Food from the subcontinent is coming into its own with chefs preparing it both in traditional and very modern ways
By Amanda Baltazar
Ask 10 chefs at Indian restaurants across the United States what constitutes modern Indian food, and you’ll get 10 different answers.
Indian food, which was virtually unknown stateside 30 years ago, is coming into its own. And what that means is varied..
ACF Chef Hari Pulapaka says that for years, most Indian food in the U.S. has been formulaic. “[Restaurants] make three or four mother sauces, and everything pretty much tastes the same,” says Chef Pulapaka, author of “Dreaming in Spice: A Sinfully Vegetarian Odyssey.”
But there’s a lot of room for hope. ACF Chef Keith Sarasin is an anomaly in the world of Indian food in that he’s white. For the past decade, he has immersed himself in Indian food, serving it at pop-up dinners in New Hampshire and training with Indian chefs. He speaks Hindi, runs a podcast, “More than Masala,” and has a YouTube channel, which dissects Indian food and has 6,000 subscribers.
“I see an awakening of excitement when it comes to Indian food in the U.S.,” he says. “Indian food has not hit the mainstream here because of the myths that it’s spicy, it’s curry, it’s cheaper or it’s relegated to buffet lines.”
At the pop-up dinners from his restaurant, Aatma, Chef Sarasin serves authentic Indian flavors with American plating, “giving it a face-lift without changing the flavors,” he says. “I’m showcasing the versatility and beauty of the cuisine with modern plating techniques.”
His pop-up dinners have included themes such as celebrating Diwali and street food.
“The food being served is no longer unrecognizable over-, or worse, under-spiced food that bears no recognition to Indian food from the subcontinent,” says Monica Bhide, author of several books including “The Everything Indian Cookbook” and “Modern Spice.” “Indian cuisine in the U.S. has come a long way from just tandoori chicken and naan. Appams, dosas, biryanis are all having their day in the sun,” she says referring to Indian pancakes, flatbreads and a rice dish.
Chefs tend to veer into one of two camps: The uber-authentic and those who are changing things up. And there’s room for it all.
Chef Chintan Pandya is the executive chef and owner of three New York City restaurants: Semma (southern Indian), Adda (street food) and Dhamaka (northern, eastern and western Indian). “There’s no crossover; all are different from look and feel, experience and food,” he says.
Born in Mumbai, Chef Pandya specializes in creating the Indian food with which he grew up. “We try to recreate as authentic an experience as possible with a serious focus on the ingredients,” he points out. Some of the more unusual ingredients include goat testicles, kasundi (a type of mustard/relish) and baby shark.
The uniform T-shirts his staff wear say it all. Each is emblazoned with “Unapologetically Indian.”
This is deliberate. “When we do Indian food in this country, we are very apologetic about it,” he says. Conversely, in his restaurants, “we are serving the food the way it’s supposed to be.” He doesn’t even include naan on the menu, he says, since in India, that’s only eaten when people go out; he’s aiming to replicate the meals one eats at home. Instead, he serves paratha and chapati — flatbreads Indians eat at home, with chapati being a little thinner than paratha.
Chef Pandya goes to great lengths to create dishes the way they’re supposed to be made, which includes making his own paneer cheese. “We’re pushing the boundaries. How do we create a better product — a paneer that’s like a paneer you’d eat in India,” he says.
Making great products starts with the best ingredients, says Chef Pandya, who spends around 10 hours per week on sourcing, paying particular attention to dairy and meat. “That’s our vision: how to get that right and get quality ingredients,” he says.
Chef Pandya believes Americans are ready for “unapologetically Indian” food, though he acknowledges his restaurants may not have achieved the same success and validation were they not in New York City.
One of the best-selling dishes at Adda is bheja fry, which is goat brains simmered in a tomato, onion and chili curry. Chef Pandya has been pleasantly surprised by the success of this dish, which he included in the menu against the advice of almost everyone he knew. Other dishes include lotus root kofta (with paneer, tomato cream and fenugreek); jhinga kalimirch (king prawn, black pepper, cumin, yogurt); and lucknowi dum biryani (duck neck with basmati rice and saffron).
Beyond the dishes served, Chef Pandya’s menus are different from those at many typical Indian restaurants because his are small — mostly under 20 dishes. This allows Chef Pandya to make each dish the best meal it can be.
Ashok Bajaj also describes what he does as pushing the boundaries. Born in New Delhi, Bajaj moved to the U.S. 33 years ago and runs the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which includes six Indian concepts.
Bajaj’s first stateside restaurant was The Bombay Club, which opened in 1988 in Washington, D.C., and is still thriving, Americans had many misconceptions about Indian food at that time, he says. “People thought it was curry, it was hot, it smells,” he points out. This belief was so entrenched that he had trouble renting a space for his restaurant.
The food at Bombay club is authentic, regional Indian food from Goa, southern India, the northwest frontier and Rajasthan. Dishes include shrimp moilee (with coconut, ginger and cardamom); adraki lamb chops (with tamarind, black pepper and ginger); and khubani duck (with apricot, mace and saffron rice).
When he opened Rasika in Washington, D.C., in 2005, he was aiming for something more modern. “Indians have started using global spices and proteins to give a modern approach to Indian food,” he says, so he used ingredients like avocados in his avocado banana chaat. Chaat is a general term for Indian street food. Bajaj’s offering features diced avocado mixed with date and tamarind chutney, accompanied by grilled banana seasoned with salt and black pepper.
At the same time, he says, he started using more locally grown food and wanted the ingredients to shine. “I wanted to have the full-flavored food, presented differently.”
He also took a modern approach to plating. Tawa baingan is a dish of eggplant and potatoes that’s “very unattractive,” Bajaj says. So instead, “we grilled the eggplant, kept the same spices but layered them. In between the layers are spiced potatoes. We wanted to keep the flavors of the food but present them differently and not over-sauce.” The dish features many spices, including cumin, red chili powder, turmeric, fresh ginger, Thai green chili and chaat masala, which is a spice blend that typically includes black salt, cumin, coriander, black pepper, dried mango powder, mint and ginger.
Other popular dishes at Rasika include duck vindaloo, cooked with peri-peri masala, pearl onions and coconut rice; black cod, prepared with fresh dill, honey, star anise and red wine vinegar; and Gujarati lasagna, which features tomatoes, peanuts, zucchini, eggplant and yogurt.
Indian With a Twist
Chef Maneet Chauhan moved to the U.S. in 1998 and studied at the Culinary Institute of America. This set her on the path to becoming executive chef for the renowned Indian-Latin Vermilion restaurants in Chicago and New York. Since then, she’s not only opened her own restaurant, Chauhan Ale and Masala House in Nashville, Tennessee, but she has also released three cookbooks and been featured on “Iron Chef.” She is now a judge on the Food Network hit “Chopped.”
Chef Chauhan believes Americans’ acceptance of Indian food has changed significantly since she moved here. “The palate is opening up a lot. People are receptive of regional Indian cuisine; they’re clamoring for it and are looking at how Indian flavors can be celebrated in fun forms.”
At Chauhan Ale and Masala, Chef Chauhan takes that fun element and runs with it, with dishes such as tandoori chicken poutine and lamb keema papadi nachos, which are two of the best-selling meals. The nachos are made with lamb keema (ground lamb, tomatoes, onions, peas and spices such as coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric), papadi chips (which are spiced, typically with cumin seeds), tamarind chutney, provel cheese (a combination of cheddar, Swiss and provolone) and tomato-cucumber kachumber (a simple chopped salad).
“It’s about capturing the soul of Indian cuisine then presenting it in a fun format,” she explains. “This is what a lot of chefs are doing. We’re indulging our creativity while still keeping our audience in mind.”
Her cooking style, Chef Chauhan says, “has had to change because the environment around me is changing. The most exciting part of cooking is its constant evolution.”
Chef Gaurav Anand’s food is a dichotomy. On one side, you have his three New York City restaurants: Bhatti Indian Grill, which focuses on northern Indian foods; Moti Mahal Delux, featuring Mughlai cuisine (Indian food infused with Persian/Turkish and central Asian influences); and Baazi, which opened in January and features sophisticated Indian cuisine with international influences. Baazi includes dishes like chicken cafreal with Cornish game hen flambeed with Old Monk rum.
“When we brought food to the U.S., we elevated it to be able to call it modern Indian food, and it became very popular,” Chef Anand says. This included using more American ingredients like Philadelphia cream cheese and learning how to flambee.
To make the food even more accessible, Chef Anand changed his plating from smaller plates to casseroles or skillets, which also helps make the dishes appear more “craveable” online. “People used to come to eat, and now they want to take pictures to boast on social media.” His dishes include shrimp balchao (Goan pickled prawns) and imli (tamarind) glazed lamb ribs with coriander sesame crunch.
Chef Anand has another business, CGA, which caters ultra high-end weddings — around 30 a year — all over the world.
And this is where he truly has fun. “I’ll do Indian-style Mexican or Indian-style Italian or Caribbean. I focus on taking Indian food or other cuisines and mixing them up,” he says. This might lead to creations like chana masala hummus or paneer tikka masala tacos.
From Bakery to Supper Club
Chef Surbhi Sahni pivoted during the pandemic from running an Indian bakery to running an Indian restaurant, featuring authentic recipes such as sabudana vada (Maharashtrian crispy tapioca cakes with potatoes, roasted peanuts, green chilies, mint and peanut-yogurt chutney) and gushtaba (Kashmiri minced lamb dumplings simmered in a cream sauce with lamb stock and ground Kashmiri red chilis).
Not only is she offering these dishes in her restaurant, Tagmo, in New York City, but this spring she’s also launching a thali supper club. Thali in Hindi means “plate,” and these suppers offer an entire meal on one large platter, from appetizers and bread all the way through dessert.
In each supper club run, which will last for around four days, Chef Sahni plans to focus on a different region and the foods that are specific to it. These will include deli foods and foods from Sindhi, Bengali and the Konkani people. “The idea is to really use the ingredients from that region, to speak about the differences and try and bring something very authentic to the table,” she says.
As part of the dinners, Chef Sahni will talk to diners about the food and its origins, or she’ll bring in a chef partner to do that. On the first day, only the thali meal will be offered. Then, on the following three nights, it will be offered alongside the regular menu.
Serving Indian, Fast
Sahil Rahman is co-owner of Rasa, a fast-casual restaurant chain in Washington, D.C., with three locations. The goal of Rahman and his business partner, Rahul Vinod, is to serve the traditional flavors they know from their Indian parents while also making those flavors authentic to two boys who grew up stateside.
“The way we’ve approached it has been maintaining the authenticity of the flavor and not toning it down,” Rahman says, “but at the same time making it accessible.”
This means taking local, seasonal ingredients such as Brussels sprouts, which are not typically eaten in India, and infusing them with Indian spices and flavors. “We’re using ingredients that are sourced here locally, while maintaining the authenticity of the flavors,” Rahman says.
The duo is using the fast-casual format, he adds, “as a vehicle for people to explore new flavors and ideas.” To make the food more accessible, dishes have American names and all are served as bowls. One of the best selling bowls is Tikka Chance on Me, which features chicken tikka, tomato garlic sauce, basmati rice, sauteed spinach, pickled radish, kachumber, (cucumber) pickled onions, toasted cumin yogurt and mint cilantro chutney. The other top selling dish is Home Cooking, which includes rice noodles, turmeric ginger shrimp, tamarind chili sauce, green beans, mango salsa, mango coconut yogurt, tamarind coconut powder and tamarind ginger chutney.
It’s about blending two cultures, says Rahman, who wants to appeal to both the millennial who has never eaten Indian food and his Indian aunt. A perfect example is the chain’s masala chai chocolate chip cookie, he says. “It’s an American classic infused with flavors we love.” Another example is serving a vegan mango lassi soft serve, which is a more familiar format to many Americans than the traditional drink.
“We think of ourselves as Indian tour guides,” Rahman says.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the full issue.