From the Deccan Plateau to the American South: Chai Pani explores ancient Indian foodways

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
A typical Chai Pani spread

If you travel east from Mumbai, things begin to change. First, the cliffs of the Western Ghats rise sharply out of India's maritime plains. Then, as elevation increases, the air becomes cooler and the scenery grows lush and green.

Chai Pani chef-owner Meherwan Irani said it's not unlike traveling through the southern Appalachian mountains. 

Irani was raised in the Indian state of Maharashtra, much of which covers the vast, arid Deccan Plateau that spreads beyond the moist deciduous forests of the Ghats.

He now lives in the small Appalachian city of Asheville, North Carolina, where he opened his first restaurant, Chai Pani, in 2009. Irani opened a second location in Decatur, Georgia, in 2013.

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Before the pandemic, Irani spent some time crisscrossing the Deccan Plateau. What he found was an exciting and distinct foodway.

"It's completely different from the rest of India and even different from the coastal parts of the same region," he said. "I was just blown away by how there was a story to be told of trade and foods being brought from all around the world, and also food based on what could grow there."

The pandemic's forced closures presented an opportunity to reopen the Georgia restaurant as an homage to that regional food. The Asheville location, a tourist destination, remains unchanged. 

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At the Decatur store, Chai Pani Restaurant Group culinary director Daniel Peach and new chef de cuisine Sahar Siddiqi execute a menu that draws from the traditions of the arid Deccan Plateau and the microclimates that surround it.

Deccan Plateau dishes speak to the ingenuity of the people who lived there, much like in the Appalachian South, Irani said. "They're very creative people who have had to make do with less, and I feel like that speaks to the sentiment of Appalachia."

Disco Bhel from Chai Pani.

On the Deccan Plateau, for example, chilies, groundnuts and garlic grow well. Those ingredients are often dried and ground together to make a dry chutney. At Chai Pani, it comes sprinkled over spicy potato dumplings called vada pav.

There's also the locho, which hails from Surat, Gujarat. "The food mecca of Gujurat, if you will," Irani said. "It's a huge trading town and food and services from all over the world came there for centuries."

According to urban legend "locho," which means "to mess up," was created by a street vendor who flubbed a recipe for the savory cake called Dhokla, creating a loose porridge of lentils. It's now widely served with green chutney, butter and onions, and looks for all the world like a bowl of grits.

"You just don't find that in restaurants in America because nobody thinks to put such a beloved hyperlocal dish from this one particular region on a menu," Irani said. "It wouldn't make sense if you're trying to work with a certain demographic, but if you're trying to tell a story of the food of India, then it makes perfect sense."

Green Tomato Pakoras from Chai Pani

Exploring such distinct foodways meant taking some of Chai Pani's greatest hits off the menu. That's largely gone over well. But when customers ask why the restaurant doesn't serve more recognizable fare, chef de cuisine Siddiqi has an answer.

"Indian food is so diverse, the food from that entire area is so diverse, specifically on the Deccan Plateau," she said. "We have an opportunity to really showcase it."

That means some Indian eatery staples have to go in order to make room for the sort of hyper-regional food you might find in a grandmother's kitchen in Gujarat.

Siddiqi, a first-generation Pakistani-American, grew up in a kitchen that smelled like house-made rotis, dahl and parathas like Chai Pani Decatur serves.

"Every day when we make them, I'm like instantly brought back into my mom's kitchen, being a 5-year-old and her putting butter and sugar on them and feeding them to me," Siddiqi said. "It's the best."

While parathas aren't hard to come by, newer Chai Pani dishes like Goan prawns in tamarind gravy and Kolhapuri mutton aren't typical in the U.S. Culinary director Peach said that speaks to the American tendency to view "foreign" cuisine as monolithic.

Bengali Fish Fry

"So many Indian Restaurants started in the western world from London to Canada and the United States were started by immigrants trying to have a viable business," Peach said. "And if that means people want butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, that's what they did."

Restaurants like Chai Pani and Chintan Pandya's Dhamaka in New York are working to change the narrative and introduce regional Indian cuisine to a butter-chicken-loving public.

Siddiqi hopes that helps open the door for similar restaurants to enjoy the notoriety of their more Euro-centric peers.

"Chai Pani is already really important in the food world, but I would love to see more Indian food, Pakistani food, Bangladeshi food, to have that same status in food culture," she said. "It needs those accolades, needs those James Beard Awards because it is delicious, incredible and soulful. It has so much going on and it is technique-driven and completely different."

Get the recipe for Chai Pani's Green Tomato Pakoras here.

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com