America’s Best Restaurant Pays Homage To India’s Favorite Snack Food

The bestselling dish at Chai Pani has an amazing backstory.

An Indian Restaurant’s Rise Mirrors Asheville’s
An Indian Restaurant’s Rise Mirrors Asheville’s

As more and more American restaurateurs embrace street food—it’s shorthand for delicious and accessible—there’s growing interest in the history of dishes that we’ve long taken for granted.

Wherever you go in the world, the creation myth of street food begins with the rise of modern industry, mostly in the early 1800s. The scene is usually set like this: People are working in smoky factories and dank warehouses; the work is grindingly hard and the breaks cruelly short; to keep going, the bone-tired women and men need a quick meal that can be had for a few coins. Catering to this demand, carts and stalls spring up outside the gates, selling sandwiches, bowls of noodles or burgers.

In time, these humble offerings evolve into a rich genre of snacks that are celebrated in the culture and enjoyed by all.

In India, the story of street food has several twists at the top. For one thing, its first consumers weren’t exhausted workers on their lunch break but commodity traders looking for a late dinner. For another, the country’s most popular snack, pav bhaji, can be traced to the 1860s and the far away American Civil War. The history of the dish, unbeknownst to most Indians, even includes an important cameo appearance by Portuguese traders and missionaries.

The Civil War connection is this: With the Confederate states, the world’s leading producers of cotton, locked in conflict with the Union, British textile makers turned to India for supply of the indispensable commodity. Traders in Mumbai, eager to cash in on the demand from the mills in Manchester, worked into the wee hours—the better to stay abreast of the prices coming over the telegraph from Britain. Street vendors catering to their appetite created an entirely new snack, marrying briochelike buns (popularized in Mumbai by those Portuguese) known as “pav” to a spicy mishmash of vegetables known as “bhaji.”

It was nutritious and cheap, and pretty soon it was being scarfed down by workers in Indian cotton mills, which clustered in cities such as Ahmedabad, which came to be known as the “Manchester of India.”  

Although Indian street food varies from state to state and city to city, pav bhaji remains one of the country’s most popular snacks. It’s spawned multiple variants, including “vada pav” (a spicy potato patty in a sandwich) and “kheema pav” (a thick stew of minced meat, preferably goat, meant to be soaked up in those buns).

Very few Indians know their favorite snack has an American connection, and it’s a safe bet that even fewer Americans know their country’s contribution to Indian street food. So, it’s deliciously apt that the eatery named this year’s most outstanding restaurant in the US by the James Beard Foundation serves Indian street food in the once Confederate state of North Carolina.

And it’s doubly appropriate that the most popular items on the menu at Chai Pani include vada pav and kheema pav.

The restaurant is a no-frills place in downtown Asheville—the dining room feels a long way from the glamorous spaces favored by institutions that hand out stars and awards. It’s a pretty good facsimile of the vibe you get in a Mumbai snack bar: Those cotton traders would’ve felt completely at home.

The mostly American clientele seems pretty comfortable, too. It says a great deal for how far Indian cuisine has come in this country that Chai Pani can thrive in a small town without a large South Asian diaspora. And it says something about Asheville, too: The former hippie hangout has become one of America’s most happening towns.

On a recent visit to the restaurant, chef-owner Meherwan Irani tells me his diners, some of whom were encountering Indian street food for the first time, were especially fond of his kheema pav. “It’s like the gateway drug to the rest of my menu,” he says. “You try this, and your palate opens up to other tastes and flavors.”

To help newbies take the leap of faith, Irani has labeled the dish “Sloppy Jai,” a nod and wink to the old-school American sandwich. “If it sounds like something you’ve had before, you’ll be more open to trying it,” he says.

I’m prepared to chide Irani for making it with ground lamb rather than goat. This substitution is common in Indian restaurants outside India, and it usually results in poor imitations of the real thing. But Irani knows to compensate for the difference in meats by adjusting the spice marinade and simmering the lamb lower and longer than you would goat.

The result is a dark, rich hash of minced meat and tomatoes, with strong notes of ginger rising above the other spices. It can hold its own against the best kheema pav vendors on Mumbai’s iconic Mohammed Ali Road.

Born in Ahmednagar, in the same state as Mumbai, Irani also knows the importance of getting the pav just right. He’s still working with local bakers to reproduce the softness of the original, and the version he serves is nearly there. It’s toasted with butter on a skillet, which imparts just a little crisp to the bread while leaving it absorbent enough to soak up the juices from the hash.

His vada pav is dryer, but the bread is toasted crunchier to offset the softness of the potato patty. Those cotton traders, most of whom came from vegetarian communities, would have approved.

Irani, who never trained as a chef, is acutely aware of the connections between street food and commerce. “Most of the dishes on my menu were invented in the lanes outside factories,” he says. “You can see what they got from this dish: carbs, protein, a hit of spices. It delivers a jolt of energy, which you take back to work.”

In truth, you don’t have to know the history of Indian street food to enjoy what Irani serves. But it might just add a certain tingle to the taste.

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