Grow. Cook. Drink.: Kohinoor
Talented, unsung chef Tamilselvan Thangadurai produces authentic Indian dishes at Kohinoor in Monroeville.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
Tamilselvan Thangadurai started cooking in Pittsburgh restaurants in 2006. Unlike many of the other top chefs of the region, you probably have never heard of him.
His kitchen at Kohinoor restaurant in Monroeville is clean but cramped. There’s a creaky four-burner stove that’s better suited to a low-rent apartment than a professional kitchen. The tandoor, sweet with burning coal embers, is slightly cracked on one side. It would be much easier in this kitchen to just microwave frozen naan and serve already-grilled chicken.
That’s something Thangadurai would never do.
He’d rather stay up cooking until 5 a.m. — something he does nearly every night — than settle for serving a mediocre product. “I love to cook. That’s it. That’s my secret,” he says.
In a period of “you’ll-eat-what-I-serve-you” tasting menus, Thangadurai says he believes his job is to cater to every customer in his restaurant. Whether a group of doctors asks him to make a specific crab curry from their home region or a newbie wants a spice level of zero, everyone he serves should leave Kohinoor happy.
“If they don’t like the food, I get a headache. I take it so seriously. If they don’t like it, it means they’re not happy and their money wasn’t well spent,” he says.
Thangadurai was born in southern India and moved to Pittsburgh to live with his wife. He says he feels frustrated by restaurants constantly serving dumbed-down, low-quality versions of the “greatest hits” of Indian food. It’s a point well taken: We’ve become so accustomed to an all-you-can eat, generic reduction of a great and vast nation’s cuisine that it’s easy to forget that Indian food, in the hands of a talented chef such as Thangadurai, can be as transcendent as the farmiest farm-to-table supper.
“People have eaten that [stereotypical] food for the last 20-30 years, and now they’re bored. People don’t want everything bland and covered in sugar. They want the real taste now. They want to taste the spices,” he says.
Take ever-popular chicken tikka masala: A typical Americanized preparation is amped up with tomato paste and sugar at the expense of onions and ginger. What’s often served is rubbery chicken breast covered in a vaguely Indian, tomato-soup sauce. Not so at Kohinoor. Thangadurai’s chicken tikka masala is savory and earthy, with knee-dropping aromatics. You’ll demand more.
Thangadurai says that just because people might start to know his name now, his hunger for improvement isn’t going to slow him down. Even in his small kitchen far from the southern tip of India, he says, “I’m learning every day.”
Editor's Note: As of Oct. 8, Kohinoor is closed until further notice.
- 2 whole chickens, each cut into 8 pieces
- 7 tablespoons ghee
- 3½ tablespoons garlic paste
- 4 green chiles, seeded and diced
- 8 red chiles, 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds & a pinch of onion seeds, ground together
- 2½ pounds tomatoes, chopped
- ¼ cup ginger, chopped
- ½ cup cilantro, chopped
- 2 teaspoons Garam Masala
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek
- ½ onion, sliced and sautéed
- Sauté garlic paste in ghee over medium heat until light brown.
- Add red chiles-coriander-onion seed mixture, and then after 30 seconds add tomatoes, green chiles, 3/4 of the ginger, 1/3 of the cilantro and onions.
- Reduce heat and simmer 4 minutes.
- Add chicken, bring to boil, lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Add remaining ingredients and serve.