By Jay Forte, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – While there are plenty of high-end steak houses and even Italian and French-inspired eateries in Rio de Janeiro, the city has been lacking an authentic Indian restaurant, until the Taj Mahal opened in Lagoa last January.
The venture was launched by Riju Konwar, who was born in India but brought up in the U.S., and Ângela Konwar, from Portugal and Brazil. The kitchen is lead by executive chef, Neeraj Singh, who was born in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand in a small town of Tehri Garhwa.
Riju Konwar shares how the Taj Mahal was launched, “I was sent as an expat by an American company to Brazil almost two years ago. When I got here, I was surprised that an International city like Rio de Janeiro did not have an Indian restaurant.”
“However, I found out that there were two Indian restaurants that closed down In Rio de Janeiro. I was curious as to why they closed. I then realized that the first restaurant closed down due to the quality of the food as the chef was someone from Brazil was not able to devote the necessary time to learn and understand the complexities of Indian cuisine.”
“The second restaurant which closed down seemed to be run by someone who used to cook at home, and was by all means a good cook. However, when they decided to open a restaurant, they could not maintain the quality standard for all the dishes that went out of the kitchen. In my opinion, professional cooks are essential to the functioning of a true Indian restaurant.”
Unlike almost all ethnic restaurants in Rio, the Taj Mahal kitchen is filled out by those that have the cuisine in their blood, with Suresh Singh (Tandoor Chef) also from the same town as Neeraj Singh, Lokpal Singh (Indian Saucier Chef), and apprentices, Ranbir Singh from the state of Punjab and Ranjit Singh Rana.
Konwar explains their approach, “We decided that we needed to hire professional chefs from India to bring the true authentic taste of Indian food to Rio de Janeiro. We also invested in importing the largest tandoor [oven] that we could find from India.” He adds, “We also import about 87 percent of our ingredients that includes spices as we cannot find them here.”
Due to Cariocas famous sensitivity to spice, finding the right balance to the Indian flavors in each dish is a challenge. Most entrees come out with less spice than one might find in London or New York, but there is plenty of heat available on the side. Even the veterans of hot and spicy foods need to be careful with the condiments, as they can shock the pallet.
Konwar shares some of the hurdles they have faced, “Perhaps the [essential] challenge for us has been to present Indian cuisine in its truest form in Brazil due to its inherent complexities and diversity in the condiments that we use. We try to explain that condiments and pepper are two different aspects of Indian cuisine.”
Adding, “Probably another aspect which requires additional effort would be to explain why Indian cuisine comes in various sauces and needs to be complimented with rice and/or Naan (traditional bread). We have had to endure through various harsh criticisms mostly due to the lack of information as to what Indian cuisine truly represents.”
However many are very happy for the addition to Rio’s culinary scene, Johnny Adamson gave them a 5 of 5-star review, sharing that he has “been crying out for an Indian restaurant in Rio and it’s finally here. Lovely place, lovely food and great service!”
The Taj Mahal restaurant is located on Rua Jose Joaquim Seabra, 19, just between Jardim Botânico and the Lagoa, the restaurant is housed in an immaculately refurbished space with plenty of indoor and out door seating.
They are open for lunch 12 noon – 4PM (5PM on weekends) and then again for dinner 7PM to midnight, seven days a week, so make sure to go experience some authentic Indian culture in Rio.