Chicken fried steak: When I was a child, I loved that dish. I ate it in Georgia, in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Texas, even in New Hampshire. Then, at some point, I lost my appetite for it, perhaps as a result of too many tough, chewy, stringy, gristly pieces of meat and bland, tasteless gravy.
My palate was maturing — my grandmother Ida (she was a great Savannah cook) had begun tutoring me in the differences between, say, over-roasted chicken and a perfect bird, or a piece of fish that had been abused (read: cooked so long that the flesh was turned to mush) — and I was tired of inferior food (including my elementary school lunches). I don’t recall at what age exactly I consumed my final chicken fried steak, but I know I certainly didn’t miss the southern delicacy — there were far too many other great foods to eat, such as fried chicken, Wiener schnitzel (a dish somewhat similar to country fried steak), and escargots.
Well, I am glad to report that chicken fried steak has been readmitted to my diet, but not just any old version of it. No, this one, though based on the traditional dish, is ingenious and delicious masala chicken fried steak. You can order it at Himalaya, and you should, because the gravy is spicy and rich and complements the tender cube (top round) steak. It’s prepared with care, the crust is made of rice flour, and the meat is marinated 48 hours (at a minimum) in a garlic-ginger yogurt and garam masala mixture. (Anthony Bourdain fans, tune to CNN on October 30 for a look at Himalaya and other Houston-area restaurants and food-related happenings, as seen thought the eyes of Bourdain.)
One tastes that flavor combination in the meat … or perhaps it’s better to state “senses” the flavors, because there is nothing heavy-handed here.
To the gravy, or sauce, or whatever you are comfortable calling it: coconut milk and vegetable stock constitutes the base, but then there’s ginger, garlic paste, white pepper, cumin, milk, butter, and flour, plus a few peppers. Kaiser Lashkari, the owner and chef of Himalaya, serves this gravy on the side, a wise decision. The wonderful crust enrobing the steak maintains its liveliness throughout the meal, and you can decide how much gravy you want with each bite.
My order of masala chicken fried steak — a new menu item at the restaurant — came to the table (12 diners there for a birthday party) amid a multitude of other dishes (including what is easily the best saag paneer in Houston, and one of the best I’ve had anywhere, including New York, Kolkata, New Delhi, and Siliguri … firm paneer, seasoned with lots of care, and a creamy and rich spinach mixture), and I was forced to share it with three of my companions. It was tender — absolutely no gristle — and the flavor made me smile.
It’s a nuanced dish; Lashkari has taken a tired and abused staple and transformed it into something worth eating. (I got another order of the dish that evening … you’ll want two, as well, because you’ll have to share.)