Kashmiri food is all about the devil's dirt.
Asafetida, which has acquired all sorts of hilarious nicknames going back to Alexander the Great, is a bulbous fennel known for its strong and funky odor. But when you cook its resin, the spice smooths into deep umami, an almost leeklike smoothness. Grown in India only in Kashmir—the product of a long migration of Persians to the subcontinent's northernmost state—the spice is like a blanket swaddling other flavors.
"It's kind of a trippy resin. It's almost like a meaty, fatty texture," says chef Deepak Kaul, who runs his Kashmir-inflected Bhuna pop-up every Monday out of the kitchen of Kerns' Culmination Brewing (2117 NE Oregon St., 971-254-9114.) Kashmiri is the soul food of India, Kaul says—and if you eat his deep, pungent, asafetida-heavy collard greens and kohlrabi ($11 rice bowl, $3 side), it won't be hard to understand why he thinks so. Those collards are one of my favorite new dishes I've tried in months—all funk and comfort, the feeling of easing into a '70s couch cushion.
It's also the flavor of Kaul's Kashmiri-American childhood, one he hopes to bring to a full-service restaurant. Two other Kashmiri-style entrees make use of asafetida's depth and funk, including a Kashmiri-style rogan josh lamb dish ($15) that tastes like a Christmas-spiced curry—a world of clove, coriander, cinnamon and cardamom along with a light kiss of Kashmiri chili. But the most bracing flavor comes from the beautifully fermenty dollop of yogurt on each plate. The Kashmiri eggplant and tomato stew ($11 rice bowl, $3 side) dives instead into fennel and ginger for a round warmth and light buzzing on the tongue.
Another highlight is the excellent Chettinad chicken, a southeast-Indian curry known for its fire and light hint of coconut. Kaul's delicate, aromatic version buzzes with warm, fresh spice. Kaul's Portuguese-influenced pork vindaloo ($13) is also far better than most—though I'd prefer both Dil Se's and Bollywood's—likewise benefiting from fresh-ground spice pods.
But it's those three Kashmiri plates that form the heart of Bhuna's menu. Order them with sides of fried potato wedges served with riotously pungent achar mango pickles, and especially Kaul's naan flatbread. Lacking a tandoor oven, Kaul cooks his ghee-smothered naan on a hot flat-top grill, achieving aching char and lovely texture through very untraditional means. On a good night, that grilled naan is some of the best in town.
But so is the beer menu. Culmination is one of the finest and most varied breweries in Portland, from a terrific hazy Interstellar Voyage IPA to a shudderingly good Kriek Blanc cherry sour. On a Monday night, that makes Bhuna one of the best food and drink combos in Portland.
GO: Bhuna, 2117 NE Oregon St. (at Culmination Brewing), 971-254-9114. 4-8 pm Monday only.