The Root of a Passion: Chef Sanjay Kumar. Haldi Root Restaurant. Woodland Hills, CA.
A sheet of sweat covered my face and my eyeglasses clouded up from the steam emitting out of my eye sockets. I squinted hard trying to focus on the next mouthful of mutton curry ― the perpetrator of my perspiration. I wasn't in pain. I sweat when I eat sizable portions of spicy foods ― not tongue and lip scalding foods left by a bombardment of capsaicin ― but foods that incorporate a myriad of spices like Indian food. You can ask any date of mine who has ever dined with me at a restaurant serving heavily spiced cuisine if there was ever a second date after witnessing the seventh sweaty wonder of the world, she'll probably say no. The keepers, however, said yes.
There absolutely was no pain or, I should clarify, bad pain. The pain that did exist was sweet and good. I relished every bite and was in an epicurean ecstasy. The fact that this Indian Restaurant named Haldi Root is located on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills is further reason to be joyous — finally, a good Indian restaurant in The Valley.
Haldi Root, the restaurant's namesake, is Hindi or Urdu for turmeric root. Haldi Root's Executive Chef Sanjay Kumar has his culinary roots planted somewhere not as obvious.
When Sanjay Kumar was a young man, he headed to Austria, a world far from his native India, for vindication. This payback wasn't for himself but for his mother.
Several years earlier, as a small boy during a special homemade dinner for extended family members, Kumar witnessed a female relative, who had an acute sense of taste, accuse his beloved mother, the maker of the meal, of using cheap ingredients in her cooking. Without a doubt, this was embarrassing to his mother. For most observers, this act would be viewed as unacceptable to make such comments in front of the family. But, for Kumar it was not only unacceptable but traumatic.
The uncouth auntie incident ignited a roaring flame within Kumar and pledged from that day forward to become the best cook he was capable of being.
Kumar expressed to his family this burning desire to cook at an exceptional level. Scraping together all their funds, the family members collected enough money to send Kumar to Austria to study at the best culinary and hospitality school.
For nearly two decades in Austria, he proved himself in school and through his work in hotels and restaurants until one day he opened his own, the finest Indian restaurant Austria had ever seen. Kumar's years of hard work and dedication to his craft came to fruition at last. He oversaw a large staff and was chef/owner of a palatial fine dining establishment that was, in essence, the stage for his brand of Indian cuisine. And the Austrians loved every morsel.
He was a success. He had vindicated his mother, although, sadly, she never got the pleasure to eat his food since she passed before it was possible. His opinionated auntie also was never offered a bite of his world class cuisine — culinary karma, in effect.
Kumar's success was also reflected materially with the best things money could buy, in particular, his prized collection of custom watches. He had it all. Then, one night, not much different than any other night, his world burned to the ground. From Salzburg, he watched as his years of hard work and dream-come-true go up in flames on the other side of the Salzach River. His restaurant was destroyed by a fire.
There was no reason to stay in Austria. With forty dollars to his name, he moved his Austrian wife and his two small sons to the U.S. He and his family struggled, as you can imagine would happen to new immigrants with little money, connections or resources.
Then, tragedy struck again — literally. His wife and younger son were hit by a car as they strolled along Ventura Boulevard. She was gravely injured as was his son. Eventually his wife would succumb to her injuries. Kumar believes her death was also due to the negligence of the hospital.
He suddenly was a single parent trying to raise two boys, one with serious health complications from the accident. This was now his reality. And he embraced it. He worked whatever jobs he could. He swallowed his pride and rarely mentioned his previous life as a successful chef in Austria. He did what he had to do to be a responsible father and raise his boys.
Chef Sanjay Kumar of Haldi Root.
Kumar is a Hindu. Although Hinduism does not adhere to strict orthodoxy, one of its strong principles is the theory of karma. To be brief, karma, according to some believers, is not punishment but only cause and effect that creates life's order. Kumar's value system had shifted dramatically since his calamities. He's now unimpressed with material wealth. He respects the impermanence of all things. He strives only to do good. And, last but not least, he can only express himself fully through his cooking. Because that's what he does best.
The cuisine at Haldi Root is delicious and, on the surface, non sequitur. The leather bound menu attempts to link Indian, Italian and even Chinese flavors.
As it happened, one of the starters was the Chili Chicken, an Indo-Chinese chicken specialty. The lightly battered, tender fried chicken bits mingled with red chilis and bell peppers. Basically, it was a sort of General Tso's chicken in miniature with miniature heat since it wasn't very piquant.
Haldi Root's Garlic Chicken dish consists of boneless chunks of chicken sautéed in a thick brown sauce of garlic and herbs with enough heat to sustain a steady stream of sweat down my face.
As far as my taste buds are concerned, mutton and curry were a match made in nirvana. The deep flavors and lingering heat of the Mutton Curry were a testament to Chef Kumar's skill at layering spices and introducing each one strategically to maximize flavors and minimize any, let's say, after effects.
Yellow Dal was in fact very yellow with its slowly simmered yellow lentils in a mild blend of spices. It's another profoundly flavored and tasty dish but one vegetarians will appreciate since it's sans animal flesh.
Another wonderful vegetarian entrée is the eggplant curry or Bengan Bhartha. Eggplant is as meaty as vegetables get for me and I love this one. Chef Kumar roasts the eggplant with onions, tomatoes and spices to create a solid and hot plate.
Mutton Curry, Yellow Dal & Bengan Bhartha.
From the Kandahar province of Afghanistan comes Lamb Chop Kandahari, the exquisitely tender and moist arrangement of lamb chops marinated in yogurt with herbs and medium spices cooked in a tandoor clay oven. This cooking method gives an orange gloss to the chops that helps trap the juices and succulent savoriness. Furthermore, there's a slight crust on the meat and char on the bone that makes this lamb chop good to the last gnaw.
Lamb Chop Kandahari.
The other interesting tidbit about Kumar is that, being a Hindu, he's a vegetarian, so he doesn't taste any of his meat items. Incredibly, this is some of the best meat I've eaten, especially the Lamb Chop Kandahari.
Chef Sanjay Kumar made a promise to himself as a young boy to cook the best food he possibly could. Life has clearly given Chef Sanjay Kumar what many would describe as both the good and the bad, which is nothing to take lightly. But, Kumar turned a bad experience as a child and made it a motivation to become a great chef, to cook really good food. It seems his motivation is still the same, no matter what life throws his direction.
20969 Ventura Blvd
Woodland Hills, CA 91364