At Amma’s, the tug of mother’s cooking is powerful | Craig LaBan
Amma's South Indian Cuisine in South Jersey is a gem.
The towering dosa — that crisp, tawny cone of parchment-thin crepe drizzled with buttery "roast ghee" I see sailing through the dining room to virtually every table — is a tribute to Mama. That's because Sathish Varadhan already knows full well that no one's cooking is better than the comfort food your own mother raised you on. He and business partner Bala Krishnan humbly chose not to name their bustling South Indian destination after their own moms, but simply the universal Tamil word for "mother": Amma.
"Amma's South Indian Cuisine is dedicated to all the mothers out there," said Varadhan, 31, the Chennai native who launched this modest BYOB in Voorhees two years ago on a shoestring with his old friend and co-chef as a way to honor the flavors of home they craved. "I missed my mom, because she makes very pure food. No artificial colors. The authentic way, with the spices that nature gave us."
That's why there's none of the typical pink glow to the Chicken "65" starter, a dish made famous at the Buhari Hotel in Chennai in 1965 that was reputed to contain 65 spices. Amma's recipe has only 25 or so, but the juicy nuggets of tender halal chicken are encrusted in such a complex array of aromatics — turmeric, coriander, cumin, bay, lemon, and earthy asafetida — that it leaves an irresistible hum on the lips. (The vegetarian variation with cauliflower may be even better.)
Whole spices like cardamom, fennel, and star anise pods cast a heady spell over Amma's steamy Ambur-style dum biryanis, whose fluffy basmati mounds harbor tender treasures of slow-stewed meats. Pureed fresh coconut pairs with bright green chilIes for a chutney that's simultaneously milky sweet and spicy — a perfect balm for torn-off fistfuls of crunchy dosa. The red chili powders that fire many of the dishes here are so pungent "it hurts your nose and ears and everywhere when you grind them fresh," Varadhan said. "But if you make that effort, you won't feel so much burning the next morning in your heart."
Such wholesome reflections of their home food were not always obvious in the electric pink tandoori chickens and overly creamy shortcut curries typical of the various Americanized Indian kitchens these two worked at after arriving in the States in 2011. But if the fantastic meals I've feasted on over the last year at Amma's are any indication, the mothers in question, Devi Varadhan and Govindammal Duraisam, taught their sons well.
The doughnut-shaped fritters known as medhu vada are crisp on the outside and fluffy within, their ground lentil cake centers lifted with a curry leaf perfume that takes on new depths of influence when dunked into the chili-fired lentil broth of sambar stew. Whole baby eggplants split like flowers bloom inside a mahogany brown tomato gravy that's richly tanged with tamarind.
A bowl of rasam soup, whose sour and spicy tomato broth was filled with bobbing white discs of steamed idli rice cakes that suggested a subcontinental cousin of matzo ball soup, triggered vivid childhood memories for my South Indian dinner guest: "This is what my mother used to bring me when I was sick at home in bed."
The tug of mother's cooking — even by the proxy of someone else's sons — is powerful at Amma's. It's the only way to explain how this modest 42-seater in a Voorhees strip mall, so underfunded that Varadhan and Krishnan had to borrow yet another $500 from friends simply to buy enough ingredients to open in their first week, is now an overflowing thali-platter hub for South Jersey's growing South Indian population. As a result, a move to a larger space in the same strip mall is planned for this fall.
Those customers frequently gather at large family tables in the boisterous little dining room where, one night, we overheard a group arguing in Tamil for the opportunity to pay the bill. (With most entrées between $10 and $15, there should be no alligator arms here.) On another visit, a large table of Indian men still sporting their racing bibs had traveled straight from the finish line of the Philadelphia Marathon for the reward of a dosa feast. Across the room recently, the former colleague who first told me about Amma's a year and a half ago was eating a post-movie meal with his wife. (Thanks, Porus!)
Such vividly authentic South Indian flavors — bold with roasty spice, sour notes, curry leaves, and coconut milk broths that have a lighter impact than the richer Mughlai cooking of the north more typical in America's older Indian restaurants — also can be found in the Dosa Belt of Philly's far western suburbs, where new immigrants have gravitated to jobs in the tech industry. But for those who live in Center City, Voorhees is conveniently a half hour closer than Downingtown or Exton, where some of my favorites (Bangles, Indian Hut, Devdi) demand the occasional road trip.
Amma's cooking is at least as good. And, as with so many traditional cuisines, the hallmarks of quality are often subtle matters of touch. It's in the balance of spices and clarity of complex stews that unfold in fans of flavor. The edgy pairing of tartness and spice in the sauce that glazes the Indo-Chinese favorite gobi Manchurian. The vivid whiff of bitter citrus and spice that perfumes the fluffy lemon rice. The prickle of mustard seed oil and curry leaves that threads the silky yellow lentil dal ribboned with fresh green spinach. Or the sour bass note of tamarind and tomatoes in the poondu kuzhambu that provide a springboard for a potent chili zing that is so focused, yet deeply harmonized into the brew, that the fistful of whole garlic cloves fried in sesame oil that are the dish's main event are, by contrast, mild and fruity.
That touch is in the texture of perfect spinach and onion pakoras encrusted in a light coating of chickpea flour that crackles with coriander and fennel. It shows in the delicate snap of the little shrimps (which Varadhan says Indians prefer to jumbos) that fill the Gongura curry, its spicy brown stew gently tanged with tart sorrel greens. It shows in the tenderness of slow-cooked lamb cubes simmered in the similar-but-different coconut milk gravies of Chettinad (star anise, turmeric, and bay) and Thalassery, which gets extra coconut, a golden glow from coconut oil, and an extra blast of black pepper, which you might expect from a dish typical of the Malabar coastal city once known as Tellicherry.
It shows in the uniform thinness of the vast dosa crepes made from fermented lentil and rice batter, like the rava dosa, whose delicate lacy edges are achieved by drizzling the batter over a flat-top grill of roasting onions by hand. Folded into a neat rectangular package over a fluffy mound of turmeric-tinted masala-mashed potatoes to be pinched up and dipped into one of the chutneys, it offers a wonderful contrast of textures. The menu's dosa section offers nearly 20 variations, folded into different shapes to correspond to multiple stuffings, from the Mysore, which brings a fiery smear of chili paste, to the "pizza" dosa, a softer uttapam topped with cheese and vegetables that's popular with kids.
I was also a fan of the appam, the supple bowl-shaped dosas made of fermented rice and coconut that get ripped off in chunks to pinch food from the bowls of the chef's special stews, like the simple medley of fresh veggies simmered in creamy coconut richness. For something completely different, Amma's meatballs made from ground mutton were deliciously gamy. For something completely familiar but improved, Amma's take on tandoori chicken — the "sizzler" — brought tender chunks of bone-in bird so brown I didn't recognize it. But the meat was juicy and vivid with intense flavor after a seven-hour marinade in the cinnamon-chili kiss of garam masala spice, and our only response was: "Wow."
The only dish I didn't love here, the fish fry, was simply a result of my own inability to navigate the zillion pin bones that shot through each moon-shaped hunk of spice-crusted kingfish. ("Indians use their hands," counsels Varadhan.)
The food here is good enough that Amma's kitchen has risen to the top of my list of my local Indian favorites, down to the fudgy Mysore pak sweets for dessert, as well as the rasmalai rounds soaked in sweet milk. The Madras coffee from Kumbakonum is also not to be missed. It comes in an upturned copper cup that releases the brew into a small bowl when you pick it up — perfect for mixing it to a milky froth when you pour the coffee back into the cup.
The ambitious Varadhan, nonetheless, knows his humble restaurant still has room to grow in both service and ambience, and he plans a decor upgrade when they move to the new double-sized space, hopefully by October.
"I want it to look authentic, like you're walking into a South Indian home."
I can't wait to revisit by year's end for the full experience (and perhaps a ratings upgrade?), because the most elusive part — the authentic taste of a mother's cooking far from home — is already there.
AMMA’S SOUTH INDIAN CUISINE
700 Haddonfield-Berlin Rd., Eagle Plaza, Voorhees, 856-784-1100; ammasrestaurantnj.com
"Amma" means mother, and South Jersey's growing Indian community — in particular those from South India — will find the authentic flavors of home at this tiny strip-mall BYOB, where halal meats, fresh-ground spices and a pair of ambitious young chef-owners committed to quality add up to some of the best dosas and thali lunch platters (10 items for $11.95!?) this side of Exton. From the all-natural Chicken 65 (none of that artificial pink) to the sour tamarind curries, fluffy idli cakes, tart lemon rice, onion rava dosas, and dum biryani, Amma's is one of my new favorite local Indian kitchens. A planned move and décor upgrade this fall to a larger space in the same mall has potential to make the overall dining experience even better.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Rasam soup (with idli cakes); Mysore bonda; spinach onion pakora; medhu vada; bajjies fritters; gobi Manchurian; chicken (or cauliflower) "65"; chicken chukka; mutton meatball special; chicken tandoori sizzler; ambur dum biryani; appam with vegetable stew; dosas (ghee roast; onion rava); yellow dal with spinach; ennai (baby eggplant) kathrikai kuzhambu; poondu (garlic curry) kuzhambu; lamb Chettinad and Thalassery curries; gongura (sorrel) curry with shrimp; Malabar parotta rasmalai; gulab jamun; Mysore pak; Madras coffee.
BYOB Rieslings and zesty syrahs are my preferred wines for South Indian spice. But cold brews with an edge — hoppy pilsners, or sour ales and aromatic saisons that can tangle with complex curries — are also recommended. Limca soda and yogurt drinks available; don't miss the Indian coffee.
WEEKEND NOISE Multiple tables of large parties in the 42-seat room can spike to a noisy 87 decibels, but the lively room hovers near a more manageable 80 decibel buzz. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch thali Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3-9 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $10.95-$16.95.
All major cards.
Reservations recommended, especially weekends.
Free parking lot.