Shifali Bhullar was determined her food would be different.
When the chef and owner of Cumin: Flavor of India opened her restaurant, she wanted to cook the food she loved — the food she grew up with in Punjab.
It was important to Bhullar that her menu not be an American interpretation of Indian food or a melding of world flavors. The menu at Cumin is distinctly North Indian and represents both the everyday sustaining foods and the celebratory foods that shaped her childhood.
"I cook from the heart," Bhullar says. "This is something I’ve been doing since I was 6 or 7 years old."
Before opening Cumin, Bhullar worked in the technology and banking fields, but her passion was cooking. At Cumin, she is the force of the kitchen, as creator and taster of everything that’s served.
A friend and I visited Cumin after hearing good things about this little restaurant tucked into a retail center at the corner of East 71st Street and South Memorial Drive. Everything we tasted was good — and a few dishes were remarkable.
Though the restaurant has been open just a few months, it already has its core of regulars. Bhullar is especially proud of the many Indian families who frequent Cumin.
They come for the tandoori lamb chop masala, the curries, the homemade chutney, the naan and the lentils mixed with garlic, cumin and herbs.
We started our dinner with Cumin Chicken 65 ($7.95), an appetizer named for the dozens of spices used to flavor the chicken. Chicken is lightly battered and then coated in spices. This first dish was a good introduction to the balance of flavors you’ll taste at Cumin.
I had never had malai kofta ($10.95), so we gave it a try. This special-occasion Indian food is a vegetarian alternative to meatballs, but it’s no less rich. Bhullar later told me this is a time-consuming dish to make, though with simple ingredients. Here, potatoes are boiled and then smashed and mixed with paneer (a fresh cheese often used in Indian food), cashew powder, raisins and spices. They’re then fried and served with a creamy curry sauce.
Biryani is a popular menu item. It’s a good "first bite" for those unaccustomed to Indian food. Imagine a fried rice with the intoxicating tastes of saffron, garlic and onions. We tried the chicken biryani ($11.95), which was served in an elegant silver bowl. The combination of rice, chicken and vegetables was perfect, and it was nice to have a lighter-tasting dish among the curries and cream sauces.
Palak paneer ($11.95) is enjoyed by vegetarian diners, and others, at Cumin. This delicious combination of paneer with pureed spinach, garlic and garam masala is a classic North Indian dish that Bhullar prepares beautifully. It’s not too rich, like paneer dishes can sometimes be. Bhullar accounts this to the fact that she’s making her food less in a restaurant style and instead just the way she would prepare it for her own children.
The star of the show was the lamb chop masala ($15.95), the dish Bhullar says she is most proud to have on the menu. The lamb chops were perfectly cooked with a light char on the edges. The masala tomato-cream sauce was so good we added it to other foods. The price on this dish should also be noted, since it’s difficult to find reasonably priced lamb chops in Tulsa restaurants.
Cumin’s naan is perfect, with its crispy edges and enough heartiness to hold scoops of the creamy sauces. Prices range from $2-$3 per order for this bread, a staple of Indian cuisine. The butter naan and garlic naan are most popular, though the paneer naan and aloo naan — stuffed with potatoes — are tempting.
Bhullar says she always dreamed of going to culinary school, but it was never realized. Yet she has no doubts she can cook.
"People ask me, ‘Who taught you to cook?’" she says. "No one taught me. No one sat me down and showed me what to do. I learned just by watching my mom and my dad. Everyone in my family cooks."
Even though she’s now the professional cook in her family, her favorite place to eat remains her mom’s kitchen, which, she laughs, tastes just like the food she’s serving each day at Cumin.
8242 E. 71st St., 918-994-7404
Lunch buffet is open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., daily. Open for dinner from 5-9 p.m., Monday-Thursday, and 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.