Dish of the Month: Om Café
by Nicholas Corea
Centuries ago, a man named Christopher Columbus set sail from Europe looking for the westward passage to India. He landed in the Caribbean many times, never actually making it to India. Centuries later, I can confidently say I’ve accomplished what Columbus set out to do: I went to the Caribbean and found the westward passage to India. It’s here in Bocas del Toro. It is in fact the Om Café.
Ascending the stairs to the famous Om Café, it dawns on me that I know very little about Indian food. I know that I like it, I know that it’s generally spicy and I imagine Indian food is what Mahatma Gandhi ate between fasts. That was the extent of my Indian food knowledge before Sunanda took me into her world and introduced my taste buds to the wonders of naan and curry.
To begin my education in Indian cuisine I was greeted with “The Sampler” and a cocktail. The Sampler features a bit of each appetizer on the menu. Not only did I discover that my new favorite sauce is actually a yogurt, but I also learned that lentils can be made into a tortilla. What?! Who knew… The Pappadam is just that: a tortilla that was once a bunch of lentils; and this large cracker-like creation comes with 3 homemade chutneys for dipping, my favorite being the yogurt-mint-garlic sauce.
Also good with the magical yogurt sauce is the Seekh Kebab, a spicy ground beef dish served with naan and onions. With this kebab, the platter lives up to Indian food’s spicy reputation as it’s packing some heat for sure. Luckily I was sipping on one of Om’s specialty cocktails, the “Tipsy Turban” passion fruit daquiri. Thanks be to Buddha for frozen cocktail drinks.
Let’s move on to the Vegetarian Samosa, which I will lovingly and ignorantly refer to as an “Indian Empanada”. I don’t know much about Indian food, but I know an empanada when I see one. One could also describe it as a deep fried pastry filled with spicy potatoes and peas. Whatever it is, it’s good, but not as good as my favorite: the Chaat Papri. Forgive me for being even more ignorant, but if this sampler has an Indian Empanada, it also has Indian nachos; and these Indian nachos rule. Chaat Papri is a helping of deep fried tortilla chips smothered with chickpeas, potatoes and a blend of chutneys (including my beloved yogurt sauce).
What a great way to get acquainted with Indian cuisine. Also good for exploring Om’s culinary repertoire is “The Tasting Menu”. The Tasting Menu allows you to fill a big round plate with any 6 dishes in the restaurant. Variety is the spice of life and Indian food is indeed spicy. Now onto the main course, the “owner’s pick”, Sunanda’s personal favorite dish: Tikka Masala. “For years, I must have eaten Tikka Masala every day,” confesses the boss-lady herself. I don’t blame her. I would eat it every day too if I was serving it at my restaurant.
The British love Tikka Masala as well. Wikipedia claims that it has replaced Fish and Chips as the Brit’s national dish. Well I’ve never been to Delhi or London, but I’ve been to the Om Café in Bocas del Toro and the Tikki Masala is worth the hype. Served with either Chicken or Shrimp, Tikka Masala is tomato based sauce, with a hint of garlic and tamarind. It’s moderately spicy and completely delicious. Although Indian food has a spicy reputation, not every dish is this way. There is something for everybody on the menu, but I won’t give it all away here. There are plenty of vindaloos, tandooris and curries for you to explore.
Sunanda is not only my Indian food mentor, but she is also the owner of Om Café. She was born in India, raised in Toronto and wound up in Bocas del Toro working in an Iranian man’s restaurant in Carenero. The restaurant was called Pargo Rojo, but in 2013 you might know it as Aqua Lounge. The owner was the ever eccentric Bernard, who unfortunately became ill and had to relocate. Sunanda took over the restaurant and when business became slow, she decided to take it back to her roots and initiate a “Taste of India Night” on Sundays. After a few Sundays it became clear that she needed to open her very own Indian restaurant. So she did; and the rest is history. Om has been so successful that she has been able to open a second location. The new place is called Maracuya and it is not another Indian restaurant. It features a very different menu, including breakfast and a dinner of eclectic international fusion specialties.
Sunanda loves her restaurants; especially Om. She feels it’s a real expression of her heart and soul, complete with her very intimate personal affects adorning the whole restaurant. First of all, there is a lamp made out of bangles. Bangles are bracelets that are traditional Indian garment. Sunanda collected over a thousand of bangles from her family and made a lamp out of them; very special. Secondly, there is the “red room”. A tribute to her favorite color, the red room is homage to all things red. It’s also a lounge area for private parties or casual dining. It was once closed off to the rest of the restaurant, but not since knocking down one of the walls in 2011. It’s rather special because it features the 40 year old table cloth that was once Sunanda’s mother’s “saree”. And the saree is beautiful; in case you’re wondering.
One really cool thing about Om is Paulina Forbes. Sunanda really put her heart and soul into this restaurant and you can tell not only by her food and her mom’s table cloth saree; she has been able to empower a Bocatoranian to cook Indian food just as good as she does. Paulina has been with Om since its inception 10 years ago. She’s the reason Sunanda was confident in opening a 2nd location. Paulina is also the reason I enjoyed my meal so much. God bless her. Some say she makes a better Kourma Chicken than Gandhi’s momma, but I wouldn’t go that far. Or would I?
So there you have it: Om Café is the undisputed king of Indian food in Bocas del Toro. It’s a place for spicy food and chill vibes; a place to relax and take in a nice 2nd floor view of Bocas town. The Om Café experience is suitable for an intimate dinner for two or a group of friends getting the evening’s party started properly; but any way you slice the naan bread; there is no place like Om.
Dish of the Month: Om Café