Jasvinder Khatkar is the owner, not the chef, of India Rasoi, a snug, elegant Indian restaurant nestled among the pasta and cannoli joints that crowd Little Italy. She speaks on behalf of not only the restaurant but also its food, however, because the man who tends the stove, her husband, Dilawar Khatkar, "isn't so good with English."
Dilawar came to the United States 25 or 30 years ago, Jasvinder says, from the north Indian state of Punjab, where the cuisine is dominated by spicy seekh kebabs and dark-sauced dishes like lamb rogan josh and dal makhani. He worked for about five years as a seaman on commercial vessels, learning to cook greasy-spoon Greek and Italian dishes from his fellow sailors below decks. Dilawar found that whenever he docked in Baltimore he enjoyed the city, and in the late 1980s, when he had enough money, he sent for his wife. He helped Jasvinder open her restaurant in 2001, marrying their fortunes in the fragrant steam of the rasoi, the Punjabi word for "kitchen."
India Rasoi focuses on traditional north Indian food, which Jasvinder says demands fresh ingredients and a knowledge of cooking learned in the home. "Punjabis, we take fresh garlic, turmeric powder, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, white pepper, put it all together, and this is the north Indian masala--the garam masala, we call it," she says.
The million-dollar question, of course, is why the couple chose to sell naan and mulligatawny in the middle of the city's famous Italian district.
Jasvinder's answer is disarmingly mundane. "It is near the harbor, near the offices, lots of people," she says. "We wanted people to come to the Italian food neighborhood, and see the Indian food there, too.
"We're doing very well, everyone loves us," Jasvinder insists. "We sell more than 100 dishes every day." Her one complaint: "Chicken tikka masala, everyone wants, every day, every dish, all day."
Across the street, the owners of Café Gia's have come to be friendly neighbors with the Khatkars. "The owner there, she is very nice," Khatkar says. "She doesn't have a liquor license, so when someone comes in and wants a drink, she sends them over to us."
"They're very quiet people and they're very professional," says Gia Blatterman, co-owner of Café Gia's. "They're our neighbors. We get along beautifully."