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One Hot Amma
Vegetarian (and Kosher) Indian cuisine brings people to the table in Roselawn.
Photograph by Stacy Newgent
A beautiful little girl—dark hair, darker eyes—is running laps in the dining room of Amma’s Kitchen. She weaves in and out among the tables, her uninhibited peals of laughter and perpetual motion occasionally interrupted when she stops to shine the flashlight she’s carrying on a diner.When she runs by our table for the second time, the glint from my silver hoop earrings brings her flying feet to a halt. She drops the flashlight to the floor and reaches a chubby toddler’s arm up in the “want, now” way that’s either charming or annoying, depending on how charming or annoying you find toddlers. In most restaurants, this would be the moment where I’m scanning the room for a negligent parent, but instead I turn my attention away from the bowl of velvety, saffron-hued, delicately spiced Mulligatawny soup in front of me,remove one of the earrings, and place it in her hand. She’s captivated by the jewelry until her mother approaches and gently draws her away, apologizing.
None of the 20 or so customers who have gathered for the earliest hour of Amma’s Sunday brunch seem bothered by the rambunctious toddler, displaying little more than a sideways glance or a knowing smile as plates of naan and rice continue to be passed around the table. In part, that’s because the toddler is Anna, the 2-year-old daughter of the restaurant’s owner, Delfino de Souza, but even more so because the restaurant evokes a familial warmth and sense of community—despite its modest cinder block building (a Chinese restaurant several lifetimes ago) and the weed-choked parking lot that frames it.
Anna and her mother walk hand in hand to the back of the restaurant,where a dozen or so Indian men and women are dining. I’ve been watching them move through the Sunday buffet line, keeping a close eye on which of the two dozen pans heaped with stews, breads, rice dishes, curries, chutneys, and Indian sweets they’ll choose from. Naturally, I want what they’re having. When de Souza, a tall man, sixtyish, soft-spoken, and quick to laugh, stops by to deliver a warm, freshly made dosa plumped with potato and sautéed onion, I ask if the large group is his extended family. “No,” he says, smiling, “they all work here. They have been here since very early this morning preparing everything from scratch.” He gestures towards the buffet. “This is their breakfast time.”
From scratch. In a business where a can of masala sauce makes life a little easier by keeping labor costs affordable and the menu at bargain-basement prices (no single item on Amma’s á la carte menu is over $10,and the spectacular brunch is one of the best weekend deals in town), “from scratch” seems improbable. Yet one night when I ask our server about a secondary flavor in the wonderful chili gobhi—an Indo-Chinese dish of batter-fried cauliflower in a smoky, earthy chili sauce—he recited the entire ingredient list and preparation as if he had made it from scratch himself. As it turns out, he had. (Asafoetida, a pungent resin used for its digestive properties and truffle-like flavor was the distinguishing ingredient that had eluded me.)
Whenever I’ve polled Indians living in Cincinnati about which establishments serve the best food of their homeland, two of the approximately three dozen area restaurants dedicated to Indian cuisine are repeatedly cited as the best: Brij Mohan Indian Sweets and Restaurant in Sharonville, which we first wrote about in July 2007, and Amma’s Kitchen in Roselawn.
The only things missing along the four blocks of Reading Road that flank Amma’s Kitchen are tumbleweeds and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Once filled with delis, restaurants, clothing boutiques, and specialty shops that catered to Roselawn’s financially comfortable Jewish community, the current landscape is a dreary stretch of road hammered by neglect. An Indian population does not live here, nor does any sense of real neighborhood exist beyond the minority of business. Who would open a vegetarian Indian restaurant in this location?
Late in 2007, after having lived in and around Austin,Texas, for seven years working in a boutique chain of Indian restaurants owned by a friend, Delfino de Souza (originally from Goa, he’s been in the states for 25 years) Googled “vegetarian Indian restaurants for sale.” When Udipi Café,closing after about four years in the same Reading Road location popped up, de Souza flew up to check it out. On December 26, he packed two vans—one with equipment and one with friends who would help him open Amma’s—and drove 19 hours straight through to Cincinnati. By mid-January he was open for business.
Amma means mother in India, and like any restaurant where mother’s kitchen is the defining force, it denotes a sense of place and feeling beyond the style of food. But here there is no mother in the kitchen.The unpretentious home-style cooking that caters to vegetarians and vegans is the result of true collaborative cooking, a dynamic you don’t see in many restaurants.And unlike any other Indian restaurant in Greater Cincinnati (or in the Midwest), Amma’s entire menu is certified kosher under rabbinical supervision to ensure that dishes conform to all Jewish dietary laws. It’s an element that packs the dining room of Amma’s Kitchen with as many yarmulkes as saris. Of course, the restaurant exists for anyone and everyone to enjoy the diversity of alluring flavors and textures.
There are dosas of course, the iconic south Indian crepemade from a batter of fermented rice and black lentils, a golden red, crisp papery marvel on its own, or fried and stuffed with a variety of savory fillings such as potatoes and ghee, spring vegetables, or cottage cheese. As big as your forearm, they arrive with a yin and yang combination of hot orange sambar (soupy stew made from yellow lentils) and mild, sweet coconut chutney for dipping. There are street snacks: idli, the fermented spongy rice cakes,also dipped in sambar and coconut chutney, or tossed with onions, peppers, and chilies; and vada, the fried salty and savory doughnuts made from stone ground white lentil paste (udar), plain with brown and crisp exteriors giving way to soft and spongy interiors, or immersed in rasam (a tangy soup) just long enough to soften them as they soak up the tart and spiced broth. There is rice served plain to accompany rich stews made with paneer (housemade cheese)and spicy vegetable curries, or as a course on its own in haunting flavor combinations: cooked in yogurt with toasted mustard and cumin seed or in peppery-sweet tamarind with peanuts; flecked with chilies and cilantro or with cashews, raisins, and coconut.
After the hot and fiery courses, begin to cool your palate with a sour course (a bowl of house made mango and lemon pickles), followed by soothing and cooling courses. A variety of breads—soft or crisp, plain or stuffed, grilled, baked, or fried—yogurt raita (with tomato, cucumber,shredded carrots, and toasted coriander) or lassi, a creamy dreamy shake flavored with mango juice or rose syrup, will neutralize the heat from Kashmiri chilies and allow you to regain some composure should you be gripping the edge of the table.
Most of Cincinnati’s Indian citizens live in Mason and West Chester, yet such is the flavorful food and communal spirit of Amma’s Kitchen that the dining room is filled with commuters (confirmed carnivores among them)making the worthwhile trip. De Souza shrugs when questioned about the isolated Roselawn location. “Life is an adventure,” he replies, “What are you going to do?”
7633 Reading Rd., Roselawn,
Lunch buffet Mon–Fri 11 am–2:30 pm (Wednesday is all-vegan brunch), weekends and holidays 11:30 am–3 pm. Dinner à la carte Mon–Sun 5:30pm–9:30 pm
Despite its gloomy location, people flock here for the home-style vegetarian, vegan, and kosher south Indian food.
Cheap! Lunch buffet Mon–Fri $8.99, weekend and holiday brunch $10.99, à la carte prices $.99–$9.99.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue.