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Cooking Indian Food in India, by Chef Daniel Peach

(Read chef Daniel Peach’s story – Part 1 here.)

Q. Do you remember the first time you sampled Indian food? When/where was it? What was your reaction?

A: I first tried Indian food when I was 14 (2003). My friend’s dad was obsessed with this Indian restaurant in Columbia and was a regular there. We went in, and he knew all the people working there. I remember eating naan and some chicken curry and enjoying it, but it didn’t stick with me.

After that I didn’t have Indian food again until 2008. I ate lunch with a friend at an Indian restaurant called Chinar that used to be in downtown Charleston. Again we just had some naan and a cashew chicken curry. It blew me away; I felt like the spices were intoxicating.

I don’t feel, however, that I really tasted Indian food until I got to India. The first meal I ever had in India was a masala dosa at a little restaurant in Mumbai. I remember being unable to contain my smile. I loved it. Last year when I was in India, I woke up the first morning of my trip and had some kanda pohe on the street in Andheri (East). It was so simple and yet it almost moved me to tears. I think most of it was just emotional, as I was happy to be back in India since it had been a year since my last visit. Anyhow, I am off on a tangent now, but hopefully that answers your question.

Chef Daniel Peach, Chai Pani, Decatur

Chef Daniel Peach, Chai Pani, Decatur

Q. How does an American get a job as a cook at an Indian restaurant in India? ūüôā How was that experience?

A: I worked in several restaurant and ashram kitchens in India and all of them have different, unique stories behind them. Most frequently it would go like this: I’d eat somewhere and love the food, then ask to talk with the owner. I’d then explain to them that I was a chef back in the US, working in an Indian restaurant, and looking to learn more recipes and cooking techniques. Several times I was invited into the kitchen without having to ask, and other times I had to do some convincing that I didn’t want any money and was just there to learn. The fact that I spoke Hindi was a huge bonus, as people who works as cooks in India don’t generally speak English.

Last year I worked at a very famous restaurant in Kolkata called Kewpies. The owner, Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta, is well known in the city, and the restaurant is in the bottom floor of her ancestral home. Her mother wrote the first Bengali cookbook in English (Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook). I contacted her several months prior and she agreed to having me come and work in the restaurant during Durga Pooja. That was the most formal experience, whereas the trip before that I worked in a small restaurant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh near the railway station. I stopped there one day for lunch, and was blown away by the food. I met the owner and not only did he let me work in the kitchen but even gave me a free room in their hotel in the building above the restaurant.

My experiences have been as varied as the places I’ve worked, but there are a few commonalities. The first of which being I learned that the people working as cooks in India are for the most part very low class citizens. Most of them make about RS 120 ($2)/day and work from sunup ’til sundown. They generally live upstairs from the restaurant, usually sleeping on the floor and sharing a small space with all of the other cooks. Because of their low status in society I realized a lot of them couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that some guy from the US was interested in what they were doing. I got the impression from people after I had been in the kitchens for a while that, by me being so interested in what they were doing they discovered a new found pride in their craft. Some of them had families living in villages near town while some were young and on their own. They all had incredible work ethic and always, no matter how busy the restaurant got or how much work they had to do, maintained a positive attitude. That definitely put things into perspective for me, and helped me see how to handle the challenges I face in my job with grace. So many people working in restaurants in the US just stay stressed, whereas the folks in India worked just as hard (sometimes harder) and did so stress free.

Cooking in India

Cooking in India

I also found that restaurant kitchens in India are much less hygienic than restaurants here in the US. In a lot of ways, it is not a big issue and people traveling to India should not be worried about eating out (though I would stay away from meat). All of the produce is delivered in the morning and cooked that day. Everything is really fresh, mostly because there is no refrigeration. That being said most kitchens, even in restaurants that seem ‘nice’, are fairly primitive. I used to work at a sweet shop in Rishikesh, and the walls were covered in dark grease because they were frying enormous amounts of sweets in pure ghee every day. I came back a few months later, and was impressed to see the walls a shining silver color. I asked a friend if they had cleaned, and he laughed saying, “No, we just painted” (over the grease).

The Health Department in India is, like the rest of the government, corrupt. If a health inspector should visit a restaurant for an inspection, they usually just take a bribe, make a few comments, and leave.

Lastly, I found that due to the sheer availability of cheap labor in India, most kitchens have an enormous amount of people working in them. This allows people to become very specialized in one skill, which I think has allowed Indian food to evolve so much. If someone is doing the same thing all day every day for years, they eventually figure out incredibly efficient systems and get that product to a point near perfection, something that is not possible in a restaurant where the average cook is responsible for making 20-30 different things each day.

(All pictures, courtesy Daniel Peach.)

Sharing some Virtual ‘Chai Pani’ with Chef Peach

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.

Daniel Peach, Chef, Chai Pani

Daniel Peach, Chef, Chai Pani

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.

Jai Hind.

(To be continued…) (All pictures, courtesy Daniel Peach.)

Green Ginger Asian Fusion, Decatur

This weekend, P and I landed up at Green Ginger for a late lunch. It was well past the lunch hour and the restaurant was nearly deserted. Asian restaurants typically have a good assortment of vegetarian-friendly options, as P says. Green Ginger is no different.

I skimmed through the menu, and ordered a Thai iced tea. Totally untypical for me, I know! But it was a warm day, and I thought I’d treat myself. Sigh, it turned out to be too sweet. And it filled me up before lunch arrived. Silly things I do, in full knowledge and understanding… Lesson learned. As for the overly sweet tea, I waited patiently until the ice melted, so it wasn’t as sweet and tasted a lot nicer.

Green Ginger has a ‘Build your own Noodle Bowl’ section that caught my eye. First, you pick a broth. The selections include Mushroom and Ginger, Red Curry and Coconut Milk, Coconut Soup and some others. The Coconut Soup is flavored with lemongrass. Yum, I thought. But it turned out that it contains chicken stock (thankfully, I remembered to ask our server before ordering), so I skipped it and went ahead with the Red Curry and Coconut Milk. Next, you pick a noodle. Options include Flat Rice Noodle, Udon, Ramen, etc. I asked for the Thin Rice Noodle (Thai version of vermicelli).¬†Then you pick the veggies. I went for Roasted Eggplant, Zucchini, Asparagus and Carrots.

Noodle Bowl

The noodle bowl arrived in a burnished round bowl, wide and large, with a handle. The lid was fitted in with the handle snugly. Cute presentation, a huge bowl of noodles!

This is a serving that could easily suffice for two. Or so it seemed to me (maybe the Thai iced tea had something to do with my judgment!). The curry was a little too sweet (seems like it was a day of extra-sweetness!) but it had a nice little spicy kick to it without being too intense. I was looking forward to the roasted eggplant but it was a letdown. Didn’t taste remotely roasted!

P ordered Pad Si Ewe. It came with a nice glaze of soy sauce and brown sugar, broccoli, snap peas, broccoli and red pepper. The noodles felt too chewy, al dente gone too far. Actually, that was the case with my noodle bowl as well… too-tough rice noodles.

I couldn’t finish my bowl and P was too stuffed with his own entree to help me either. Had to let it go… Hate to waste food.

Not sure if I’d stop by at Green Ginger any time soon (we don’t live in Decatur) but for a vegetarian in the area looking for decent lunch options, this one is a good recommendation.

Green Ginger Asian Fusion
265 Ponce De Leon Place
Decatur GA 30030