5th Element’s lunch buffet stretched before me. Staring at dish after unfamiliar dish, I was frozen in place. If there is a foodie’s equivalent of writer’s block, I suffered from it. A gentleman behind me, obviously a regular, stepped around me with a smile. I retreated to my booth.

My food anxiety was unfounded. Shortly after I sat back down, my husband joined me with Sandeep, his co-worker from India, and his family who vowed to educate me. That lunchtime, I discovered complex new flavor combinations and several favorites that I’m learning to prepare at home.

Saag Paneer, a delicious cheese and spinach dish drew my attention, as did the tender, spiced chicken, Tangadi Kabab. I fell in love with Mango Lassi – a creamy yogurt that is very refreshing after a spicy bite of lunch – and with my little dining companion, baby Aishani.

I learned that 5-month-old Aishani hadn’t tried any food yet and wouldn’t for several months – until her grandfather offers her first taste of rice at the traditional ceremony, Annaprashana. She happily played in her daddy’s lap, and he discussed the history and pairings of each new taste on my plate.

We decided the quintessentially Indian dish of the day was Chicken Biryani. Sandeep shared that the dish’s history stretches back at least to when Moguls invaded India. It is a hearty one-dish-meal of rice, vegetables and meat that sustained the armies as they swept across the country. Biryani was traditionally roasted in campfires and is prepared in a clay pot in open flames in India today.

As with any dish that is popular across a whole country, flavors in a Biryani vary greatly (think all our chowder variations). Sandeep explained that as you travel through India, preparations may include vegetables like peas, carrots, cauliflower or bell peppers and meats range from mutton to fish to prawns. After trying a dish with goat, I settled on the more familiar taste of chicken.

For your sweet tooth, 5th Element offers a variety of traditional Indian desserts. Rice Kheer is a favorite, served only on special occasions.

Showcasing the layered spices of India such as cardamom, bay leaves, saffron and coriander combined with the traditional basmati rice, Biryanis are a tasty gateway to Indian food and a foundational section of 5th Element’s menu.

5th Element is located at 9485 Baymeadows Rd.

For more information visit their website at my5thelement.com.