Can Samosa Be The Next Taco
For far too long, Indian food suffered a bad rap in the country as a greasy, cheap take-away option, a notion that India chefs are trying hard to counter with modern fare and pre-plated cuisine.
Until recently, the food truck experience in the United States offered the option of gyros, fried noodles, tacos or burgers and fries. Now, add to that the option of butter chicken, makhni dal, vada pav and other classic Indian street food. Increasingly, food trucks in America are serving up Indian food, capitalizing on both the flourishing Indian population as well as an amplified interest in Indian food.
For far too long, Indian food suffered a bad rap in the country as a greasy, cheap take-away option, a notion that India chefs are trying hard to counter with modern fare and pre-plated cuisine. But with puri bhaji now hitting the streets of New York, Indian food is finding growing acceptance, adding to the diversity of the American foodscape.
Desi Food Truck, which boasts of being the first authentic Indian food truck in New York, emulates a dhaba appearance with a brightly painted truck and menu comprising lassi and dal rice. Truck owner Alamgeer Elahi proudly proclaims that the popularity of Indian street food can be gauged from the fact that the Desi Food Truck bagged second place at the Vendy Awards, a New York City street food competition, last year.
Elahi, visibly passionate about his food business, says the reason he decided to sell Indian food off the truck was because he was pained to see that despite its great variety and rich cuisine, it had failed to penetrate the American market with any respectable quick service chain restaurant.
Elahi, who has ambitious plans with his truck, hopes to capture that space someday: “I think of myself as K. Asif and this (the truck) is my Mughal-E-Azam. I may go broke building it, but I am trying to create history.”
On the West Coast, Curry Up Now, a food truck that is often seen between Bush and Sansome streets in San Francisco, doles out Angry Idli Manchurian and naan bites to office goers flitting in and out of the city’s skyscrapers.
Many of these trucks with their twist on menus offer a deconstructed version of Indian fare. Akash Kapoor, CEO of Curry Up Now, explains his interesting experimental dishes: “Indian cuisine is on the rise in the U.S., and we attribute the success of our Indian restaurants and food trucks to taking a creative approach to the food. On food trucks, you must capture the guest’s attention quickly, so we strive to offer a dynamic menu, with crazy names and crazy plating, while still showcasing the best of South Asian, Indian flavors.”
New York and San Francisco, with their high concentration of immigrants and a broader receptivity to world cuisine are the ideal breeding grounds for experimental food businesses. However, encouragingly, other parts of America are opening up as well. In Indianapolis, Indiana, Nitin Naidu and his wife run Spice Box, a food truck that sells comfort food that Naidu grew up on in his mom’s kitchen. Their chicken tandoori and chicken with chutney, struck a chord with the local populace and from two trucks, they have now further moved to a casual sit-down restaurant in the historic City Market.
Another Indian truck in Minneapolis, Minn., called Hot Indian Foods, is reputed for its Indian style burritos, called Induritto and Indi-frites, and Indian seasoned frites. The truck relies heavily on street style Indian fusion food in a bid to promote it as grab and go option.
Although Indians are amongst the highest growing minority population in the United States, their food choices remain scarce. While desi grocery aisles are laden with frozen Indian foods, ranging from rajmato matar paneer, and Indian corridors in big cities in New York, Jersey City, Los Angeles and Chicago, house rows of curry houses and biryani stops, mainstream America remains dominated with pizza, Chinese and taco joints.
Food trucks, such India Jones Chow Truck in Los Angeles, are attempting to change that. Conceptualized by chef Sumant Pardal, who previously owned the East India Grill chain in the city, the food on the truck shuns any notions that Indian fare is restricted to samosas or curry. On the menu are baby back ribs, topped with mango chutney and barbeque sauce, and served with naan. The combination offers a glimpse on how Indian food can cross over outside fine dine settings.
Nikita Jose, a San Francisco native, says, “It makes sense to do easy-to-eat, experimental Indian food. Most of these trucks are offering lunch fare and Americans, unlike French, do not have the concept of a leisurely sit-down lunch. So, a carefully curated thali to showcase Indian food will hardly cut it in America, where even dinners end up being pizza take-out very often.”
Many Indian food truck owners are passionate about changing American stereotypes of Indian food. Akash Kapoor recalls: “My wife, Rana and I have always been drawn to food. We were thinking of getting into the restaurant industry in the 1990s, but started a mortgage banking business instead. In the summer of 2009, we were having drinks at our home with some friends, one of who grew up around Roy Choi of Kogi (the famous Korean American chef). Coincidently, Roy’s picture was in Time magazine that week. Our friend said that since we were looking for a new business, why don’t we do what Roy is doing at Kogi with Indian food. We were sold! That evening we developed four menu items, names, et al. A few weeks later we bought our first truck and a few weeks after that, we launched Curry Up Now. We’ve always been inspired to do different and think outside the box and wanted to do Indian food like it’s never been done before.”
The inspiration was simple; present authentic childhood favorites in an easy to recognize manner. Thus, was born the Tikka Masala Burrito, Taco, Quesadillix, Naughty Naan, Sexy Fries, and more.
Many Indian trucks are also leveraging the “exotica” glory. New York City based Desi Food Truck parked itself at the Annual Mountain Jam, a rock performing arts festivals in Hunter, NY, and, according to the owner, soon found itself a darling of the crowds who couldn’t have enough of Haleem soup and puri with bhuna beef.
Likewise, at Masala Fresh, Atlanta’s first Indian street food truck, aloo tikka and naan wraps fly off its shelves, bringing the versatility of Indian street food to Americans from coast to coast.