Sorry, Not Sorry

A group of restaurants in New York caters to Indian palates

If a visitor from the USA came to India looking for kudal varuval (spiced goat intestines), one  might point them to a locally famous pitstop, possibly besides a tire repair shop on the side of the highway. Or possibly to the home of a friend, where the labour intensive dish is a house specialty. Or one could tell them to head instead to New York, where a heap of soft and spicy kudal varuval features prominently on the menu at Semma, currently the only Indian restaurant in the city with a Michelin star, which it won this October.

‘I don’t think what’s happening can actually be planned,’ says Roni Mazumdar, the restaurateur behind Semma and Unapologetic Foods, a mini-empire of successful Indian restaurants in the city. Outside, a line of people waiting for the doors to open begins to form. ‘As a matter of fact,’ Mazumdar says, ‘I’m not even sure we fit into the category of Michelin.’

Mazumdar isn’t being humble — that’s not his style — nor is he off the mark. ‘If we set out to get a Michelin star, we could have done a tasting menu with [Semma’s Chef-Partner Vijay Kumar] and it would have had every molecular gastronomy and modernization you could think of.’ Instead, Mazumdar is acutely self-aware of being part of shift in the way the rest of the world understands Indian food and, by extension, the heterogeneity of the Indian diaspora. An outspoken entrepreneur who during the course of our conversation both refers to Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs and quotes Henry Ford (‘If you asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “A faster horse”.’),  

Mazumdar and his partners are among a new crop of restaurateurs, chefs and other food people who are, in fact, unapologetic about cooking Indian dishes, for Indian tastes. Inadvertently, they’ve won over non-Indian diners, who have never tasted food like this before. While these restaurants now routinely win coveted awards abroad, it also signals a shift away, for Indians, from an obsession with ‘all things “foreign”’ as Mazumdar puts it. Finally Indians are starting to move away from the idea that until our food is ‘noticed by other people… it’s not worthy. We believe it’s pedestrian. As if it doesn’t really require any real effort, desire, emotions, artistry.’

The food at Semma, and the other Unapologetic Foods restaurants, walks a smart line between novelty and authenticity. For example, one of the most popular dishes is nathai pirattal, ginger-tamarind snails served with mini kal dosa — an appetizer that Kumar admits he would likely not be talking about if he were back in India. After joining Unapologetic Foods from Rasa (a California restaurant that previously won a Michelin star before reopening as a more casual spot this year), Kumar ‘casually’ recounted to Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya, co-owner of Unapologetic Foods, how as a kid he used to collect snails for the pot. ‘Roni and Chintan looked at each other and were like – “this should be on the menu”. I was like “You both are crazy.”’ They replied, ‘New Yorkers will love this.’ They were right.

It’s a different world from a decade or so ago, when Mazumdar opened his first restaurant, Masalawala, as a retirement project for his food-obsessed father. Back then, Indian cuisine abroad was still largely defined by ‘tikka masala’ and even Mazumdar had to compromise. It was only when Pandya, an Oberoi-trained chef with an interest in recipe-hunting, joined him that the two found the courage to open the casual restaurant Adda, regional specialist Dhamaka, fried chicken joint Rowdy Rooster, a couple of catering concerns, and most recently, the new Bengal-centric Masalawala in Brooklyn, where rather than tikka masala you’ll find bhapa ilish on the menu.

‘We’ll tell you it has a tonne of bones. If you don’t want it, just don’t order it,’ says Mazumdar. ‘That’s what the whole essence of Unapologetic is.  I’m sick and tired of apologizing as if we’re so desperately trying to fit into someone else’s mould.’

And so there is space at Semma for Kumar’s childhood memories of rural Tamil Nadu, at Adda for Pandya’s beloved chili cheese toast, and for khichuri at Masalawala. Interestingly, there’s no beef no the menus, and the only pork dish is doh khleh (a Khasi specialty made of pig’s head) at Dhamaka. But besides the intestines and snails, there’s goat neck, goat belly seekh, tabak maaz, gurda kapoora, bheja fry, venison, paya, kaleji, and of course, that bone-in hilsa. (And there’s plenty for vegetarians too.)  

‘If we’re going to talk about food as an expression, then it also comes with a certain level of vulnerability,’ says Mazumdar. With each restaurant, ‘we wanted to embrace the background, the heritage of each one of these individuals and have a very clear and distinct point of view.’ Even within India, such pluralistic visions of cuisine in a fine restaurant setting are rare.

This story was originally published in India Today.

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