other traditional Indian restaurants.”

He sees that as a key to India House’s long-term success. “If you want longevity, you have to stay with the times, or one step ahead.”

That’s why you’ll find innovations on the Kanoujias’ menu that aren’t readily found at most Indian restaurants. You can get Indian breads, for instance, but some variations get downright European, with things like a bread stuffed with truffle, Parmesan cheese and garlic bumping elbows with Naan Peshwari, a traditional version with coconut, cashews and raisins. There’s also a chocolate version.

Amit says another European trend he’s incorporated is portion control. “Once I asked (a restaurant in Europe) for a takeaway box, and they laughed. Nobody takes stuff home. In Europe, they’d rather have more natural, local stuff, pay a little more and have a smaller portion, but serve good, nourishing food.”

He’s tried to do the same at India House, serving slightly smaller portions, but packing in as much high-quality and local sourcing as possible.

The source of proper ingredients is a chief concern of the Kanoujias. Take, for instance, the golden raisins that appear in some dishes. Alka explains that the particular raisins they’re used to seeing in India look almost like full-sized grapes after they’ve cooked.

They’re not easily found in the United States, though luckily, they can be had here, says Amit. “We have to go a store in Hadley to get them. We pay retail for 80 pounds at a time.”

Similarly, he says, India House serves only true long grain rice. “The closest purveyor is an hour away from here. Sometimes we buy a couple of bags and test it. We have to be certain that we’ll get what we need. Otherwise we’ll go to New York.”

Why bother?

“Once you’ve had it, you know,” Amit said.

A helping hand

With the dizzying number of options in bread alone, it’s no wonder that another key part of India House’s staying power is its emphasis on educating the wary and the willing about the rich world of Indian cooking, where such options abound. That education is twofold. The Kanoujias, of course, know the ins and outs of the restaurant’s large menu, and can fill you in on the details of the many dishes. Beyond that, Alka is proud to be a helpful guide for those who must navigate food sensitivities, and is willing to alter dishes to accommodate different allergies and preferences.

“People say they can’t have this or that, and I say, ‘What can you have?’ We build things according to that,” she said. “As much as you can, anyway, being true to the dignity of the dish.”

Such accommodation is something Alka is used to. “I have a seven-page allergy list,” she said. “You understand somebody, rather than making faces, or thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I dealing with?’ ”

The Kanoujias aim to create a climate of safety for diners with such concerns. Alka often shares her own allergy difficulties to help put people at ease. When people feel safe, she says, they open up.

Alka often shares her food knowledge outside of the restaurant, offering cooking classes at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Northampton. In them, she says, she concentrates on “healthy home cooking. Not restaurant food, but what I do at home.” The next session, which she’ll co-teach with daughter, Anjula, takes place Tuesday.

Alka says there is, in the end, a simple reason her family’s business model has lasted so long. “Basically, it’s hospitality,” she said. “It’s not something you learn, but something you have.”

Following is the recipe for Alka Kanoujia’s Potatoes and Cauliflower Tikki. Gluten- and egg-free, she said, “this was a part of the Sunday brunch from my childhood. It’s elaborate and sinfully delicious. We always found ourselves begging, ‘One more bite, please!’ ”

Alka Kanoujia’s Potatoes and Cauliflower Tikki

2 large chef potatoes (russets), fully boiled and finely mashed

½ cup grated fresh cauliflower

½ teaspoon finely chopped green chilies

¼ cup finely chopped fresh basil

¼ teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves

¼ teaspoon dried mango powder (also sold as “amchoor” in Indian and Asian stores)

1 to 2 tablespoons rice flour (enough to bind)

2 cups or more of frying oil, depending on the size of your pan

Salt to taste

In a steel mixing bowl, grate boiled potato or put it through potato ricer. Add all the ingredients except cheese and basil. Mash and mix everything together and then add dry rice flour, cilantro, cheese and salt. Mix once again until it resembles soft dough. Using a little bit of oil on your hands, shape the mixture into little flat rounds. Put it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or overnight for a firm consistency.

In a large tray, put a cushioning of paper towels to absorb the frying oil. Heat frying oil in a wok at high temperature and then lower it to medium heat. To test the temperature, drop a little bit of dough into oil. If it comes up quickly, that means the oil is ready. Gently lower the rounds into heated oil one by one without crowding. Avoid turning it too many times. Once it is golden brown on both sides, use a slotted spoon to transfer it onto the paper towels.

Serve on a platter with fresh mint and tamarind chutney.

©copyright 2016 Alka Kanoujia, to be published in her book “From Alka’s Heart”