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India Emerging Contemporary touches are creating renewed interest in Indian cuisine

Indian cuisine answers today’s call for shareable, social, customizable dining experiences.
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Indian cuisine answers today’s call for shareable, social, customizable dining experiences. Seventeen years ago, venerated gourmand and The New York Times reviewer Ruth Reichl began her review: “Really good restaurants are love or hate propositions.” The subject of her review was the newest in Danny Meyer’s budding Union Square Hospitality Group empire and his only non-American themed location: Tabla—a “contemporary Indian” restaurant. No wonder.

On the one hand, Indian food has all of the things we crave: bold, spicy, exotic. On the other, it can be overly complex and regionally quirky, with almost too much flavor for a Western palate. Heretofore, our exposure to Indian food has often been in bohemian vegetarian cafés or funky buffets replete with re-warmed pans of weird-colored stuff.

Tabla, which had an impressive run from 1998 until 2010, offered fantastically flavorful fare from classically trained, India-born chef, Floyd Cardoz, who brilliantly combined his Lespinasse background with the comfort foods of his motherland. Tabla’s Bread Bar—its cool entryway café with more laid back yet perfectly paired nosh—exposed many up-and-coming chefs and restaurateurs to what Indian food could be. The renewed interest in Eastern ethos in those years motivated a few Tabla imitators and inspired a number of chef celebs to integrate Indian-influenced ingredients and preparations on their non-Indian menus. It was a nice bump for Indian food in America for awhile.

After a 12-year run, Danny Meyer shuttered Tabla, citing an inability to create enough critical mass. Tabla’s closing was as radical and historic as its inception, leaving us to ponder whether it was pioneering or a flash in the pan. The discussion has continued: When will Indian food ever hit the American mainstream? It seems we may be at the precipice. Indian has found its time. Here is why, how and where.

Trendworthy Cuisine
What has taken us so long to embrace Indian cuisine? Perhaps the tipping point for Indian in North America is where the cuisine collides with our own evolution in cooking, eating and dining trends.

In the United Kingdom, where Indian food is a staple that’s barely considered ethnic, curry-loving Brits wonder whether North American palates could be even more wimpy than theirs. To be fair, India wasn’t part of our empire dating back 150 years, but North Americans do claim a taste for adventure, brash flavors and a flair for the fiery. Foods from India are redolent with provocative flavors and aromas, and are often spicy-hot. Regionally, flavors and ingredients are diverse: sharp to delicate, tangy to creamy, tart to sweet, zesty to cool—a good fit for modern appetites.

India’s population is perhaps the world’s most religiously diverse and is known for spirituality. Strong Ayurvedic traditions emphasize natural medicinal ingredients and wholesome cooking practices, shaping India’s nourishing cuisine. Faiths from Hinduism to Buddhism encourage vegetarianism as a central tenet. Other religious decrees and spiritual principles omit ingredients like beef and pork, making Indian cuisine one that is more plant-based, which taps into the health-and-wellness trend here.

Americans have been extolling the virtues of shared dining with a fever pitch that has caused restaurants to redesign spaces and create new menus. The shared dining experience has long been integral to the Indian eating culture. Food comes in multiple dishes and sides. Outside their homes, Indians often eat from street stalls, markets and fairs. From meals to snacks, this is food meant to be eaten with community, creating a shared experience ingrained in the culture and its food.

A fair portion of today’s on-trend flavors, spices, botanicals and other ingredients descend from authentic Indian food traditions. One of India’s chief spices, turmeric, was just named “spice of the year” by food trend watchers Baum & Whiteman. For its qualities of color and scent, its flavor and its homeopathic claims, turmeric is migrating from traditional dishes and health food stores to cocktail concoctions, marinades, fancy grain dishes and ice creams. Ginger, cardamom and clove are on its heels. Saffron, rose petal, fenugreek and asafoetida are starting to appear in dishes, as are multi-spice blends garam masala and the Bengali five-spice, panch phoron. Other recent favorites also firmly based in Indian gastronomy include coconut (in any form), savory yogurt, nut milks, pulses, paneer cheese and, of course, this year’s vegetable darling: cauliflower.

This cross-section of Indian traditions and American trends has given rise to a splendid proliferation of pioneering cross-category Indian outposts and Indian-inspired influences on American menus.

Lighter options abound on today’s Indian menus. The Chicken Tikka Salad at Cardamom in Ann Arbor, Mich., balances marinated chicken breast with greens, cilantro, cucumber, tomato, red onion, carrot and toasted almonds. Modernized Indian
When we say “modern,” perhaps we actually mean more American. Sure, neighborhood Indian buffets serving up greasy papadums and glowing chicken tikka masala endure. While they may have introduced us (or turned us off) to Indian food and may continue, modern Indian in America has little connection to this version. Chefs like Cardoz and American Masala’s Suvir Saran opened the doors to what Indian cuisine could and should be to American diners.

Indian cuisine may be the world’s most complex, time-consuming and skill-dependent. Like other contemporary cuisines, meaningful modernization of this food requires both a command of and reverence for its traditions. Savvy restaurateurs have classed up contemporary spaces with settings that run from refined to Bollywood big, with modern menus to match. Whether they feature American food through the lens of Indian or vice versa, a few principles pervade:

  • Authentic ingredients and specific regional preparations
  • Respectfully inventive interpretations, American adaptations and modern modifications
  • Local, organic or sustainably sourced ingredients
  • Contemporary surroundings

Manhattan’s super sophisticated Junoon opened on Tabla’s tails and has maintained its fine-dining hallmarks: polished settings and service; award-wining wines; a cultured menu of traditional regional cornerstones prepared authentically with sustainably sourced ingredients; and more modern interpretations presented in small plates and tasting menus.

  • Duck Xacutti: Normandy duck breast, foie gras, duck Shammi, Asian pear
  • Lotus: Fennel-pollen meringue, passionfruit mousse, saffron custard sauce

In Washington, D.C., Indique has redefined Indian dining in its well-endowed, multi-tiered location. Its tagline, “Unique Indian Flavors,” comes from modern twists on classical Northern and Southern Indian fare, as well as creative takes on American favorites and big, meaty dishes.

  • Kerala Lamb “Shepherd’s Pie,” cooked in the traditional style of Syrian Christians of Kerala, with coriander, cardamom, curry leaves and coconut, served on spiced potatoes

Modern isn’t necessarily formal or upscale. The widely hailed Manhattan opening of Babu Ji “infuses innovative Indian with Momofuku-style cool,” according to Eater.com’s Ryan Sutton. “Babu Ji, perhaps more than any of its peers, deserves credit for making a lot of us excited about Indian food for the first time since Floyd Cardoz opened Tabla,” writes Sutton. The hip joint serves shareable Indian street food, small plates and curries that neither disappoint traditionalists nor polarize those of us who need a little more (or less).

  • Lobster Tikki: Potato croquette with a wild-caught lobster center and citrus-mint chutney

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Amber India’s four restaurants demonstrate the clever bridging of multiple traditions with local sourcing and decidedly Californian reworks, including extensive vegetarian/vegan selections. Meanwhile, Southern California’s Sambar brings the same California livin’ vibe to Indian dishes, with a dedication to local sourcing and light and light-hearted deviations.

  • Cauliflower Bezule: Stir-fried Watsonville cauliflower florets, coconut cream, mustard seeds, curry leaves—Amber India Cellar & Lounge, San Francisco-based
  • Masala Braised Short Ribs, slow-braised in an onion, garam masala and red wine broth, Milliken Farms sweet potatoes, curry leaf and turmeric relish—Sambar, Culver City, Calif.

Snacky Street Treats 
Snacks and street foods are nearly as ubiquitous to regional Indian food as are curries, giving contemporary restaurants a perfect small-plate platform.

Houston is renowned for its vast Indian food options. At the top of the list: Pondicheri Café, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from its main restaurant. It also has a “Bake Lab” for traditional thali breakfast, a mid-meal bite, lunch meeting (Frankies & Burgers) or take-home dinner. It features extensive lists of snacks, street foods, housemade dosas and baked goods, quick and clean curries, and Chit Chaat—a “nibbling rendition of favorite street foods.”

  • Texas Shrimp Chaat: Pickled shrimp, pomegranate seeds, avocado, black salt, sev and radishes

Dum food truck in San Francisco serves “Indian soul food” with a punch of flavor. Dum’s Founder and Chef Rupam Bhagat was born in Bombay, schooled at The Culinary Institute of America, and trained multi-nationally at The Ritz-Carlton. He has applied those ethics and his passion to renovating his homeland’s street and beach foods with a healthy ingredient approach, textural additions such as “Indian trail mix,” and flavorful flourishes like quick pickles for award-winning soul food combinations.

  • Bhel Puri: Puffed-rice salad, tomato, onion, tamarind chutney, cilantro chutney and crispy vermicelli, served in a paper cone
  • Dahi Puri: Semolina and flour puffs filled with sprouts, potato, yogurt, tamarind chutney, cilantro chutney, fried vermicelli

Chai Pani literally means “tea and water,” but colloquially it’s more like “going out for a snack.” With high-buzz locations in Asheville, N.C., and Decatur, Ga., Chai Pani has an addictively long list of chaat (snacks) that can pretty much please any palate or diet, from indulgent fried treats like samosas to satisfying uttapam (savory crêpes made of rice and lentil flour).

  • Green Mango Chaat: Fresh green mango, peanuts, golden raisins, corn poha (Indian corn flakes), lime juice, green chutney, fried curry leaves
  • Bombay Chili Cheese Fries: Spiced Indian lamb hash piled on masala fries, topped with paneer, onion and cilantro; drizzled with “special hot stuff” and served with tomato chutney

Nirmals’ in Seattle highlights India’s vibrant layers of flavor, color and texture in dishes like Mixed Berries Kulfi, India’s rich, creamy ice cream, and Sabzi Jalfrezi (shown), a mixed vegetable dish spiced with cumin, chile paste, garlic and vinegar.

Fast-Casual, Indian Style
Until now, Indian food may have been slow to catch on in North America because no one had thought to build establishments that have the scalability of quick-service and fast-casual concepts. That is until now. A number of burgeoning fast-casual upstarts are utilizing a favorite and familiar format to make this cuisine more accessible, simple, fast and, yes, Americanized. Each suggests they are “fast and fresh” while also emphasizing flavor and healthy vegetarian/vegan offerings. The key is streamlining the menu with the now-iconic guiding picks.

  • Base: Choice of a wrap, bowl or salad
  • Protein: Choice of a protein or vegetable/curry
  • Sauce: Choice of a sauce or curry
  • Topping: Choice of chutneys
  • Extras: Choice of additions or bread

Indian is an inherently healthy, clean cuisine, showcased at several new fast-casuals including 2015’s most-anticipated Indian debut, Inday, in New York. With a bustling first location and inspiring design, Inday espouses the motto “good karma served daily” to evoke a mindful, nourishing approach to the innate goodness of Indian food. The build-a-bowl concept includes innovations such as a “not rice” base: a riced cauliflower-Brussels sprouts blend to which unique options like charcoal-smoked tofu can be added. Other concepts—like Kasi and Saffron, both with four units—also take a fresh, clean, seasonal, ingredient-driven approach, reflecting the cultural and culinary traditions of body/mind nourishment.

  • Salmon, freshly grilled in coastal Indian spices (one of five dish additions)
    —Inday, New York
  • Mali Kofta: Indian-spiced vegetable dumplings, basmati, raita and naan
    —Kasi, locations in Southern California and Boca Raton, Fla.
  • Tandoori Chicken Salad: Crunchy greens mix, tandoori roasted chicken breast dressed with cucumber raita
    —Saffron, Los Angeles-based

Several emerging fast-casual models have gotten Indian all rolled up with a regional array of unleavened Indian flatbreads, which make for an ideal wrap, roll, melt, press, sandwich or open-face.

  • Burroti: Burrito-style wrap using Indian roti bread—Tava Indian Kitchen, San Francisco Bay Area locations
  • Nanini: Panini-like sandwich with naan and lamb
    —Chutneys, Boston
  • Kati Roll: Pan-seared bread layered with egg and filled with meat or protein—Hakka Bakka, Chicago
  • Naanwich: Meat or protein wrapped in naan, served with chutney and sides
    —NaanStop, Atlanta
  • The Indurrito: Indian burrito wrapped in housemade roti—Hot Indian Foods, Minneapolis

Fun Fusion
One way forward-thinking restaurateurs are making Indian food more interesting, accessible and entertaining is by adding a companion cuisine.

Vermilion does Latin entrées with an Indian confluence, successfully coalescing both the natural crossovers as well as more striking contrasts. A smoked Nicaraguan tamale comes with a chutney-salsa duo, and a Chilean potato-cake dessert is combined with tapioca pearls, saffron-cardamom syrup and coconut-date ice cream.

  • Blackened chile tamarind ribs, eggplant, Indian-Latin tamarindo-imli pepper glaze, cilantro-garlic quinoa, tomatillo “pachadi”

DesiPDX’s Portland, Ore., food cart serves local fare with an Indian flair. Oregon hazelnuts are baked with a Bengali five-spice and coconut sugar for a vegan, paleo snack. Hard-boiled quail eggs are stir-fried in spiced ghee and served with spicy green chutney and pickles as a small plate.

  • Pakora Waffles: Savory garbanzo bean flour waffles drizzled with spicy green and hazelnut tamarind chutney, served with seasonal pickles and yogurt raita

Houston’s Queen Vic Indian-British gastropub twists traditional Indian foods into updated pub fare—all paired with local and British tapped craft beers. Lamb plays a key role here in items like the brilliant lamb Scotch egg with tomato curry, the Indian kebab lamb burger and the potato-lamb croquettes—though enough vegan and vegetarian items also fit the bill.

  • Yucca Pili Pili Chips: Yucca fries, pili pili sauce, Goan guacamole

At Badmaash, an Indian gastropub in Los Angeles, Indian flavors are embraced in a mash-up gumbo of Punjabi, French and Québec culinary traditions with unique twists. This is exemplified in dishes ranging from chicken tikka poutine to tandoor-cooked chili-cheese naan.

  • Punjabi Fish Fry: Flaky catfish in chickpea batter spiced with carom seed, paprika and dried mango dust

Indo-Chinese food is gaining ground with the fusion of related and contrasting ingredients and techniques, both savory and sweet, from dim sum and stir-fries to mixed curries.

  • Chicken or Shrimp Szechwan Naan Wrap with yogurt sauce, green chutney, lettuce and tomato—Chicken Lollypop, Austin, Texas
  • Fish Finger Chandni Chowk to China: Fish fingers marinated in fenugreek leaves, carom seeds and chile—Bombay Chopstick, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

With its fusion-friendly profile, bold flavors, mindful-eating halo and communal culinary culture, India’s time has arrived.

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About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.