Imagine if the Michelin Guide were to declare that France’s best restaurant was a bistro in Grenoble that serves American hotdogs and pretzels. Yeah, that’s how I reacted to the James Beard Foundation’s announcement that Chai Pani, which serves Indian street food in Asheville, North Carolina, was America’s most outstanding restaurant.
. At the James Beard award ceremony in Chicago where Chai Pani’s chef-owner Meherwan Irani collected his prize, another trailblazing Indian, Dhamaka’s Chintan Pandya, was named New York’s best chef.
It is because of Dhamaka that, as I have argued, New York now has better Indian food than London. Chai Pani’s achievement reinforces my personal conviction that Indian cuisine, having long since colonized British palates, will one day top Chinese and Mexican as America’s favourite culinary import.
But the James Beard accolade is also a recognition for Asheville, home to fewer than 100,000 souls and considered one of America’s most liveable cities. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it has evolved from artist haven and vacation destination into an emerging tech hub.
In the past couple of years, it has also become a magnet for digital nomads and those who can work from just about anywhere with reliable Wi-Fi. Like Bend, Oregon, and Roanoke, Virginia, Asheville is one of several smaller cities and towns that are drawing people away from major metropolitan centers, offering relative low rents and home prices as well as a lifestyle enhanced by easy access to nature.
Asheville additionally offers a cosmopolitan air — and fare — that is rare in cities of its size. The hippies who made it home in the 1960s and ‘70s never lost their eclecticism. Some of them would grow up to become makers of craft beers — Asheville has more than 30 breweries — as well as founders of tech startups. The gastronomic scene offers both variety and quality.
Irani knows exactly what about Asheville has made it so popular, since those are the very qualities that drew him in 2009 when he and his wife Molly decided they didn’t want to raise their daughter in San Francisco, where he had been selling luxury cars. “It was an antidote to big-city life,” he recalls. “It was in the mountains, so the weather was lovely. Nature was everywhere you looked… you were never more than 10 minutes from it. Plus, it had a great arts and music scene, so we wouldn’t be giving up on culture. It had everything.”
Not quite: It didn’t have a banker willing to back a novice restaurateur with an unusual idea. “Everyone I approached said, ‘Indian street food… who’s going to want to eat that?’” Irani recalls. But the town’s relatively modest rents meant the price of entry was low, and he raised the $70,000 he needed from friends and family.
Asheville’s diners, more adventurous than its bankers, took quickly to Chai Pani. The name, which literally translates as “tea and water,” is a Hindi colloquialism for light snacks. Every region of India has its own assortment of snacks, but the self-taught Irani focuses on a handful that enjoy nationwide appeal and can be found in streetside kiosks from Kolkata to Mumbai and Delhi to Chennai.
The signature dishes are bhel puri (a heaping plate of puffed rice and flour crisps, with roasted split chickpeas, cilantro and onions, topped with tamarind and other chutneys) and aloo tikki chaat (potato fritters doused in a chickpea stew and topped with tamarind chutney, yogurt and crunchy chickpea noodles). My personal favorite is a staple of every vendor on Mohammed Ali Road, Mumbai’s most famous gastronomic mile: Kheema pav, a sandwich made from minced meat cooked with tomatoes, ginger and other spices.
Although Irani substitutes lamb hash for the classic minced goat — a personal bugbear — he makes it work by adjusting the spice mix for the dryness of the meat and cooking it slow and long. And he uses an acceptable facsimile of the Mumbai “pav,” a bread roll that likely derives from a recipe introduced to the city by Portuguese traders in the 16th century.
Irani calls the dish Sloppy Jai, a wink to the more commonly known minced-meat sandwich. “It’s like a gateway dish,” he says. “If you’re confused by all the strange dishes on the menu, you might start with one that at least sounds familiar.”
There are some other nods to familiarity in the menu, including butter chicken and saag paneer, which are to Indian restaurant menus what spaghetti bolognese is to their Italian counterparts. But Irani plays with the recipes to ensure what is familiar on the plate nonetheless surprises the palate. In the butter chicken, for instance, he eschews cashew or poppy-seed paste, which cooks commonly use to thicken the sauce; he uses jaggery (concentrated sugarcane juice) and emulsifies butter and heavy cream to ensure that the fats don’t separate under heat. The result is sweeter, less oily and altogether more satisfying.
Is Chai Pani America’s most outstanding restaurant? I am sceptical about the label itself: How can anybody compare eateries across all cuisines and price points? But Irani’s place unquestionably deserves the attention generated by the accolade — and folks who go there because of the award will themselves be rewarded with a memorable repast.
For all his success, Irani says he wasn’t expecting to be named among the finalists for the James Beard. He went to the award ceremony in Chicago with no expectation of winning. “Look at this place,” he says, sweeping his hand across Chai Pani’s brightly colored dining room, which resembles nothing so much as a Mexican cantina. “I mean, we sell Indian snacks… in Asheville, North Carolina! You don’t expect this kind of place to win James Beard awards.”
You do now.