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Something significant is happening to Indian food all over the world

Though we don’t often admit it, most Indians are always a little annoyed by the global tendency to treat our food as a cheap and cheerful ethnic cuisine.

That characterisation is probably the legacy of the East Pakistani (now Bangladeshi) curry houses in the UK. But, even in the US, Indian food has rarely got the respect it deserves.


That might now be changing. Every other week I get an invite or a message from somebody who is opening a new Indian restaurant in Texas or Dakota. These are not ‘ethnic’ places. They are serious restaurants determined to go head-to-head with the best restaurants, across cuisines, in each city.


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


   I haven’t been to any of these places yet, but I am intrigued by the way in which Indian food is moving out of the usual cities like New York. And so, I was not really surprised—though many others were—when the prestigious James Beard awards picked as the Most Outstanding Restaurant in America, an Indian restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina called Chai Pani.


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


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


   I asked him how he felt when the award was announced. “Stunned,” he responded. “It was an incredible feeling just to make the finals list—I was over the moon about it and felt that we had come as far as we possibly could. I was in utter disbelief when they called out Chai Pani and by the time I walked to the stage, I was almost in tears as I realised what that meant to every single person that 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 success before it finally broke through to a national audience. “The prior nominations were for Best Chef 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. Makes sense given the size of the media coverage in cities like that.”


   And Indian food is on the rise in New York, too. The James Beard award for the best chef in New York went to Chintan Pandya. Given that the city is one of the world’s great food capitals with a hugely competitive restaurant scene, this is a big deal. But Chintan, an ex-Oberoi chef, is very much the chef of the moment in New York. His biggest hit is Dhamaka, generally regarded as the best Indian restaurant in New York, but he and his partner Roni Mazumdar also own several other restaurants, all of which get rave reviews from The New York Times and from other hard-to-please critics.


"Revolver is widely expected to get a Michelin star but even if it doesn’t, its success has made people look at Indian food differently."

   America is a market that was always regarded as out-of-bounds to Indian chefs. But ever since Srijith Gopinathan won two Michelin stars at Campton Place in San Francisco, that seems to be changing. The award to Chai Pani is a huge breakthrough and a great moment for Indian cuisine.


   Indian food 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 India’s Mamagoto group) is much praised and I have yet to hear a single negative word about Bibi, the hot new Indian restaurant from the JKS group (the people behind Hoppers, Gymkhana etc.).


   There are other markets where Indian food has always been popular but rarely has it been as well-regarded as it is now. Last month, in Dubai, I ate at the stunning new Tresind Studio. Tresind is one of Dubai’s best regarded Indian restaurants but its chef, Himanshu Saini, has now started an independent Tresind Studio in a separate location that serves a tasting menu of experimental new dishes to a small number of guests. Even before he shifted Tresind Studio to its own location, and when it was attached to the original Tresind, Saini had already triumphed in the new 50 Best Restaurants in the Middle East list where Tresind Studio came in at number four and the original Tresind was number 18.


   Tresind Studio has also done very well in the recently-released hotel restaurant-heavy Gault Millau guides to the Middle East and a Michelin star must surely be on its way.


   In the East, Singapore has always had Indian restaurants, some of them Michelin-starred, but there was very little I found interesting till last year. That’s when Revolver, a new kind of Indian restaurant, dedicated to fire cooking (a sort of Bukhara meets Extebarri mix) opened and took the city by storm, drawing attention to its chef, Saurabh Udinia. Revolver is widely expected to get a Michelin star but even if it doesn’t, its success has made people look at Indian food differently. (Disclosure: Sameer Sain, the owner of Revolver, also founded Culinary Culture, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting Indian chefs and restaurants, along with me.)


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


   All of Gaggan’s plans are dynamic but at present, he wants to cook only at smallish (16 covers or so) Chef’s Tables. He has announced that he will do a residency in Bangkok from August and he will also do stints in Singapore and Fukuoka in Japan. These will be chef-driven intimate experiences where he will cook himself. He says he has turned his back on his past as the man who ran a two Michelin star restaurant (rated as Asia’s Best Restaurant four years in a row) and is out of that race. He would rather just cook himself for small groups of passionate diners.


   In Bangkok, Gaggan’s old stomping ground, Indian chefs continue to thrive. Garima Arora runs Gaa, a restaurant whose food defies national categories. Deepanker Khosla attracts praise at Haoma. And Hari Nayak, who is in charge of the kitchen at New York’s Sona, which is associated with the actress Priyanka Chopra, also runs the kitchen at Jhol in Bangkok.


   So, something significant and encouraging is happening to Indian food all over the world. America was always the final frontier. But now that Indian food has finally made its mark there, a new generation of Indian restaurants is giving our cuisine the exposure it needs. And it is finally getting the respect it deserves.



Posted On: 24 Jun 2022 11:43 AM
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