Indian food and culture festival entices locals 

Festivities highlight Punjabi traditions and tastes at the Clark County Ampitheater

Traditional Giddha dancers entertain festival-goers at the Clark County Ampitheater on Saturday. PHOTOS BY KATIE CANNATA/THE REBEL YELL

The 10th annual Las Vegas Vaisakhi Mela captivated crowds of locals who were looking for a taste of Indian cuisine and culture at the Clark County Amphitheater on Saturday. The festival was full of flavors and festivities that invited diners to step out from the parking lot and into a small piece of Punjab.

The mela, or gathering, hosted a variety of Las Vegas’ top Indian restaurants as vendors including Gandhi, Origin India and Mint. The scents of samosas, masalas and more wafted through the crowd as festival-goers meandered around with mountainous plates of Indian fare. After checking out the stretch of vendors, I decided it was about time to dig in.

Following my gut, I began at a favorite restaurant, Gandhi, which was serving platefuls of fish pakora for $6. Battered in egg and oil, the fish is cooked until its exterior is a crunchy brown. The bite-sized pieces were heavily seasoned with turmeric, ginger and red chili powder. The fish itself remained buttery and flaky beneath its outer crunch and was best eaten after being generously dipped in a mixture of mint-coriander and sweet tamarind chutney.

Not far from Gandhi’s booth was India Palace’s chaat papri — a dish of potatoes, peppers, onions, puffed rice and fried wafer crackers smothered in yogurt and mint sauces. So much flavor for such a small price felt like a steal at a meager $4, but that couldn’t stop me from enjoying each bite. While the sauces tend to make the chaat papri a bit sweet, the salty wafers make for a perfect, edible utensil that also balances the dish.

For other favorite dishes, India Palace was also serving plates of black lentils, aloo gobi, chicken masala and naan for $8. More of a meal than just a small snack, the plate could have easily been split between two people. The aloo gobi, a personal favorite, came with large chunks of potatoes and cauliflower that was seasoned with yellow curry and garlic. Though the naan seemed a bit over-baked, it was delicious after being dipped in the masala that tasted faintly of cloves and cardamom.

India Palace’s chaat papri is loaded with creamy, minty flavors that pair perfectly with the salty wafers and potatoes.

Venturing further into the festival’s fare, I came across Origin India’s offerings — aloo tikki and chole bhature with halwa. Aloo tikki is much like a potato pancake, but mixed with bits of onion, cilantro and mint leaves. The small, but incredibly dense, potato cutlet was served alongside a generous portion of chole bhature — a spicy sauce of chickpeas. One can eat cholle bhature with spoon, but scooping it with the bhatoora, or fried bread, made for an irresistible combination.

Never having tried halwa before, I was instantly hooked after a single bite. Each order came with a thick slice of the confection, which remains as a sugary staple across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Made from a simple combination of nut butter, flour and sugar, the halwa crumbled when eaten and effectively absorbed what was left of the chole bhature’s sauce. A plate full of these goodies was only $6 and was more than enough to be shared.

The halwa, however, gave me a hankering for sweets, which was satisfied by homemade jalebi and laddu. Jalebi is often discribed as an Indian funnel cake, only far sweeter despite the lack of powdered sugar. Rather, jalebi is soaked in sugar syrup after the flour has been deep-fried. A sticky sweet treat to say the least, the jalebi came with a laddu as well. Laddu are small, doughnut-like balls of chickpea flour, coconut and spices that are cooked in ghee — a clarified butter made from the oils and fats that remain after boiling the butter for some time. With hints of cinnamon and ginger, the laddu was a bit savory, but satisfying.

A dish of spicy lentils, chicken masala, aloo gobi and fresh baked naan made for a filling meal from India Palace.

While the spread of fragrant Indian cuisine was enough to keep anyone satisfied, the festival also treated visitors to a number of noteworthy performances throughout the day, including a troupe of mesmerizing Giddha dancers.

Giddha is a popular, Punjabi folk dance that is commonly performed at social gatherings. The dance’s movements are fluid, requiring quite amount of grace from the beautifully adorned dancers. Beyond their elegant talents, the dancers’ kept festival-goers transfixed with their costumes. Donning tunics and skirts, the dancers’ vibrant colors were paired with glistening gold mathapatis — or head ornaments – that chimed as they made their way about the stage. Across the amphitheatre, children mimicked the Giddha dancers to the delight of those around them.

Other performers such as a fully Bhangra band, a genre popularized in Punjab, and South Asian fusion group of a cappella singers from Stanford entertained festival goers as well. The headliner of the event, Jassi Sidhu, was warmly welcomed as he treated an audience to hits off his most popular albums that include Reality Check and No Strings Attached.

All of the acts added to the lively ambiance of the gathering, which seems to attract larger audiences with each passing year. By the means of flavor and festivities, the Las Vegas Vaisakhi Mela offers locals a chance to discover, connect and fully enjoy Indian culture at its best.

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