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Taste MattersNew York

The Freedom of Cooking In America, or, How the Duo at Dhamaka Learned Not to Compromise

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I was fishing for vegetables in the sambar one night at Semma, a new Southern Indian restaurant in the West Village, when my fork caught something long and thin. It was a drumstick, an ingredient typical in South Asian cooking, also known as the fruit of the moringa tree. Immediately, I thought of my mom. I grew up eating her yellow dal, thinned with water the way my dad liked it, with these tube-like pods floating about, a recipe she learned from her own mother, who was from Hyderabad, in India.

Drumsticks are an ingredient I associate with home simply because I’ve never had them anywhere else. And my delighted, nostalgic reaction is precisely what Semma’s owners Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya are hoping to see at all their restaurants.

 

Semma, which is run by chef Vijay Kumar (who I should thank for that reminder to call my mom), is the latest in a string of restaurants Mazumdar and Pandya began opening in 2017, with a mission to redefine Indian food in New York, and eventually, hopefully, America. Their portfolio also includes Adda, which serves down-home Desi comfort food in Queens, and Dhamaka, with a menu of provincial dishes from across the subcontinent in the Lower East Side. Pandya and Mazumdar have one goal, which is to elevate the perception of Indian food in America by not succumbing to the Westernized tendencies characteristic of so many South Asian restaurants in the city. That is, avoiding the tropes of fine dining (white tablecloths! ambient lighting!) but also resisting the precedent of diluting the cuisine for mass appeal (pick-your-protein curries! sliding scale of spice!).

To say their approach was both savvy and well-timed is almost an understatement. Dhamaka in particular was the absolute darling of New York restaurants in 2021 — rewarded with a place on nearly every best-of list around. And it affirms, perhaps, what the duo has learned in the process of opening four restaurants: namely, that cooking this version of Indian food in America can be a liberating experience, even if some of those restraints were self-imposed.

Pandya was born and raised in Mumbai, and he moved to the United States in 2013, already well-established in his career. After culinary school, he was selected to attend the Oberoi Center of Learning and Development, one of India’s top hospitality programs and a fast track to the upper echelons of five-star hotel management. In India, a professionally trained chef like Pandya might be expected to spend his career cooking continental food for a clientele of international hotel guests and wealthy Indian customers. The idea of a fine dining chef opening a restaurant like Adda, which serves homestyle dishes, or quotidian regional fare as at Dhamaka, in a city like Mumbai or Delhi seems improbable. “I would be cooking food to please other people,” Pandya says. New York, on the other hand, seemed far more reasonable. “What New York gives you is that freedom to express yourself,” he argues. It’s a familiar refrain among immigrants, myself included. Here, we are free from the rigid social structures and expectations of our home cultures.

Mazumdar, who moved from Kolkata to the United States as a teenager, has a slightly more skeptical perspective. The belief that America is a meritocracy, where hard work is rewarded, was put to test by his first experience owning a restaurant. Mazumdar opened Masalawala in Manhattan with his father in 2011 and while they aspired to serve lesser-known dishes, customers only wanted a handful of familiar North Indian standards (butter chicken, saag paneer). So Mazumdar and his father were forced to replicate the Indian restaurant menus found all over the city — the same menus that he and Pandya are pushing against. “You make those choices because of survival, not because you wish to make them,” Mazumdar says. It’s that resistance by customers to anything more adventurous, he continues, that explains why “Masalawala represents 99% of the Indian restaurants in this country.”

For both Pandya and Mazumdar, the overall status of Indian food today is in question. In India, dining out at so-called “chef-driven” restaurants (the kind that Pandya would be cooking at) is still very much a luxury experience, available to a mostly elite upper-caste class. Such consumption still has conspicuous, Westernized aspirations. “In India, we’re looking to break out, to be the next global empire,” Mazumdar says. “That comes with a different mindset. It’s like, screw what I’ve been eating at home.” Pandya would agree. He spent years learning European technique and cooking a distilled version of Northern Indian cuisine just to cater to this specific customer. The experience conditioned him to see simple, everyday Desi foods as confined to the sort of meals you eat at home.

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Admittedly, a country of 1.38 billion people can hardly be contained in sweeping statements. While a sliver of the Indian population does look for external validation in their tastes, it’s also true that a significant portion doesn’t aspire to some vision of European high culture. “But they don’t have enough buying power to have a voice,” Mazumdar says. It’s also true that more chefs are emerging who are willing to explore regional cuisine with the same kind of verve as Pandya and Mazumdar. On that, I reached out to the writer Sharanya Deepak, who is based in Delhi. She validated this point and described restaurants like The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai and Bhawan in Delhi, which are both celebrations of regional foods. Pandya’s assertion that a restaurant like Adda or Dhamaka couldn’t exist in these cities might have been true in the past, but today, it may be a bit too pessimistic.

Meanwhile, in America, economics often squelch the potential for Indian restaurants, just as it happened at Masalawala. It has been difficult for an Indian restaurant in New York to succeed in a chef-driven form, with chef-driven prices. In part, this is because diners have developed a taste for inexpensive Punjabi-ish fare — mild and creamy curries and grilled meat — which was, for a long time, passed off as the totality of Indian food. But the equally complicated battle is to convince a subset of diners, often South Asian, that homestyle Desi food can indeed be restaurant food, worthy of restaurant prices. It’s similar to the mindset in India, but with a diaspora twist.

In recreating homestyle foods like pulao, a simple rice dish eaten in homes across the South Asian diaspora, Pandya and Mazumdar are burdened with representing its ideal — thus justifying its place on a menu, and its $29 price tag. It’s an impossible standard to live up to, given the emotional baggage of anyone whose mother also makes an excellent pulao. “We feel we are entitled because we know our own cuisine,” Mazumdar says. For South Asian immigrants, and any immigrant community, self-definition is perhaps a form of self-determination. Having an opinion about the correct way to prepare a dish is just another way to exert control over that feeling of displacement and an identity that is often misconstrued and misunderstood when taken out of context. But I would combat that urge to hold the culture to impossible standards, by saying that the food at Adda, Dhamaka, and Semma should be seen as just one interpretation. An excellent interpretation, granted, as Pandya and his chefs de cuisine are excellent chefs. But in no way is it meant to be the only acceptable interpretation.

▪️

The funny thing is, I think
the sentiment is that Pandya
wants to take our cuisine backwards —
back to the dinner tables,
back to the roadside stalls,
back to the pockets of the
subcontinent where all
of this food originates.

▪️

When Adda became a runaway hit, Pandya and Mazumdar were overjoyed. But also, frankly, a little surprised. “It was a risky project, there was nothing innovative. At least, that was the notion we had built in our mind,” Pandya says, acknowledging the pesky urge to constantly reinvent the wheel. Adda’s success was the best possible outcome — and maybe one that couldn’t happen anywhere else than in New York in 2018, or with anyone else than Pandya and Mazumdar. Pandya applied his chef’s eye to the everyday cooking he ate at home and throughout his travels around India. Hence the saag paneer at Adda is made with local greens and the paneer is made in-house from high-quality, full-fat milk. “You won’t find a better paneer than this in America,” Pandya says, in full seriousness.

A cascade of early accolades and satisfied diners, many South Asians included, validated the risky choices, and earned Pandya and Mazumdar a bit of well-deserved hubris. And it provided them the confidence to open Dhamaka, which showcases dishes from regions that have probably never seen the light of day on a New York City restaurant menu. Now, with Semma, they hope to shine the same light on chef Vijay Kumar’s rendition of South Indian cuisine. “We are doing something that we believe will take our cuisine forward,” Pandya says. The funny thing is, I think the sentiment is actually that Pandya wants to take our cuisine backwards — back to the dinner tables, back to the roadside stalls, back to the pockets of the subcontinent where all of this food originates.

During my dinner at Semma, Mazumdar stopped by my table to check in — ever the gracious host, he was checking in on diners all night. I mentioned my drumstick epiphany and he told me it was a concerted decision to put them in the sambar, even though the pods are tricky to eat. Without that ingredient, we both agreed, I wouldn’t have paused and thought of my mom. I wouldn’t have had that transportive moment connecting me to something concrete, quieting that dissociative feeling I sometimes get, living so far away from my first home.

Personally, it was a treat to see South Asians and non-South Asians alike digging into crisp, savory dosas and possibly unearthing a drumstick or two in their sambars. The restaurant’s success resonates so deeply, because, in a way, it’s my success too.

“At some point, you want to be identified for who you really are,” says Mazumdar, who can finally serve the uncompromising Desi cuisine he first set out to with his father ten years ago. But Pandya also had it right when he said it had to happen here in New York. This is our home now and maybe, finally, it’s time to see ourselves truthfully represented in the annals of American culture.

 

Mahira Rivers is a restaurant critic and writer based in New York, and Resy’s New York columnist. In addition to spending five years as an anonymous inspector for The Michelin Guides, her writing has been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Food & Wine, GQ and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.