The corner of 3rd Avenue North and North 19th Street in Billings warms with spice and flavor. On the outskirts of downtown, Mirch Masala, an Indian restaurant opened by the Patels in the fall, serves up homestyle vegetarian food. With mother and chef Vandana, patriarch Navnit, son Nick and his wife Delisha with grandson, Neel, and daughter Dhara and husband Vatsal, they illustrate what can be cooked up with the power and energy of family. Taking over the old Mamacita’s space, Delisha said, “It feels like India in this little tiny place.” Though seating accommodates up to nearly two dozen diners, the food expands any perception of small.
As explained by Delisha, “mirch means chili and Indian food is full of red chiles. Masala “means a combination of different spices mixed together so mirch masala is chilies and spices mixed together, giving you the nice aromatic flavors of curries we produce at the restaurant.”
For the Patel family, fate brought them to Billings. Though they had a restaurant in Bozeman for four years, it was after Delisha became pregnant that they considered relocating. Neel, Delisha and her husband, Nick’s son, entered the world three months premature, making it necessary for medical care in Billings. During the 90 days Neel grew in an incubator, the Patels formulated the idea to make Billings home. Delisha said of the family, “We just thought Billings was a better place for healthcare for our son and for our entire family.”
Delisha and Nick met as students at Montana State University Bozeman. As students they missed the flavors of India. Then when Vandana arrived in Bozeman in 2010, they convinced her to share the delicious food she cooked. Though Delisha thought this might not have been the best business idea, the restaurant provided Chef Vandana an opportunity to expose Montana to Indian flavors.
Home for Delisha’s in-laws was in the state of Gujarat in Western India. Chef Vandana’s grandmother was a vegetarian and Delisha explained, “We are comfortable as vegetarians and cooking vegetarian cuisine.” At Mirch Masala they want to prove that “vegetarian cuisine is not just salad and bread.” Delisha further shared, “There’s a whole lot of vegetarian cuisine that can be healthy and there’s a lot of flavor you can add to it.”
When asked what Vandana’s favorite dish was to cook, she immediately responded, “Cashew Korma.” Delisha explained, “Its her (Vandana’s) husband’s favorite recipe and every time there is a special event in the family whether it is your birthday or anniversary, cashew korma has to be on the menu for sure.” Cashew Korma is a rich spiced cashew, tomato and onion curry with whole cashews and served at dinner time only.
At the restaurant, Mirch Masala has a daily lunch buffet from different regions of India. Delisha said, “We are more into what the every day meal is in every day homes in India which why homestyle cooking.” Their lunch buffet offers foods from mostly the northern and western areas of India. Choices include curries, slow simmered lentils or dahl, appetizers such as samosas or turnovers stuffed with roasted potatoes and pakoras or chickpea flour fritters accompanied with basmati rice, raita or a yogurt based condiment, and chutneys completed with desserts such as mango mousse. In the evenings the variety of offering is presented in a thali format or on metal trays with selections served in bowls.
Dhara oversees the dessert preparation at Mirch Masala. Though mango mousse, made with Alphanso Mangoes and cream, is her staple at the restaurant, she mixes things up and adds different fruits and flavors to the mousse. Gulab Jumun, a sweet milk based fried dumpling, is another sweet ending.
In clarifying the style of cuisines in India, I recruited the expertise of Raghavan Iyer, James Beard and International Association of Culinary Professionals cookbook award winner. His books Indian Cooking Unfolded, 660 Curries, Asian Flavors and Turmeric Trail document years of research and share recipes from his homeland. When attending college in the states, he learned to cook for himself. These days he is embarking on opening a new eatery called Pizza Karma utilizing a tandoor to cook naan that forms the base for topping with global food and flavors.
Acccording to Iyer, the cuisine of India can be viewed as two regions of north and south. He did point out that this is a very simplistic view for the food of India is far more complex. In jest he said how difficult it would be to summarize American food in a few sentences.
Iyer explained, “In the landlocked region of the north, there are a lot of fresh vegetables. It’s the bread basket of India. Here you find all different kinds of breads and grains that are used extensively here. There are lots of aromatic spices that define the cuisine of the region – cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black peppercorns, bay leaves and more cream based sauces, lots of mustard greens and spinach.”
The south is surrounded by three large oceans – Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal. Iyer shared this is where coconut is found along with a variety of fish and seafood. The flavors may be more assertive than the north and “seasons are a very prominent player.”
In the middle region, “combinations come into play. Some from the north and some from the south. They come up with unique combinations,” Iyer said of India, “They walk the talk of seasonality and what is available.”
For Billings what is newly available is the bold and vibrant food found at Mirch Masala.