Upma: Southern India's Quick and Comforting Breakfast Bowl
Meet the versatile dish providing a link between culinary cultures.
This is Inside the Breakfast Bowl, a series in which Eater profiles breakfast soups and porridges from around the world. Today: upma.
To say "Indian breakfast" is as vague as saying "American dessert" — there are regional favorites, personal preferences, influences from around the world, and all kinds of options, from stuffed flatbreads like aloo paratha to sweet kesari bath, a porridge flavored with saffron and fruits. And then there's upma, which fits into none of the stereotypical Indian-food categories: It's flavorful but not overly spicy; it's dry, not curried; and it's a standalone dish rather than part of a composite meal.
Bring on the New Indian Cuisine
The lunch rush has quelled, but our table at Chai Pani is practically creaking under all the food. Thick, puffy bhatura (bread) with chole (chickpea) — a classic home-style food — right alongside something you’d never see on your auntie’s table: kale pakoras (fritters) and green mango chaat (mishmashed snacks). Just don’t expect to find this kind of unconventional spin in snack shops within India. “Americans come in and are like, ‘Where’s the naan?’ ” says Meherwan Irani, owner and cofounder of Chai Pani, Atlanta’s only known hipster-approved Indian street-food joint. “We had to do a lot of re-education.”
Here in Decatur, near Emory University and the dignified Driving Miss Daisy neighborhoods, the Southerners appear to have passed New Indian Food 101 with flying colors. Irani and his wife, Molly, have pulled off something slightly unthinkable: an offbeat, funky Indian restaurant that refuses to serve standard, creamy curries — in the American South. Chai Pani’s original location in Asheville, North Carolina, has been lauded by the New York Times’ travel section as a must-eat spot, and it’s on just about every Atlanta top-restaurant list. Its head chef here in the ATL landed on Zagat’s 30 under 30 awards for the city, and Meherwan himself was nominated for a Best Chef in the Southeast Award by the James Beard Foundation.
Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani and Buxton Hall
Meherwan Irani is Chief Chaiwalla at Chai Pani, which celebrates Indian street food. He is one of three Asheville chefs nominated for a regional James Beard Award in 2015. Plough to Pantry recently talked to Irani about his latest adventures and plans for 2016.
Q: When 2015 began, you had two new projects in the works: a barbecue venue with Chef Elliott Moss, and a new Chai Pani-based concept in Atlanta. What is the update on these? A: Buxton Hall Barbecue is open and has received fantastic press including a mention this fall in the Wall Street Journal. The new Atlanta concept is called Botiwalla and it’s slated to open by Christmas. With Chai Pani, we introduced chaat, a particular style of Indian street food. With Botiwalla, we’re introducing sigri, the Indian street grill.
Chefs converge on Asheville for Appalachian food salon
ALL-STAR LINEUP: The James Beard Foundation's recent Appalachian Food Salon was followed by a Feb. 3 dinner prepared by visiting chefs Anthony Lamas, Annie Pettry, Joseph Lenn, Hari Pulapka as well as Asheville's own Katie Button, Meherwan Irani, William Dissen and John Fleer. Photo courtesy of The Market Place
Being a chef can be isolating work. It is easy to disappear into the fluorescent lights of the kitchen, the whirring of immersion blenders, the tapping of the knife against the cutting board. Cooking often requires so much time of a chef that it is easy to forfeit oneself to the job, losing connection with the community at large.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re just on your own little island,” says Richmond, Va., chef Travis Milton. Long obsessed with Appalachian ingredients and Southern foodways, Milton seeks out rare, heirloom ingredients indigenous to the Appalachian Mountains — strains of vegetables and grains that have slowly disappeared over time due to market demand for more universally accessible varietals.
“You’ll be looking up old recipes and realize that you can’t figure out where to find something,” he says. “It can be hard to remember that there are other chefs on your team.”