I don’t recall when/how I stumbled upon Daniel Peach’s blog. One post in, and I was hooked. Here was an American guy traveling in India, eating at roadside joints, staying with friends, unearthing hidden recipes, cooking at local restaurants… I couldn’t help marveling at his sense of adventure and freedom that allowed him to experience India so fearlessly through his heart and senses.
One post, then another, another… I think I read the entire blog end-to-end. Wrote to Daniel and he responded. I came to know that he was moving to Atlanta to cook at the hip-n-trendy Chai Pani. We have been planning to meet up for a while now… hopefully, our plans will materialize soon. Anyway, I became curious to know more about Daniel’s journey into the world of food, Indian culture, spirituality, etc. He agreed to do an email interview for me, and voila, here is the end result.
Q. How did you develop an interest in Indian cuisine?
A: My first real exposure to Indian cuisine came through Ayurveda. This was back in 2007. Over the next two years my interest in India grew immensely after reading several books on meditation and yoga as well as Indian spiritual classics like the Upanishads and the Gita, and it seemed like everywhere I went India just kept popping up at me. I even randomly purchased a book called ‘Teach Yourself: Hindi’ which 2 years later got me started on learning Hindi.
In 2009 I decided to move to Asheville and started looking for a job. I had been working as a cook in an Italian restaurant in Charleston, SC so I was excited when the first (literally, very first) post on Asheville’s Craigslist was for Chai Pani, a new fast casual Indian street food restaurant that was getting ready to open. I knew how to cook and it seemed in line with my personal interests.
I got the job at Chai Pani and Meherwan, the owner, had his mom come from India to train us on her food. On numerous occasions I would taste things I’d never seen or heard of and be instantly engulfed with a strange, unplaceable nostalgia. Specifically when I first ate some besan barfi It drove me nuts because it was so familiar but I couldn’t figure out why. I sort of, by default, became the main cook at Chai Pani Asheville and spent a lot of my free time experimenting with different recipes and researching as much as I could about Indian cuisine.
I think my interest culminated in me going to India for the first time in 2011. I studied Hindi from the book I had bought years before and went to travel around India for 6 months.
Since then I’ve been to India several times, cooked in all kinds of restaurants, hotels, sweet shops, and homes and made lots and lots of friends.
Tasting the food in India and meeting the people who cook it every day completely changed the way I understood the cuisine and how I cook it. Eating in homes was especially enlightening, being brought roti after roti and pleading with my host to not pile any more food on my plate. I also love Indian street food, and tasting all of the varieties of street snacks amidst the traffic and hulla brought the whole thing into perspective. There is nothing like drinking chai out of a clay cup on the street in the morning or leaning on your friends bike next to a chaat stall and having some bhel puri in the evening. Late night desi-chinese at Juhu? Come on! I could have never gone to India and still been able to cook all those dishes, but going there and experiencing it has inspired my cooking and career in a very special way.
Indian food is not subtle. Especially street food. It’s bright, in your face. You know come to think of it really nothing in India is subtle (acting, music volume levels, clothing…even AC is either terrible or Arctic blast cold) I love that about Indian food, and the unbelievable diversity in Indian cuisine is so underrepresented in America.
There is so much history in all of the dishes yet cooks in India are, for the most part, still open to experimenting with new things and adopting whatever cooking techniques or ingredients may come their way. Also I love how much pride Indians take in their food, it reminds me of how we here in the South squabble over how barbecue sauce should be made or which coasts have the better shrimp. I recall seeing a man from Delhi in Bombay on business shouting at a street vendor selling poori sabji (“Yeh kya aloo hai?? saale har cheez mein curry patthe daalne chahiye??”) (Loosely translated as, Is this potato? Should you add curry leaves to everything?). Food tells a story, and I think Indian food is a perfect representation of the diverse, ancient, loud yet sublime country that is India.
(To be continued…) (All pictures, courtesy Daniel Peach.)