‘Indian food not defined by just seven-eight dishes’

Celebrated chef Chintan Pandya on offering food from the ‘forgotten side of India’ at his New York restaurant Dhamaka

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Chintan Pandya

‘Dhamaka’ literally translates to ‘explosion’, a perfect adjective to describe chef Chintan Pandya’s food, which he offers at his New York restaurant of the same name. It is also the perfect adjective for the impact the eatery has created, garnering rave reviews from The New York Times and Esquire, both of which adjudged Dhamaka as the number 1 restaurant in New York in 2021. It is no small feat given the eatery, which offers food from “the forgotten side of India”, had opened during the Covid pandemic the same year.

For as long as one can think of, Indian food internationally is known by a handful of dishes. “People think Indian food is made up of just these seven-eight dishes. And we, ourselves are to blame for that,” says Pandya, recipient of the James Beard Award, the most prestigious culinary award in the US. Going beyond butter chicken, naan and samosa, he, along with his partner and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar, introduced New Yorkers to foods, such as Beguni, Gurda Kapoora (goat kidney and testicles), Champaran Meat, and Rajasthani Khargosh, a whole rabbit cooked with yogurt and cloves that one needs to order at least two days in advance.

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The two were in India as a part of a collaboration between Masters of Marriott Bonvoy and Culinary Culture. The idea for the ‘Unapologetic Foods’ duo is to go regional, presenting dishes from states like Meghalaya, Odisha, and even Bihar, which one might not usually find on a menu. “When we opened, the only idea or vision was that we wanted to make something good, which we are proud of, and also make people aware that Indian food is not defined by just seven-eight dishes. So, the idea was to cook something that was from the forgotten side of India,” the chef says. “Even today, if you walk into a restaurant in India, will you find a dish from Odisha?” he asks.

Although Dhamaka turned out to be a grand success, it was no minor risk given regionality is increasingly diminishing from India’s culinary scene too. Speaking on the risk, Pandya rejected the term altogether. “If you ask me if something will work out or not, I will have no idea. It is completely up to the customers, as they are the ones paying for it,” Pandya says.

And it appears, his Pressure Cooker Pulao, Lamb Shank Nihari, and Tabak Maaz seem to have struck a chord with the diners. According to the chef, it was “honesty” that resonated with the customers. “Also, the servers should be approachable. We do not have people who are uptight, because I myself do not like going to such restaurants. Customers give 90 min or 2 hours at our restaurant when they go out, they should feel they had the time of their life. Hence, I just have one brief for my team: treat a guest as if your friend is dining at your home. I don’t need to place the glass at a certain angle. It is that simple,” he elaborates.

What is attractive about Dhamaka at the first glance is its seemingly offbeat menu, which has dishes from across several Indian states. Again, boiling down such culinary diversity into a menu appears taxing, however, for Pandya, it is just a matter of instincts. “The day you will not go by your instincts, you will fail—at least for me it works like that,” he says.

Surprisingly, the most-sold dish at Dhamaka is paneer. “I have been cooking Indian food for 23 years at different restaurants. Normally, the biggest main-course seller is a chicken main course. Dhamaka is the first place, where the highest selling main course is actually a paneer main course,” he says. Speaking of what sets apart paneer at his restaurant, the chef attributes it to how the cheese is made. “When I went to the US in 2013, I had gone crazy tasting the paneer there, not the dish but its quality,” he says. Dhamaka sources its cottage cheese from a particular dairy and buys the whole batch and makes its paneer fresh.

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Despite the success, Pandya does not give much heed to competition. While he would love to see more Indian restaurants performing well in the US, there is hardly any competition with other international cuisines. “Indian restaurants are just a fraction of the number of Chinese or Mexican restaurants there. So, there is no point in competing,” he says.

So, what is his idea? “My job is just to cook good food. It is to ensure that the two hours a customer gives to me by dining at my restaurant, my job is to make her happy so that when she goes back, she remembers that the meal here was fantastic,” he adds.

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First published on: 26-02-2023 at 02:45 IST
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