By Tim Carman
Over the years, I’ve sampled garlic naan, naan stuffed with goat cheese, kashmiri naan with nuts and raisins, and, of course, regular ol’ naan blackened and blistered straight from the tandoor. But until I dined recently at Spice Xing, the new Rockville restaurant opened by Passage to India’s Sudhir Seth, I had never tried khurmi naan. It’s naan covered with tomato sauce and sprinkled generously with shredded cheese. It is, in other words, pizza naan. The naan fits into Seth’s precise vision of Spice Xing, which features Indian dishes influenced by those European cultures that have had a presence on the Subcontinent, whether British, Portuguese, Spanish, or French. But since the Italians never laid a colonial finger on India, the natives had to improvise their own version of the classic Neapolitan flatbread, which wasn’t so easy in a country with few pizza or conventional gas/electric ovens. Even tandoor ovens are hard to find in certain regions in India, Seth tells me. Sometimes eight or more families will share one communal tandoor, or some enterprising soul will open a tandoori shop, where the locals will bring their own homemade dough to bake in the blazing hot clay ovens. Likewise, Seth notes, the ingredients that usually go into khurmi naan—commercial ketchup and processed cheese—are not always widely available in India. All of which is to say that khurmi naan is typically a restaurant item in India, not something made at home. Seth’s own version doesn’t stray far from the original back in the home country. About 40 percent of the sauce slathered onto his naan comes straight out of a ketchup bottle; the rest is homemade, a reduced tomato sauce infused with cloves, peppercorns, and bay leaves. The hybrid sauce is then topped with two kinds of processed shredded cheese—cheddar and white cheddar. So how is the naan? The sauce, which is ladled on thick, immediately creates a problem for those who like their naan (or their pizza, for that matter) to be both chewy and crispy; these slices go limp. The sauce itself is rather sweet, no doubt due to the large percentage of sugar-laden ketchup. The partially melted shredded cheese adds only a cold element of fat to the bread. The naan sort of reminds me of those Totino’s frozen pizzas from the 1970s, back before Wolfgang Puck and California Pizza Kitchen got into the freezer section of your local grocery store. I suspect that khurmi naan, in its own way, must hold a certain nostalgia for Indian immigrants in America. As for me, though, the flatbread’s fascination is limited pretty much to its history, not its taste.