Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: the rules of Indian cooking, okay?

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Although we don’t often admit it, most Indians are still a little annoyed by the global trend of treating our food as cheap and happy ethnic cuisine. This characterization is probably the legacy of East Pakistani (now Bangladeshi) curry houses in the UK. But, even in the United States, Indian cuisine rarely gets the respect it deserves.



That could now change. Every two weeks I get an invitation or message from someone opening a new Indian restaurant in Texas or Dakota. These are not “ethnic” places. These are serious restaurants committed to competing against the best restaurants of any cuisine in every city.

I haven’t been to America since before the pandemic, but the last time I was in Washington DC I was impressed with the Punjab Grill. The chef of this restaurant, Jassi Bindra, wrote to me recently to invite me to his new restaurant in Woodlands, Texas. (I don’t even know where Woodlands is!) Another recommendation from a foodie was for a restaurant in Houston called Musaafer.


Chai Pani is part of a new generation of Indian restaurants introducing Americans to street food



I haven’t been to any of these places yet, but I’m intrigued by how Indian food leaves the usual cities like New York. And so, I wasn’t really surprised – though many others were – when the prestigious James Beard Awards were chosen as America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant, an Indian restaurant in Asheville, NC North, called Chai Pani.

Chai Pani looks fun, serving pani puri, bhelpuri, chicken pakoras, vada pav, uttapams and pav bhaji.

It’s not exactly obscure because its chef-owner Meherwan Irani (originally from Poona) has already been nominated for five James Beard Awards and owns other restaurants in the area. Even so, Irani says the recognition came as a surprise to him.




A waiter at Chai Pani holding the popular bhelpuri

I asked him how he felt when the price was announced. “Stunned,” he replied. “It was an amazing feeling just to make the finals list – I was ecstatic about it and felt we had gotten as far as we could go. I was completely in disbelief when they called Chai Pani and at the the moment i walked on stage, i was almost in tears realizing what it meant to every person who had ever worked at Chai Pani, past and present.



Why wasn’t Chai Pani better known before? Irani says the restaurant was primarily a regional hit before eventually breaking into a national audience. “Previous nominations were for Best Chef in the Southeast, which is a more regional award,” he explains, but he concedes that “restaurants and chefs in cities like New York get a lot more attention. when they’re nominated. That makes sense given the size of the media coverage in cities like that.


Himanshu Saini is now Dubai’s hottest young chef in every kitchen



And Indian cuisine is also on the rise in New York. The James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York went to Chintan Pandya. Considering the city is one of the great food capitals of the world with an extremely competitive restaurant scene, this is a big deal. But Chintan, a former Oberoi chef, is the chef of the moment in New York. His biggest hit is Dhamaka, generally considered the best Indian restaurant in New York, but he and his partner Roni Mazumdar also own several other restaurants, all of which receive rave reviews from The New York Times and other hard-to-please critics. .

America is a market that has always been considered inaccessible to Indian chiefs. But since Srijith Gopinathan won two Michelin stars at Campton Place in San Francisco, that seems to be changing. The price of Chai Pani is a huge breakthrough and a big moment for Indian cuisine.




Gaggan Anand announced that in the future he would simply prefer to cook for small groups of diners

Indian cuisine went upmarket in London years ago, but there is a new wave of expensive Indian restaurants with chefs who have previously worked in European restaurants. Pahli Hill (from Indian group Mamagoto) is very popular and I have yet to hear a single negative word about Bibi, the hot new Indian restaurant from JKS group (the people behind Hoppers, Gymkhana, etc.).



There are other markets where Indian cuisine has always been popular, but rarely has it been as popular as it is today. Last month in Dubai I ate at the beautiful new Tresind Studio. Tresind is one of Dubai’s most acclaimed Indian restaurants, but its chef, Himanshu Saini, has now opened a freelance Tresind studio in a separate location that serves a tasting menu of experimental new dishes to a small number of guests. Even before moving Tresind Studio to its own location, and when attached to the original Tresind, Saini had already triumphed in the new Middle East 50 Best Restaurants list where Tresind Studio came in at number four and the original Tresind was the number. 18.




Gol gappa served as part of a tasting menu of experimental new dishes at Tresind Studio

Tresind Studio also did very well in the recently released Gault Millau Middle East guides and a Michelin star must surely be on the way.

In the East, Singapore has always had Indian restaurants, some of them Michelin starred, but there was very little that I found interesting until last year. That’s when Revolver, a new kind of Indian restaurant dedicated to cooking on the fire (a kind of mixture of Bukhara and Extebarri) opened its doors and took the city by storm, attracting the pay attention to its leader, Saurabh Udinia. Revolver is widely expected to earn a Michelin star, but even if it didn’t, its success has made people look at Indian cuisine differently. (Disclosure: Sameer Sain, the owner of Revolver, also founded Culinary Culture, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Indian chefs and restaurants, with me.)


Chef Chintan Pandya who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York (Unapologetic Foods)

Singapore was also rocked by Gaggan Anand’s long-running pop-up at the Mandala Club. Gaggan temporarily moved to Singapore from Bangkok where restaurants had been closed by the government as part of a strict anti-Covid crackdown. The Mandala Club had last hosted Mauro Colagreco, the chef of France’s three-star Michelin Mirazur, which was rated the best restaurant in the world two years ago, so Gaggan was struggling to keep up. But his pop-up was such a hit that it now looks like Gaggan will maintain a presence in Singapore even after the pop-up ends.

All of Gaggan’s plans are dynamic, but right now he only wants to cook on small chef’s tables (16 seats or so). He announced that he will do a residency in Bangkok from August and that he will also do stays in Singapore and Fukuoka in Japan. These will be intimate experiences led by a chef where he will cook himself. He says he has turned his back on his past as a man who ran a two-Michelin star restaurant (rated Asia’s best restaurant four years in a row) and is out of that race. He prefers to cook himself for small groups of passionate diners.


Champaran meat served at chef Chintan Pandya’s restaurant, Dhamaka (Paul McDonough)

In Bangkok, Gaggan’s former playground, Indian chefs continue to thrive. Garima Arora runs Gaa, a restaurant whose food defies national categories. Deepanker Khosla draws praise to Haoma. And Hari Nayak, head of kitchens at Sona in New York, associated with actress Priyanka Chopra, also runs the kitchens at Jhol in Bangkok.

So, something big and heartening is happening in Indian cuisine all over the world. America has always been the last frontier. But now that Indian cuisine has finally made its mark there, a new generation of Indian restaurants is giving our cuisine the exposure it needs. And he finally gets the respect he deserves.

The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, June 25, 2022

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