Ever thought that sev bhalla dahi puris, panipuris, or vada pavs could make it big in the United States, and not just for the Indian diaspora?
Indian American chef, Meherwan Irani, has not only made the demand for Indian street food explode in the US, but his restaurant, which specialises in the same, won the award for America's most outstanding restaurant at the James Beard Foundation Awards (JBFA) in Chicago on 13 June 2022.
The Quint caught up with him about 'Chai Pani', its origins and its greatest hits, along with his desi roots and his personal favourite food items.
Called Chai Pani and based in Asheville, North Carolina, Irani's restaurant, which was already big in the US, has dominated the newspapers in India all week.
The Story Behind Chai Pani
Talking about the prestigious award that his restaurant won, Irani told The Quint that his first reaction to the news was "absolute disbelief".
"I was was convinced that we were not going to win. I was so excited that we were in the category. I felt like that was the James Beard Foundations' way of acknowledging the work that we had done."
The JBF is a New York City-based national non-profit culinary arts organisation, established in honor of James Beard, an American chef and cookbook author who was nicknamed the "Dean of American Cookery".
Irani went to talk about how he came up with the idea of establishing Chai Pani.
"I was here in the 1990s, and Indian food in America was very much stuck with butter chicken and saag paneer," he said.
His wife, he told The Quint, suggested that he should be the guy to bring a different kind of Indian cuisine to America.
"I thought she was crazy, as in, I'm not trained. What cuisine would I bring? My mom is a Hindu brahmin from Dehradun, my dad is Parsi. Which cuisine would I even represent?"
Irani Feeds America the Most Democratic Food of India: Street Food!
But then he had an epiphany.
"The most democratic food of India. The most approachable food of India. The most pan-Indian food ... was the street food. It is loved by all. It caters to every religion."
Irani says that his customers' favourite dishes are the sev batata dahi puri, vada pav, kel pakoras, and okra fries.
"But the most popular dish is panipuri. On any given night, we will serve 3000-5000 panipuris, to Americans."
Of course, Irani knows that he has to cater to the American palette if he wants his restaurant to become a household name.
"There's a very popular type of of sandwich here called the 'Sloppy Joe'. It's basically beef type keema in a bun, like the vada pavs inside a bun. So, I created a dish called the 'Sloppy Jai', which is basically a keema pav but made into a sandwich, and someone who has never had it before and walk in and think, 'Oh I know what that looks like, what's it going to taste like.'"
Irani's Desi Roots and Personal Favourites Street Dishes
He grew up in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, where his parents still reside. His single biggest influence as an entrepenuer and as a cook, Irani says, is his mom.
"My mum was a fearless cook."
He goes on to say that when he was in graduate school for his MBA in the US, his mother would come visit, and when he wanted to eat Indian food, "She used what she had, and created dishes from my childhood."
"In my mind, it was like, how did you do this?" he said.
Irani also reveals that his father lost his eyesight when the former was just a baby. "I saw my mum become the head of the household, the income earner for the business."
On the topic of childhood, Irani says "The Chai Pani menu has the greatest hits of Indian food that I remember eating while growing up."
"The samosa is me trying to recreate the samosa I grew up eating at Bansi Maharaj, in my hometown of Ahmednagar."
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