Choolaah Indian BBQ brings the real deal to East Liberty

April 18, 2018 GMT

Choolaah Indian BBQ brings a new concept in cuisine to East Liberty.

The light-filled eatery was developed by Simran Sethi and her husband Randhir Sethi of Cleveland, former engineers, who launched Choolaah because they wanted to put a modern spin on traditional Indian fare. They operate four other Choolaahs, in Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“When Randhir and I would go out to eat I’d never pick an Indian restaurant because they use fillers, MSG and artificial colors and flavors in their dishes,” says Simran, director of culinary research and development, as well as product management. “You leave in a kind of food coma, feeling uncomfortable and bloated.”

With the intent of serving a clean, wholesome version of northern Indian foods, Simran and Randhir, Choolaah’s co-CEO, prepared by studying ethnic cooking in India, Europe and the United Kingdom so they could develop a style of their own, Simran says.

The result is a menu that includes build-your-own bowls or salads with roasted veggies and barbecued lamb, chicken, salmon or paneer cheese; tandoori wraps of roasted protein enveloped in naan bread; crispy samosas stuffed with peas, potatoes and exotic spices; pav baji, an Indian street snack of veggies and buttered, toasted buns; fresh-squeezed mango lemonade; and mango and malai kulfi ice cream.

Dishes are prepared with any of the 17 different spice blends that Simran has concocted from an array of spices imported from India, and can be customized from mild to highly seasoned, she says.

Floor to ceiling windows in front of the kitchen invite diners to watch their meals being cooked in huge tandoor ovens, where skewers loaded with meats and veggies are roasted at 600 degrees. “This is a healthy way to cook because it sears in the flavor and causes the fat to drip off,” says Simran, noting that communal tandoor ovens were once at the heart of Indian village life, providing a place where women went to catch up on gossip while baking bread.

Simran aspired to capture this sense of relationship and warmth in Choolaah’s interior design. Contemporary art and inspirational messages like one by Lao Tzu — “Great acts are made of small deeds” — decorate the walls, and Simran makes a point of mingling with guests. “In this restaurant, every person’s life is connected to mine,” she says, adding that cooking and eating should be a shared joy.

Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

While Choolaah recipes are proprietary, Simran Sethi, director of culinary development, says the recipe below represents a traditional chicken dish made in a tandoor oven. It is adapted here for the home oven or grill.

Ginger Garlic Paste

Take equal parts fresh ginger and garlic by weight to make the 2 tbsp. needed for the marinade. Peel ginger and garlic and mince into smaller pieces to make grinding easy. Place in grinder or blender. Add just enough water to aid the grinding. Too much water will make the paste watery and difficult to use. Grind the contents until it makes a smooth paste. Transfer to container.

Marinated, Roasted Chicken or Veggies

Serves about four

2 lbs. chicken or 2 lbs. cut vegetables

1 cup yogurt

3 tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp red chili powder

2 tbsp. Ginger Garlic paste (see recipe)

¼ tbsp. Garam Masala spice blend

¼ cup cooking oil

salt to taste

Put all ingredients except chicken or vegetables in a bowl and mix well. Add chicken or veggies to mixture and, if using chicken, allow it to marinade in the refrigerator for at least four hours. If using veggies, no waiting period is needed. Cook on a grill or in an oven preheated to 400 degrees F. for 35 to 45 minutes, turning at 20 minutes.

Garam Masala

2 tbsp. ground coriander powder

1 tbsp. ground cumin powder

1 ½ tsp. ground green cardamom powder

¼ tsp. ground black cardamom powder

½ tsp. ground black caraway seeds powder

¼ tsp. mace powder

¼ tsp. nutmeg powder

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

Add all ingredients to a bowl and mix well. Store in airtight container.