Dhamaka With Chai Paani At US Food Awards

| Updated: June 16, 2022 1:22 pm


The James Beard Awards, “considered to be among the nation’s most prestigious honours, recognise exceptional talent in the culinary and food media industries, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability and a culture where all can thrive.”

Meet Chintan Pandya. Born in Mumbai, Chintan pursued a degree course at Oberoi School of Hotel Management in Delhi. His professional start was at a hotel restaurant in Mumbai, spending eight years in the kitchen learning traditional Indian cuisine and techniques. After a brief stint in Singapore in 2009, Pandya travelled to Cleveland and Atlanta for consulting gigs. Soon, he found himself at Manhattan as executive chef of the Michelin-starred Junoon.

In 2017, Pandya opened Rahi (later Semma) in the West Village, a casual and relaxed Indian bistro where “comfort is king.” Semma is an exploration of heritage Southern Indian cuisine that has rarely been seen outside of local homes and neighborhoods. Chef Vijay, a native of Tamil Nadu, brings the deeply personal and authentic moments of farm-life on ancestral land unapologetically to the plate with explosive flavors and regional ingredients.

Along with restaurateur Roni Mazumdar, the pair hopes to evolve the American perception of Indian food, showing the varied regional cuisine in playful ways. In 2018, Pandya and Mazumdar opened a second restaurant, Adda, in Long Island City. At Adda, Pandya doled out traditional food he grew up with and explored throughout India instead of the Americanized dishes often associated with Indian cuisine. The restaurant soon found a place on Eater’s 2019 “Best New Restaurants in America” list. In 2019, Pandya and Mazumdar added fireworks with Dhamaka in Essex. There was no looking back thereon.

At the culinary school I went to in India , we were never taught Meghalayan food, but we had to read Larousse Gastronomique and were taught about bouillabaisse, this fishermen’s stew, so exquisite and all that. But not our own food.

Chintan Pandya

Fifteen hundred people. That is the average waitlist on a given night for Dhamaka, the high-energy Indian restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Reservations open at midnight a month ahead of time, and within a few hours every table is booked by diners eager to get their hands on skewers of juicy goat belly seekh kebabs and cooked-to-order chicken pulao.

The last, Rowdy Rooster, celebrates India’s tradition of fried chicken. Every culture has a long history of frying the bird. So does India! All across the Indian subcontinent there are various types of fried chicken that has existed for centuries, but the rest of the world has not fully understood its glory. From chicken pakoras in the North to chili chicken in the East to chicken 65 in the south — the options and spices are endless. Rowdy Rooster is plucking out what’s most exciting from the street stalls of India and bringing it to NYC.

Seems it is time for Chinese, Mexican, French, Thai and American restaurants to move over. Thanks to Pandya and Mazumdar, who have been on an opening spree over the past year and half.

Part II: Parsi Bawa’s Cafe Wins Best Eatery Award In The US

A showdown to win the coveted crown for the best restaurant in America shone the spotlight on an affordable eatery in North Carolina that serves Indian street food.

Chai Pani, that serves Indian street food at cheap prices in Asheville, was declared the best restaurant in the United States at the James Beard Foundation Awards in Chicago on Monday. One of the specialty items at the lively and bright establishment is chaat. Chai Pani sells quite a few varieties of chaat apart from other street food, extremely common and much enjoyed in India. The prices are an upwards of $8 for chaat while thalis can cost you over $17.

Meherwan Irani sees himself as a storyteller as much as a restaurateur. Chai Pani, his Indian street food cafe, tells a story of spice markets, hawkers, rickshaws and streetside chefs through smell, flavor, color and taste.

“Indian food seems like an exotic cuisine for most people,” says Irani, who grew up in India before moving to San Francisco to get an MBA. “I felt like if people connected with the story of the food and where it came from, that would make the food much more approachable.”

As a result, Asheville craves dishes rarely found outside of India, such as uttapam (Indian crepes) and bhel puri, a bed of rice puffs, chickpea noodles and potatoes topped with yogurt and tamarind and green chutneys. The restaurant has been so popular that Irani opened a cocktail lounge based on similar flavors, MG Road.

Irani says a ready audience helps his task. “Asheville embraces stories,” he says. “Stop anybody in the street and ask them how they got here; it’s always an amazing story. It just seems to be that kind of city.” The tale proves equally enchanting outside of Asheville. Irani launched a second Chai Pani in Decatur, Georgia, and he’s opened a new Indian street grill, Botiwalla, in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market.

Guess what? The Parsi bawa and his Jewish wife have also collaborated with two Jewish Atlanta-based chefs to set up Challahwalla. Set up in 2018, this eatery is a connoisuer’s delight. With both rich traditions having roots in Arabic, Persian, English and Indian influences, the menu here is a walk down history, punctuated with cultures and intermingled with personal signatures.

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