A shortcut to experiencing India’s cuisine, plus a handy primer to what’s on the menu

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A trip to India—or, as E M. Forster would have called it, a passage to India—is an expensive proposition for most of us. But a tour of India, or at least of one of the chief glories of India’s culture, her cuisine, may be had for about ten bucks a person, and without 30-some hours of air travel. It can be had right here in Tempe, at Aachii South Indian Kitchen. The place celebrates its first year in business at the beginning of October, and if you haven’t been there yet, you’ve been missing out for a year.

The elegant dining room sets the tone as you walk in—one of the big screen TVs on the walls is playing Indian music videos, while the other shows a cricket match. The greeting of the owner, Jenilda Fernandes, is warmly hospitable. But even this doesn’t generate as much atmosphere as the heady, mouth-watering smell of the food at the nearby buffet.

To a westerner inexperienced in the country’s cuisine, however, Indian dishes can often look similar to each other. It’s all delicious, but you don’t always know what you’re eating, and those of us unaccustomed to spicier stuff may be startled by our first bite.

I’ve had the good luck to get my tour from the owner. A Mumbai native, though she lived for many years in Minnesota before coming to the Valley with her family, Fernandes proves a lively guide as she proudly leads me past the all-you-care-to-eat delights of Aachi’s weekday lunch buffet. Working her way left, she shows me…

Gulab jamun—Sweet dumplings in syrup.

Chicken tandoori—Lightly spiced roasted chicken

Chicken biryani—Chicken with rice in the style of the Hyderbadi region of India

Chicken curry—Bone-in, in a curry sauce

Goat curry—Same sauce, different meat, fall-off-the-bone yumminess. My favorite.

Chicken tikka masala—Chicken in gravy; it’s said to have been invented to satisfy the British palate. “They don’t like spice,” explains Fernandes, “so this is a cream and butter, tomato and onion based gravy.” In any case, it’s delicious.

After a choice of white or basmati rice, the tour continues…

Mixed Vegetable Curry and Vegetable Milagu—Two of many vegetarian options; the Milagu is spicier. According to Fernandes, the two dishes illustrate a difference between north and south Indian cuisine: “North Indian is a lot of cream and butter, south Indian is a lot of spice.”

Paneer Masala—Indian-style cottage cheese in a spiced tomato sauce.

Vegetable Pariyal—A mixture of snap peas and lentils

Samba—Not the Brazilian dance, but yet another veggie dish of eggplant, lentils and carrots.

At this point we reach the naan bread, fried potatoes and rice cakes. Then we turn the corner to the sweet stuff: Ras malai, a milk-solid dessert in potently sweet cream sauce—delicious, but a little goes a long way—rice pudding, fruit salad, a creamy, mango-based fruit custard, deep-fried donuts in a sauce of yogurt and cumin with a whisper of paprika, ladoos and other sugary goodies.

At this point Fernandes informs me that Aachi’s weekend buffet takes the weekday offering to another level.

“We have Bombay street food, and also Indo-Chinese,” she says, with selections ranging from Chinese fried rice to Manchurian cauliflower. And every evening from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Aachi offers Kebab Nights, a sort of happy hour offering kebabs ranging from vegetarian to ground chicken to garlic shrimp to lamb. You can even get calamari, by advance order.

Of course, there’s also a head-spinningly large menu of entrees to order from, but for a beginner, I’d recommend the buffet. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding plenty of selections they like, or leaving the place still hungry.

Aachi is at 325 W. Elliot in Tempe, at the corner of Elliot and Kyrene. Call 480-777-3938 for details.

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