Food and travel

Southern N.H. warms to Southern Indian kitchen

Meenakshi Kumar and her husband, Sravan, at Meena's Kitchen, where all the food is vegetarian. Meenakshi Kumar and her husband, Sravan, at Meena's Kitchen, where all the food is vegetarian. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Rachel Ellner
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2010

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NASHUA, N.H. - Meenakshi Kumar’s business plan was simple: Feed family and friends who long for Southern Indian vegetarian cooking.

So she began cooking banquets for local charitable events. Soon friends invited friends, then vegans, locavores, and Indian food lovers at large started crowding her dinners.

That’s when Kumar, a native of Hyderabad, decided to make her kitchen available to everyone. The result is a large, sparsely decorated, sunlit restaurant in downtown Nashua, just off the main drag. Meena’s Kitchen, open since July, is a departure from many Indian restaurants because there are no lamb stews or tandoor-baked meats and fish. The menu is entirely vegetarian.

“She can cook all alone for 500 people,’’ says Meena’s niece and sometime waitress, Avani. “You mean, like a very small Indian wedding,’’ one diner offers.

The menu is built around typical Southern Indian fare such as idli (steamed rice cakes), vadas (lentil dumplings), and dosas (large crepes). But Kumar also offers chutneys and dumplings that blend New England’s cranberries, rhubarb, and zucchini with Indian coriander, mustard, fenugreek, fennel, and more.

Other experiences stand in contrast as well, like sipping mango lassi or spreading mango chutney on a dosa while blistering cold winds blow outside.

“It brings memories of India, when the mango guy comes and leaves two kilos of mangos at our door every day,’’ says Meena’s husband, Sravan, a systems engineer who waits on tables if he’s needed. “I’m not a cook. I’m an eater and a critic of the food,’’ he says emphatically.

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt, an opera appreciation teacher from Brookline, N.H., ordered palak, a soup with spinach and lentils; dosa; yogurt and chili raita; mattar paneer, a dish of peas and cheese; then had “a rice dish with fried potatoes that was bewitching.’’ For dessert, she says, there was warm carrot halwa, which is made with condensed milk, sugar, and spices. “And Meena made a salt lassi drink that got very high marks,’’ she says.

Everything, including the ever-changing multi-course fixed-price buffet, is cooked to order. There’s no buffet table, but Meena calls it a buffet because you can ask for seconds at no extra charge. “I love that what we had this time is completely different than what we ordered last time,’’ says Neilsen-Steinhardt.

Kumar’s recipes are healthier than what’s typical in parts of India where vegetarian dishes are heavy on ghee, clarified butter, and cream; often those specialties are overcooked, at least for American tastes. At Meena’s, canola is used exclusively for frying, as it is in India, but the oil also substitutes for ghee in soups, rice dishes, and vegetarian stews called sambhars.

“What I like,’’ says Kumar, “is what I want to give you.’’

This makes for less greasy bajji, which are soft vegetable dumplings in chickpea batter. Crispy fried dumplings, or pakoda, also based on veggies and coated with chickpea batter, come filled with onion, spinach, or cabbage.

No one hovers over you at Meena’s - the staff is too busy bringing dishes to the table - and it always seems (happily) to be more than you ordered. The place feels more like a continuation of family than a business venture. While the flow of commerce is tamer in Southern New Hampshire than it might be in Southern India, there’s a nonchalance here that’s similar. Meena’s shares the street with a tattoo and body piercing shop, a carpet store, and a Pentecostal storefront church.

The only difference is, in Hyderabad, a great female cook would probably not be running her own restaurant, says Avani.

“Meena,’’ says her niece, “is blessed with the cooking hand.’’

Meena’s Kitchen, 113 W. Pearl St., Nashua, N.H. 603-204-5025,