You may have come across Nidhi Jalan’s culinary creations before. About five years ago she started selling spice blends under the name Masala Mama (a handle Jalan “earned” in the womb), then she launched a line of jarred simmer sauces like Coconut Curry and Vindaloo, and then she did a stint one summer slinging Masala Tacos at Smorgsaburg. Now, and for a limited time only, Jalan is cooking a full slate of vegetarian and vegan Indian dishes for us all to enjoy, at a Masala Mama popup within the Michael and Ping’s space in Gowanus.
“I really wanted to meet the people who actually eat my food, and be a part of a neighborhood,” Jalan told Gothamist last week. “I always dreamt of having a cafe. Not anything fancy, just a simple place where the food is made well with good ingredients, like the kind of food I grew up with in Calcutta.”
The menu is pretty straightforward, and everything I ate here the other night was exceptional. The Watermelon Chaat Salad, for example, which came loaded with all sorts of strong flavors playing off the sweet, juicy fruit–cilantro, ginger, chaat masala, green chili, red onion, lime, and mint among them–was the best version of this dish I’ve ever had. So skillfully put together, I have to go back here at least once more this summer just to eat another bowl of this.
Everything in the two main sections, Entrées and Lentils and Beans, can be ordered in 12-oz “medium” or 16-oz “large” sizes, which makes it easy to try as many things as possible. I basically let Jalan choose for me, and both of her selections were true delights. The Paneer Tikka Masala was luxuriously rich and creamy, a cashew tikka sauce thick with housemade paneer and peas (this can be prepared with tofu instead of paneer, if you want it vegan), and the lentil-based Dal Makhani had plenty of zip of it, with garlic, Kashmiri chili, ginger, and the sweet acidity of Italian strained tomatoes.
Other options include the vegan dishes Aloo and Gobi, with cauliflower and potatoes, Saag Kabocha, which involves spinach, chickpeas, and roasted squash, and the Chana Masala, to which Jalan adds pomegranate seeds and raw mango powder. All of the above deserve some good starchy delivery vehicles, and Jalan complies with things like Turmeric Lemon Pilaf, Malabar Paratha, and, in my case, two slabs of some delicious Garlic Chimichurri Sourdough Naan. Condiments can also be ordered separately, including a fiery Green Chili Pickle, a Chili-Garlic Hot Sauce, and a lively Tomatillo-Cilantro Chutney.
Masala Mama is a great restaurant, but don’t wait too long to come check it out because it’ll be gone before you know it.
“I’m hoping to run this through the summer, or as long as I have the stamina for it,” said Jalan. “It’s a lot more work than I thought. I come here at 11 a.m. and I get home at 10 p.m. so it’s ten, eleven hours every day. The first few days it was very slow and I thought oh my gosh does this concept have legs? And then neighbors started pouring in… sometimes I have tears in my eyes because they just have the kindest things to say. I love Brooklyn. I love Gowanus. I love where I live in Prospect Heights. I am Brooklyn through-and-through, and hopefully am never leaving.”
Masala Mama is located within Michael and Ping’s, at 437 Third Avenue, between 7th and 8th Streets in Gowanus, and is currently open for delivery, pick-up, and dining-in via counter service on Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (646-820-6790; masalamamafoods.com)