If you obsess over food and travel Instagram like I do, then you’ve probably seen people enjoying Indian thalis, those large circular platters containing myriad smaller vessels filled with a dizzying array of food. Like a personal tabletop buffet, the thali offers diners variety in place of monotony, with all the components of a full meal neatly arranged on a sparkling stainless disc.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to find thalis on social media than it is in Cleveland because almost none of our Indian restaurants offer them. Annapurna in Parma does, presenting two different versions of the popular South Indian meal. When asked why thalis are such a rarity in Greater Cleveland, owner Hemant Amin bluntly responds, “Because this is too hard.”
He added that thalis take time to prepare in the kitchen and time to enjoy in the dining room, time that many modern diners simply elect to spend elsewhere. For many local Indian food fans, it’s the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, quick takeout, or bust. Scour the numerous Google reviews of this five-year-old restaurant and you’ll observe a common thread: the food is exciting and delicious but the service is slow. With only two people in the kitchen, there’s no getting around it.
Amin opened Annapurna to showcase homestyle South Indian foods. Made to order from scratch, the food here tastes fresh and compelling, not one dimensional. Dishes are packed with the flavors of ginger, garlic, tamarind, turmeric, curry, mustard seeds, cardamom, cumin and cloves. Nearly every bite nails that delicate balance of sweet and sour, salty and bitter, spicy and pungent.
Like all thalis, the two served at Annapurna contain fundamental and unwavering elements like curries, flatbread, rice, pickles, salad, chutneys, raita and dessert. Within this framework are dishes that are fermented, deep-fried, steamed, boiled and stir-fried, which reveal the kitchen’s range. What you won’t find is meat of any sort as the restaurant is 100-percent vegetarian.
The Gujarati ($19.99) and Punjabi ($19.99) thalis offer diners an exciting variety of foods that change with the seasons. The former features a starter snack, yogurt soup, lentil soup, a variety of vegetable curries, flatbreads like papadum and roti, pickles, chutney and raita, and a sweet dessert. The latter swaps the roti for buttery naan and mixes up the snacks and curries. Either way you go, the reward is a bountiful selection of lovingly prepared foods.
If you don’t go the thali route, maybe start with a crispy-fried samosa or pakora. The flying saucer-shaped idli ($5.49) served here are appropriately light, airy and melt-in-your-mouth. They are served with sambar and chutney for dipping.
Diners can make a feast of the chaat alone, street-food style foods at which Annapurna excels. The pani puri ($5.99) are predictably crispy, savory and tart, especially when doused with the mint water. I tried my first bite of khaman ($4.99) here and I am completely hooked. A chickpea-based batter is steamed and cut into spongy, light-as-air wedges. Served on an old-school lunch tray, the pav bhaji ($7.99) is a savory vegetable curry that gets spooned, Sloppy Joe-style, onto a soft hamburger bun. If a riot of colors, flavors and textures sounds tempting, order the bhel puri ($5.99). This rowdy jumble of puffed rice, crispy sev, fresh cilantro, tangy tamarind and vibrant chutney is simultaneously sweet, sour and spicy.
Annapurna’s lengthy menu lists more familiar Indian dishes like masala dosa, aloo gobi, saag paneer and vegetable biryani. But there also are sections for Punjabi, Gujarati and Indochinese specialties, such as the rightly popular gobi Manchurian ($9.99), deep-fried cauliflower tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce. In addition to the well-known chana masala, the restaurant makes kala chana ($9.99), an earthy, creamy curry starring black chickpeas, a smaller and firmer variety. Included in the price is a pair of perfectly puffed puri.
Annapurna is a boon to home cooks thanks to the adjacent Indian foods grocery. The market stocks fresh produce as well as a complete inventory of pantry staples like spices, flours, grains and snacks. This is where you come when you need to score a small bag of puffed rice or an 11-pound chunk of jaggery. I picked up a bag of black chickpeas and a spice mix to attempt kala chana at home.
The market seems to bleed into the dining room, where boxes are stacked here and there in the large informal space. A display cooler that stocks a selection of house-made desserts is seeing increased activity in light of seasonal Diwali celebrations.