The rise of an Indian restaurant mirrors that of Asheville
Once I got my jaw back off the ground, pride replaced my surprise. As an Indian-American, I was thrilled to see my gastronomic heritage move from the fringes to the mainstream in the United States. At the James Beard Awards ceremony in Chicago, where Chai Pani chef-owner Meherwan Irani received his award, another pioneering Indian, Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka, was named New York’s best chef.
It’s because of Dhamaka that, as I said, New York now has better Indian food than London. Chai Pani’s feat reinforces my personal belief that Indian cuisine, which has long colonized British palates, will one day dominate Chinese and Mexican cuisine as America’s favorite culinary import.
But the James Beard Award is also recognition for Asheville, home to less than 100,000 souls and considered one of America’s most livable cities. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it has grown from an artist’s paradise and vacation destination to an emerging tech hub.
Over the past couple of years, it’s also become a magnet for digital nomads and those who can work just about anywhere with a reliable Wi-Fi connection. Like Bend, Oregon, and Roanoke, Virginia, Asheville is one of many small towns that draw people away from major metropolitan centers, offering relatively low rents and real estate prices and a lifestyle enhanced by a easy access to nature.
Asheville additionally offers a cosmopolitan air — and fare — that’s rare in cities its size. The hippies who took up residence in the 1960s and 1970s never lost their eclecticism. Some of them would grow up to be craft beer makers — Asheville has more than 30 breweries — as well as founders of tech startups. The food scene offers both variety and quality, with stars such as Cúrate, a world-class Spanish restaurant, and superb noodle and ramen restaurant Gan Shan.
Irani knows exactly why Asheville made him so popular, since it was the same qualities that attracted him in 2009 when he and his wife Molly decided they didn’t want to raise their daughter in San Francisco, where he was selling luxury cars. . “It was an antidote to life in the big cities,” he recalls. “It was in the mountains, so the weather was nice. Nature was everywhere you looked… you were never more than 10 minutes away from it. Also, there was a big arts and music scene, so we wouldn’t give up the culture. There was everything.
Not quite: there was no banker willing to back a fledgling restaurateur with an unusual idea. “Everyone I approached said, ‘Indian street food…who’s going to want to eat that? “, Irani recalls. But the city’s relatively modest rents meant the price of admission was low, and he raised the $70,000 he needed from friends and family.
Asheville’s diners, more adventurous than its bankers, quickly turned to Chai Pani. The name, which literally translates to “tea and water”, is a Hindi colloquialism for light snacks. Each region of India has its own assortment of snacks, but the self-taught Irani focuses on a handful that enjoy national appeal and can be found in street kiosks from Kolkata to Mumbai and Delhi to Chennai.
Signature dishes are bhel puri (a plate full of puffed rice and flour crisps, with roasted split chickpeas, cilantro and onions, topped with tamarind and other chutneys) and aloo tikki chaat ( potato fritters dipped in chickpea stew and topped with tamarind chutney, yogurt, and crispy chickpea noodles). My favorite is a staple of every vendor on Mohammed Ali Road, Mumbai’s most famous food mile: Kheema pav, a sandwich made from ground meat cooked with tomatoes, ginger and other spices.
Although Irani substitutes lamb mince for the classic minced goat – a personal bugbear – he makes it work by adjusting the spice mix to the dryness of the meat and cooking it slowly and long. And it uses an acceptable facsimile of Mumbai’s ‘pav’, a bun that likely derives from a recipe brought to the city by Portuguese traders in the 16th century.
Irani calls the dish Sloppy Jai, a nod to the better-known ground meat sandwich. “It’s like an entrée,” he says. “If you are confused by all the strange dishes on the menu, you can start with the one that seems at least familiar to you.”
There are a few other nods to familiarity on the menu, including butter chicken and saag paneer, which are to Indian restaurant menus what spaghetti Bolognese is to their Italian counterparts. But Irani plays with recipes so that what is familiar on the plate nevertheless surprises the palate. In butter chicken, for example, he eschews cashew or poppy seed paste, which cooks commonly use to thicken sauce; he uses jaggery (concentrated sugar cane juice) and emulsifies butter and heavy cream to ensure that the fats don’t separate under the effect of heat. The result is softer, less oily and altogether more satisfying.
Is the restaurant Chai Pani America the most remarkable? I’m skeptical of the label itself: how can restaurants of all cuisines and prices compare? But Irani’s place undoubtedly deserves the attention garnered by the accolade – and people who go there because of the award will themselves be rewarded with a memorable meal.
Despite all his success, Irani says he never expected to be named a James Beard finalist. He went to the awards show in Chicago with no hope of winning. “Look at this place,” he says, sweeping his hand over the brightly colored dining room of Chai Pani, which looks like a Mexican canteen. “I mean, we sell Indian snacks…in Asheville, NC! You wouldn’t expect this kind of place to win James Beard awards.
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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.
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