If you’re in South Jersey and you’re hungry, no problem — there’s a pizzeria, burger joint or Chinese takeout on almost every corner. But an authentic Indian restaurant? That’s harder to come by.
Syed Abbas thinks he knows why. “At a burger place, you can train somebody overnight. At a pizzeria, you use a certain cheese, and the batter and toppings are the same. With Chinese, the basic ingredients are simple: soy sauce, salt and pepper, rice and noodles. But creating Indian food is a highly specialized skill.”
Abbas should know. As owner and chef at The Nizam’s in Egg Harbor Township, he’s been serving up the real thing to South Jersey diners since 2008. In February, Nizam’s opened a new, larger location in the Harbor Square Shopping Center, in the space once occupied by Carrabba’s Italian Grille.
Even simple Indian dishes are labor-intensive if they’re prepared in the time-honored way, says Abbas. For example, the stuffed-pastry confection known as samosa starts with the filling, typically a mix of boiled potatoes, a variety of spices, lentils, vegetables, and other ingredients, which are then rolled into a batter, shaped into a distinctive pattern and plunged into a deep fryer. “It has to be perfectly crispy,” so it’s deep-fried again moments before serving, Abbas says.
Falafel, a type of fritter and a staple of the menu, is made with chickpeas that have been soaked overnight, then ground, livened up with fresh herbs and again, deep-fried for a texture that’s tender on the inside, crunchy on the outside. “It all takes time,” says Abbas. “What you spend in manpower in an Indian restaurant is two or three times that of another restaurant.”
He also eschews pre-packaged, canned and frozen foods.
To ensure that, his kitchen staff works under the direction of Chef Sunil Sharma, who also hails from India.
To ensure the food is prepared the traditional way, Abbas trains them from the ground up. “I nourished them when they didn’t know anything about Indian cuisine, so they do it perfectly, the way I would do it.”
The Delhi native earned his culinary stripes working for the Mumbai-based Taj chain of five-star hotels, and at TajSATS Air Catering Ltd., preparing global cuisines for international flights. “When you work with such a variety of foods of the world, it’s a great knowledge for a chef. You learn a little bit of everything.”
He still owns the original Nizam’s, just north of the Cardiff Circle, which is under renovation and will soon reopen as a Middle Eastern restaurant, presided over by Chef Nasreen Rehani of Jordan. Though Indian and Middle Eastern foods are emphatically different, says Abbas, the Arab invasion of India in the 8th century caused a certain cross-pollination of flavors. Many classic Indian dishes originated in Middle Eastern countries, including samosa and kebabs. What really distinguishes the styles is the level of spices: Middle Eastern food typically uses about a half-dozen varieties (coriander, cloves, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg, paprika). Indian food can contain several dozen spices, emphasizes sauces and gravies, and is much more “complex,” says Abbas.
Don’t like spicy food? “We can moderate almost anything, dialing the heat up or down from mild to extra, extra hot — 10 on the scale,” says the chef. Though the taste can be moderated according to patrons’ tastes, “We have not Americanized our food,” he adds. With the equivalent of a PhD in multicultural cuisines, Abbas’ restaurants serve not only his indigenous foods but according to the menu, can also offer Far Eastern, Gujarati and Chinese.
Among the most popular dishes at The Nizam’s are the tandoori chicken and rack of lamb, prepared in a yogurt marinade and cooked in a tandoor clay oven. The jug-shaped ovens take hours to heat; when the temperature reaches 1600 Fahrenheit, the tandoor can bake traditional Indian flatbread, or naan, in less than a minute, churning out up to 300 loaves a day which are then seasoned with garlic or stuffed with chicken, lamb or nuts.
Over the years, The Nizam’s has become renowned for its buffet, which is also a staple of the new restaurant. On Wednesdays, it’s a favorite of local businesspeople; on Saturdays and Sundays it draws more families and in the summer, the tourist crowd.
The new location seats about 90 people and includes a dedicated dining space for wedding showers, banquets and business parties. The décor is brightly hued, with lots of crimson and gold, glittering chandeliers, shimmering beaded curtains and ethnic-inspired art and sculpture. Indian music plays softly in the background. The Nizam’s is BYOB. “I feel I can take less out of my customers’ pockets, and they prefer that — to bring a bottle of wine for $10 or $15 rather than paying $35 to $60—you know, it hurts,” says Abbas. “I would rather make them spend that money over here on food.”
The original restaurant opened on a rocky note, just as the economy went into recession. “The first four years, every day was a very tough day” Abbas recalls. “We would do $80 in sales on a Friday night. But everybody told me to be patient.”
After a spell of ill health, he briefly considered bowing out of the restaurant business. “But soon people realized the difference at Nizam’s — they said, ‘Man, this place is very different, very ethnic.’”
The original restaurant eventually could not handle the business. “The parking was insufficient, the kitchen wasn’t meant to cater such a wide variety of cuisine, and we could not expand because there was no space—but the business was expanding. People loved our food.
“In 2011, 2012, 2013, it started to grow,” he says, “And finally we needed to move to a bigger place. I stood where I was supposed to stand, even in bad health and bad times, and I don’t regret it. It all worked out.”