Rana Singh Sodhi, above left, and Surinder Singh (no relation) joined forces to transform a strip mall restaurant space into an Indian oasis: Guru Palace, complete with floor seating and wall murals of the Taj Mahal.
The gregarious Sodhi mans the front of house, the contemplative Singh runs the kitchen, and the Indian furnishings and fare transport diners from Mesa to Punjab.
Neither Sodhi nor Singh knew how to cook when they came to the United States. Both men learned how to cook on the job in their brothers' Indian restaurants upon arrival: Sodhi at the Indian Delhi Palace in Phoenix and Singh at India's in Denver.
More than two decades later, Singh approached Sodhi about opening an Indian restaurant in the East Valley, and in December 2007, they opened the doors to the Guru Palace in Mesa with Sodhi up front and Singh behind the scenes.
"Even when [Singh] has a day off, he comes in and spends time in the kitchen!" Sodhi says.
We sat down with the pair to get the dish on Indian food. Sodhi did most of the talking with Singh chiming in, and we're just hoping we caught everything between the side Punjabi explanations and translations!
Today, Sodhi and Singh tell us why dinner's best on the floor, the trick to eating curry with just your hands, and the secret to cooking great Indian food.
Head's up: Sodhi's answers are in normal text, and Singh's are italicized.
What's the deal on the floor seating? I grew up in a small village, and at that time we didn't have a table and chairs in my home to sit at for dinner. The majority of people sit on the floor for dinner, especially with the mother cooking and the children sitting around her to have a meal. I remember it was so comfortable, so cozy, and so relaxing to sit on the floor and eat, that I wanted to give the same experience to my guests so they can enjoy and feel it. Now people want to reserve that seating.
How did you learn to cook? I didn't go to any school. There's no culinary school that teaches Indian cooking. Basically Indian food you learn from experienced people who will teach better. I never see any Indian cook or chef using a measurement. They know the spices from experience, and it always turns out perfect. I learned from my brother, and Surinder learned from his cousin.
Favorite food? Indian food, obviously. And our best food, in my opinion, is chicken tikka masala and garlic naan. I eat it at least four times a week.
Can you fill us in on Indian food etiquette? Indian food traditionally is always finger food. We don't use forks and knives; the majority is finger and spoon. These two items [picks up a fork and knife] we never use in Indian. When I was in high school, we went to one big city, and we don't know how to use forks and knives. My friend was trying to cut something and threw his knife across the table. [Singh laughs.]
Is there a trick to eating with your fingers and a spoon? You have two choices: bread and rice. When you have bread, you can tear it in small pieces, make cones, and dip it with the sauce. That's the way most people do it. And some people who don't eat a lot of bread, they pour the curry over the rice and eat with the spoons. It's really very simple.
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What was the last thing you ate that blew your mind? I ate goat masala today, [Singh] made it perfect. It was so tender, and spice-wise it was perfect. Last night, I made chicken tikka and onion kulcha (bread). It was very, very good. Maybe I was just hungry, but it had great flavor.
First thing you do at the restaurant every day? First I pray to the Lord, then we start our work.
What's the secret to cooking great Indian food? Cooking with passion, it naturally turns good. My mother tells me the story: whenever you cook your food, say your prayer to God and make your food with passion and love. When we cook the food, we have a good atmosphere so it brings good energy to the customer.
(Check back tomorrow when Sodhi and Singh break down an Indian curry and dish on the White House crashers at the State Dinner and Thursday for the recipe of the chicken tikka masala that made our "100 Favorite Dishes.")