Chai Pani named best restaurant in US

Executive chef celebrates 'watershed moment' as Indian street food restaurant named best in US by the James Beard Foundation

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Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, has been declared "America's most Outstanding Restaurant" by the James Beard Foundation, an accomplishment executive chef Meherwan Irani called a "watershed moment".

"It really feels like a turning point for how Indian cuisine and culture are perceived in the US as equal as any of the other cuisines that are celebrated like Eurocentric French and Italian American cuisine," Mr Irani told The National.

The James Beard awards are considered the Oscars of the food world in the US.

Unlike traditional landmarks that are known for fine dining, Chai Pani's dishes are inspired by chaat and street food from Mr Irani's upbringing in India.

The menu at Chai Pani features uniquely flavoured, crunchy and spicy chaat.

Some of the dishes include roasted sweet potatoes seasoned with garam masala, and tossed with pomegranate seeds, onions, cilantro, tomato and green and tamarind chutneys.

It really feels like a turning point for how Indian cuisine and culture are perceived in the US
Chef Merhwan Irani, Chai Pani

Mr Irani, who grew up in Maharashtra, India, opened Chai Pani in downtown Asheville in 2009, but faced the challenge of educating a mainly white community on authentic Indian street food.

"Not only was I opening an Indian restaurant in a small little mountain town in western North Carolina, where it felt like there were 99,000 white people ... It was Indian street food, which was even more unfamiliar to people," he said.

But Indian street food's approachability, Mr Irani said, helped to bridge the cultural divide and highlight the diversity of Indian cuisine, religion and culture.

One of those items is the "Sloppy Jai", a dish that took inspiration from kheema pav by fitting a spicy lamb hash garnished with onions, green chutney and sweet yoghurt between two toasted buns.

Chai Pani also serves "okra fries", a vegan snack tossed with seasoning and served with lime.

There is also the restaurant's take on bhel puri, a street food classic with puffed rice, puris, roasted chana daal, chickpea noodles and more.

"We all understand that in any country, you go to street food, probably the most fun, the most interesting, the most exciting and the most approachable," he said.

And for those looking for a more family-oriented meal, Chai Pani serves butter chicken thali and saag paneer to deliver the comforts of something home cooked.

Mr Irani called on other Indian chefs in the US to continue highlighting the the country's gastronomical diversity and to "not fall back on" the traditional idea of Indian restaurants that most American diners have become accustomed to.

For him, that meant making Chai Pani a restaurant where patrons in Asheville could feel the energy and warmth of his establishment and not the cultural divide between India and the US.

"To be an outstanding restaurant doesn't just mean sending food and service," he said.

"It means to be outstanding in your community and the society you live in and the way you treat people and the way you represent your culture."

Mr Irani hopes that other aspiring Indian and minority chefs will be courageous in their food and to embrace their cultures.

He regards organisations such as the James Beard Foundation actively celebrating the diversity of cultures and cuisine on display in the US.

"Tell your story," Mr Irani said. "Food is one of the most elemental things we do."

A second location was opened in the multicultural hamlet of Decatur, Georgia, near Emory University in March 2013.

Updated: June 15, 2022, 8:47 PM