Sep 102014

Om Lifestyle + Cafe owners Suman  Gogna and her daughter Anjie Photos by BOY SANTOS

MANILA, Philippines – Mention authentic Indian food and you’ll get divided diners who will hunt for different restaurants that serve Indian cuisine from the southern or northern regions or other states. Curry, dal, and tandoori chicken are Indian foods, all right, but there’s really so much more because each state in India has its own regional cuisines: Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bengal. And even the states have subcategories: coastal Maharashtrian, inland Maharashtrian, and Muslim-inspired, according to Indian food connoisseurs.    

But for Suman Gogna, a New Delhi native who has been living in the Philippines for 30 years, no matter where the origin of the Indian food is, it becomes unmistakably Indian once you’ve tasted its rich and strong flavors.  

“Although each state in India does have its own uniqueness that defines their cooking, there is still that overall similarity such that when one tastes the food, they can say that it is distinctly Indian,” Suman said. “The use of strong flavors and spices, for instance, is something that resonates through all of Indian cooking.”

Suman has added a small cafe to her existing lifestyle boutique. The result is Om Lifestyle + Café in Greenhills, where she serves and cooks authentic north Indian fare.

“I learned how to cook these dishes from my grandmother in New Delhi,” she said. Suman runs the café/lifestyle store with her daughter Anjie.

She explained that a distinct characteristic of northern Indian cuisine is creating curries that are based on purees like tomato or spinach, as opposed to the south where there is prevalent use of coconut in their curries, much like in Thai cooking. 

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A paneer, an earthy Indian cheese reminiscent in texture to firm tofu, is a dish that’s distinctly from the north.

At Om, Suman makes it a point to cook and serve paneer with her specialties: Palak Paneer in spinach-based curry sauce and the Paneer Tika, which we sampled. The paneer indeed tastes like tofu, and the sauce is rich but not overpowering. Suman said that vegetarians often order the Palak Paneer.

If there’s paneer, chicken tikka, another distinct food from the north, is never far behind. For this dish, Suman said she marinates the poultry in yogurt, cloves, cardamom and other spices overnight to enhance the flavor, then she pan-grills it to perfection. Suman said all the spices are imported from India since she goes back to New Delhi every six months.

Om also serves traditional Indian snacks: the Pakoran, a mixed plate of potato and onion fritters; the samosa, or pastry stuffed with spiced potatoes; and the papadum, a toasted crisp and flat lentil wafer. There’s also the chapati, India’s traditional wheat bread; dal, lentils cooked in a spinach-based soup; and the biryani, India’s version of the paella.

But the star of the menu and easily the bestseller is the Mutton Rogan Josh. The lamb chops are tender and the sauce is sweet, rich and spicy — perfect with fluffy rice.

Om also has traditional Indian beverages like lassi, a yogurt drink, the organic Tulsi, and the masala chai, a tea prepared with milk, cardamom and cloves.

Traditionally in India, all meals end with a dessert. At Om, you can have an authentic Indian dessert, Gulab Jamun, orbs of fried milk dough in cardamom syrup. Served warm, the little balls of dough were sweet and light in the mouth.

All these Indian treats you can enjoy in a homey and relaxing boutique setting — not crowded or noisy. Incidentally, the store is named Om, as it is a chant in India (consisting of three syllables: ah-ooh-om) that creates a calming sound, summoning and releasing positive energy.

“We made it a point to make our store homey, intimate and laidback,” Anjie said. “Our customers can immerse themselves in the Indian experience while enjoying their authentic Indian meal.  Our clients have given us good reviews about our ambiance at Om. The quaint size is also why we decided to make it a café rather than a full-on restaurant.”

After eating, diners can take a look at Om’s luxurious fabrics, clothing, jewelry, accessories and home décor, all imported from India.

Suman said it was the prodding of her Filipino friends that made her decide to incorporate a café into her lifestyle store. “My Pinoy friends who visit me at home would always tell me to open an Indian restaurant because they like my home-cooked meals. So I said, why not?”

She’s delighted that Filipinos appreciate and like Indian food. “Indian food is very unique. It is made unique by all the spices that lend the strong flavor and aroma to the dishes. Aside from that, the techniques that go into the preparation of dishes are very unique, such as dishes baked in a clay oven or, in India, what they call the ‘tandoor.’ Not only New Delhi but all of Indian dishes use spices like cloves, cardamom, turmeric, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin. There’s also something called ‘masala’ unique to Indian cooking, which is a ground mixture of all spices,” she added.

The dishes range in price from P200 to P280. For those who would like to sample a little of everything, Om offers a set menu that consists of three main courses — a rice, chapati/naan, drink and dessert for P750.

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Om Lifestyle + Cafe is open from Mondays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. It is located at the 2/F of the Fox Square Building, 53 Connecticut St., Northeast Greenhills, San Juan.

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