I remember the first time I saw a cook dip tandoori chicken in curry and then drop those yellow poultry pieces over a pizza dough. I thought that amounted to pizza vandalism.
I was ignorant then because I couldn’t fathom a pizza business that didn’t rely on pepperoni for its bottom line. But there’s a whole pizza world out there with different, diverse communities of immigrants and refugees who look at the humble pizza dough as a blank canvas upon which to lay a number of sauces and ingredients that remind them of their cultures.
In many diverse pockets across the country, say “gyro pizza” and people know you’re talking about a mozzarella-and-tomato-sauce pie usually topped with shaved lamb meat, crumbled feta and drizzles of tzatziki sauce.
In South Florida, Cuban Americans have made Cuban pizzas trendy, tweaked with fried green plantains and picadillo ground beef.
Around the Puget Sound area, say “fusion pizza” and many will assume you’re talking about the subcontinental Indian-inspired pies with curry, paneer cheese and tandoori chicken.
Fusion pizza creeps up on the menus of several Indian restaurants in the Greater Seattle area that serve curry and tandoori rice dishes. These pizzas consist of chicken tikka masala and other takeout staples and comfort dishes that have been reimagined as a slice. Toppings can include goat and lamb meat, sauces redolent of turmeric and curry leaves and flavors from Punjabi to North India.
The national chain Chicago’s Pizza With A Twist, which has branches in Lynnwood, Kent and soon on Capitol Hill, showcases deep-dish pizza with curry and tandoori chicken.
Back in April 1999, Amarjit Cheema introduced Indian pizza to our region by opening his restaurant Can Am Pizza in Kent. Few, if any, locals knew what Indian pizza was back then. Now, your wait for his butter chicken pizza can run a half-hour or longer on weekends at any of his four Can Am Pizza restaurants. He owns branches in Redmond, Federal Way, Bothell and Kent, and he plans on expanding his chain to other states.
The godfather of Indian pizza in Western Washington has spawned dozens of copycats on the Eastside and in the South End, as many restaurateurs are taking advantage of the sizable South Asian tech population — thanks partly to the growth of Microsoft and Amazon.
Indian pizza is constructed a little differently than your Italian classic. Some differences that you may see:
Pizzaiolos preach that a minimal number of toppings (three or less) is optimal, but you will always find five or more toppings on an Indian pizza. The main topping is usually tandoori roast chicken or paneer cheese with a supporting cast of onions, green peppers and cilantro. Indian pizza makers will often also add two to three more ingredients such as ginger or jalapeno rings. Most curry pizzas include herbs and veggies to add depth and to cut into the fiery chili and the creamy sauce.
The dough, at least for the Indian pizzas I tried around the Sound, doesn’t possess any distinctive fermentation or leopard char. It’s a mere workhorse to carry the load of toppings. You won’t find thin, crackly crusts since Indian pizzas tend to be top-heavy and wet with curry, requiring a sturdy base. Most doughs hew closer in style to those used by pizza chains such as Domino’s.
I recently sampled 30 Indian pizzas at eight different restaurants around the region, on the Eastside, as far north as Everett and as far south as Auburn. Below were the three pies that stood out in our taste test.
The lamb tikka masala pizza at Tasty Curry Restaurant & Pizza
Prices range from $12 for a medium (14 inches) to $19 for an extra-large (18 inches)
520 128th St. S.W., Everett; 425-374-7227; tastycurryrestaurantandpizza.com
The best pizza out of all 30 we tasted, with bright notes of cumin, turmeric and garam masala, rounded with crushed ginger and garlic. Many other curry pizzas were too soggy, turning to mush in the pizza box on my drive home. This aromatic pie is more nuanced, brimming with allium and herbaceous flavors. The goat tikka masala pizza was also stellar.
Butter chicken pizza at Can Am Pizza
$17.99 for a medium (12 inches) to $23.99 for an extra-large (16 inches)
Locations in Redmond, Kent, Federal Way and Bothell; canampizza.com
The creamy curry with tandoori roast chicken is among the top sellers at most Indian pizza restaurants. But many butter chicken pizzas in this taste test were too bland, the white meat too dry. Can Am’s version stood out. From crust to topping, all the components are in ideal proportion to one another.
The butter chicken is the most top-heavy in the pizza lineup at many Indian restaurants that serve these fusion pies. At several Indian pizza restaurants, you will barely notice there’s even a crust since the thick gravy overwhelms everything in its path.
Can Am gets around that by using a thick pan pizza as its base. When the cashier asks how spicy you want your butter chicken (mild, medium or hot), the only right answer is hot, in order to cut into all that creamy richness. Otherwise this luscious slice won’t go down easy. Can Am pizzas are served with a side of creamy dipping sauce. That comes in handy to put out the four-alarm fire in your mouth.
The Archaari Spicy Chicken pizza at Shiraz Pizza & Pasta
Cost ranges from $11.95 for a small (10 inches) to $19.95 for a large (18 inches)
15600 N.E. Eighth St., Suite B6, Bellevue, at Crossroads Mall; 425-746-4911; shirazpizzapasta.com
Many Indian pizzas keep the traditional tomato pizza sauce as the base and then drizzle the curry directly over the top, or dip the meat toppings in curry. This Bellevue pizzeria uses a Punjabi sauce that has a tomato-paste-like richness with a spicy kick to cut into the butter. Shiraz’s version, with chicken, mushrooms, green peppers, jalapeno peppers, ginger, garlic and cilantro, isn’t as milky rich as many pies. If you don’t like curry but want to try an Indian take, this one’s for you. It hews closer to the pizza takeout in your neighborhood.