Easing Into Indian

Operators aim to menu Westernized versions of authentic Indian dishes. Now, many have found a way to prepare them consistently and easily as ‘street food’ goes mainstream.

In the U.S., so aptly dubbed the “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser in his best seller of that title, we like food to be ready to grab-and-go. On the other hand, our evermore sophisticated palates have gained an appreciation for international cuisine. Although it did not happen overnight, several noted chefs have been in the vanguard, bringing the flavors of complex cuisines into the mainstream.

Chef Rick Bayless, through his books—most recently “Mexico One Plate At A Time,” and through his 26-part public television series of the same title—has been called the father of Mexican cooking. Similarly, Chef Allen Susser is hailed as one of the inventors of New World Cuisine—a blending of American, Caribbean and Latin foods—and has been a major influence in bringing these flavors to our tables.

Then, there is Sukhi Singh, whose efforts to bring the varied and complex flavors of Indian cuisine into our lexicon have been so unstinting that she has achieved one-name icon status—and is known simply as “Sukhi” to her customers and supplier partners. She has achieved her goal of developing Westernized versions of these dishes so they can be authentically, consistently, quickly and easily reproduced in non-commercial kitchens.

Today she is acknowledged by a multitude of chefs and operators as the “mother of Indian cooking,” the person who has made the myriad flavors of India accessible to us all. Even those customers who only want fast food may soon find an Indian option that suits them.

Fool-proof menuing: As a trained chef and educator, Singh has conducted training sessions for chefs with all the major contract management companies, for groups of college and university foodservice directors, and others. By providing pre-measured seasonings and marinades, along with an array of somewhat Westernized recipes, she has made menuing Indian dishes basically foolproof.

Recently, Singh partnered with Levy Restaurants to develop Dosa Delhi, an Indian “street food,” or grab-and-go concept that’s ready to roll. Meanwhile, customers at a variety of non-commercial accounts in California—University of California-Berkeley, Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Nvidia (Aramark) in Santa Clara, and Intuit (Sodexho) and Veritas (Guckenheimer) in Mountain View—can choose various “East Meets West” sandwiches that Singh has devised.

These include a Madras potato sandwich: potatoes seasoned with turmeric and mustard seed in pita bread. There’s also a mixed vegetable sandwich in pita bread. Her “Street Foods of India” program includes sabji puri, a delicately spiced Indian bread with mixed vegetables rolled into a wrap. And, she offers a variety of wraps and rolls, from roti rolls (vegetarian or chicken) to Naanwiches, Singh’s trademark sandwich of two triangular pieces of naan (bread) filled with chicken curry, chicken tikka masala, or channa masala of sweet and sour garbanzos.

From Idaho to Philly: Even where the chef is familiar with the nuances of Indian flavors and recipes, Singh’s influence is often present. Donald Bowman, executive chef at Philadelphia (Penn.) University, a Parkhurst Dining Services account, grew up on a ranch in Idaho where traditional Indian food was prepared in the kitchen every day.

“My grandparents were missionaries and my father was born on a passenger liner on the way to Bombay,” he explains. “My father spent almost 20 years in India raised by his amah, the woman hired to watch over the kids. Since she and her family were Hindu, he was brought up eating the Indian dishes she prepared. So at home in Idaho, half the family ate Indian (vegetarian) dishes—we didn’t know any different.”

At Philadelphia University, where Bowman and his staff serve approximately 450 daily lunchtime customers as well as about 650 for dinner, tandoori chicken, chicken vindaloo, dahl (like a dry lentil soup), naan and dosas (lentil crepes filled with chickpeas or meats) are menued throughout the course of the five-week cycle.

A collaborative effort: “It’s a collaboration of Parkhurst’s and mine,” Bowman says. “We believe in all our foods being made in-house and fresh. One of our approved vendors is Quick N Ezee Indian Foods, Sukhi’s company. I knew her 20 years ago in California where we did some teaching together. She’s classically trained in India as a chef and asked herself, ‘How can I bring this to the American palate?’

“Product comes to me as a paste,” he explains. “I add protein, the right amount of her paste, plus the liquid such as water, coconut milk or cream. She’s made it very seamless for these products to be served within (the parameter of) Parkhurst’s creed. The result is the true flavor of the dish and not an approximation.”

Occasionally, Bowman menus additional Indian recipes including some that were his grandmother’s. “In Northern India where she lived,” he says, “chicken and seafood are not quite that available so my grandmother did a Kashmir lamb dish that I’ve put out at the Bravo (action) station—and Sukhi confirmed that it’s very authentic.”

Perfect panir: Panir, a simple-to-prepare, traditional Indian cheese, is one of Bowman’s specialties. To prepare, he heats milk to 200°F, adds vinegar or lemon juice to curdle it, then drains the liquid in cheesecloth. The remaining curd, the panir, is stored overnight, then cut into pieces to serve with a sauce at the Bravo station.

“We’ve also done panir in a spinach dish called channa,” he says. “These things lend themselves equally well to vegetarian recipes. There’s an Indian dish on our Bravo station about four weeks out of the five-week cycle, or it may be at Parkside, our serving line, where we’d do potatoes prepared with Sukhi’s paste and dried spice mixes—they’re all vegetarian—to offer variety to our students.”

There’s no particular equipment challenge to preparing traditional Indian dishes at Philadelphia University, especially since most Parkhurst locations boast wood-burning ovens. “About 50% of the time, they’re used for pizza,” Bowman says. “But we can marinate chickens in cast iron pans, then I can do 16 to 20 birds at a time in the pizza oven as tandoori chicken. Also, Indian cooking uses sauté pans similar to woks, so we can use the same woks that we use for stir-fries. The only requirement I have is for the cooks to be conscious of students who are vegans—or have allergies—so they use different pans. Overall, the cooking methods are the same as those any trained cook would use for any cuisine.”

Now in his early 40s, chef Bill Laychur, executive chef for Penn State University Housing and Foodservice based in University Park, clearly remembers dining in Indian restaurants when in his teens and early 20s, and recalls how vivid the flavor profiles were. But it’s only within the last few years that his customers—there are more than 40,000 undergrads plus graduate students on campus—have demanded more ethnically diverse cuisines including Indian.

“We started out with one vegetarian dish about three years ago—aloo mater, a spicy potato and pea stew—and it was very well accepted,” Laychur says. “We then got the idea to partner with one of the local Indian restaurants, Indian Pavilion, and offer two of their items once a week in Warnock Dining Commons and that was also very successful. With the items going so well, we looked for a source for the spices and blends to make our own and found that to be a challenge.

“Two years ago, we found a company (Singh’s) that provides the spice blends and pastes and we do the rest,” he continues. “Now, we offer chicken curry, chicken jalferezi, chicken tikka masala and aloo mater on our cycle menu as well as about nine other recipes on one menu or another and they’ve been very well received.”

Vendor demos: Laychur hosted a two-day cooking seminar last summer featuring a representative from Singh’s company. “About 70 or 80 cooks from nine campuses attended these training sessions where the rep explained how the products are used and conducted demonstrations,” he says. “Then (our) cooks went into the kitchen and tried out the recipes. Prior to this, I looked all the recipes over to see if they’re balanced—that is, to see if something’s way out of line for 1,200 portions, or 24 batches of 50. I tested the company’s recipes, especially from the food cost (aspect).

“For example, I know from experience if a product needs a certain amount of sauce in it,” he continues. “Too much indicated in the recipe would increase our food cost. Now, seven dining halls at University Park include the four items (mentioned above) on their cycle menu. Three dining halls are not on a cycle, but they use the pool of our recipes—mostly in foodcourt venues—that are in our recipe file.”

Laychur stresses that he doesn’t make up the menus. “I am the only executive chef for these operations but the menus are made by a committee,” he explains. “Since I’m on the committee, I can bring up ideas like having Sukhi’s products since they put all the dry spice blends and pastes together for you, they’re all balanced and made up for you for consistency. Since we use all our own vegetables and proteins, I call our Indian prep ‘pseudo-scratch.’”

Feeling a void: Indian cuisine is so popular among customers at Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calf., that Bridgeen Keys, Bon Appetit Manage-ment Company’s district manager for Cisco, knows something’s missing when Surinder Thapar, her chef at the account, takes his annual three-week vacation back home to India.

“Surinder has been with us for about four years; with his arrival we were able to introduce Indian food here,” Keys says. “We serve about 17,500 on campus each day and about 1,000 customers choose Indian food daily. He’s been gone two weeks (in late March) and I’ve been getting irate e-mails from customers. Last year, when he returned after three weeks, the lines were longer than ever.”

Thapar creates the menus from his own recipes and begins his day at 3:30 or 4 a.m. so that he has ample time to make his own panir (cheese) and chutneys. “It’s his own program and it’s all from-scratch,” Keys points out.

"Currently, he cooks in one kitchen then we ship the dishes via our catering truck to five other cafes about three miles from first to last.

“Indian food is a daily feature in the Market Café—our largest—and two or three times a week in the others,” she continues. “Each day there’s one meat and one vegetarian meal; a meal might be meat and rice plus dahl, naan or pappadam, as well as vegetables. That all sells for less than $6, or items can be purchased a la carte.”

Although there are many Indian customers, Keys finds that people of all ethnicities line up for Thapar’s authentic Indian fare. Catering customers also appreciate Indian food and there’s usually a finger food station featuring samosas, pikoras and other items, for the annual five- or 10-year anniversary awards luncheon.

Curry-free: Since a good 10% of the 2,000 daily lunchtime customers of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas in Richardson are of Indian descent, an Indian dish is menued daily, notes Michael Hoptay, manager of foodservice. “You don’t have to cook with curry for everything,” he says. “We’ve learned to do curry-free and that tends to be very popular, especially with vegetarians.”

Over the years, Hoptay has reached out to his customers via e-mail requests for “home” recipes, then picked the most interesting ones with ingredients that can be found from just about any supplier. Indian rice and Indian potatoes, for example, are popular and very easy to prepare, he says. These and perhaps an Indian chicken dish are featured at the salad bar once every other week.

Student consultants: At the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the Indian population is relatively small, but Dennis Pierce, director of dining services, menus Indian recipes occasionally, usually as a component of an international event. He finds ingredients are not hard to source, either from his own prime vendor or in the Hartford area where there are several large Asian grocery stores.

When such fare is requested by an Indian group, he typically uses group members as consultants. “We’d prepare the items for them and hold a tasting so they’d know we’re on the mark,” Pierce says. “That’s very important—not to get culinary hopes up, then disappoint. It’s almost like palate translation—they might have to tweak the recipe.”

Every Wednesday: Even in the heart of New York City where Indian restaurants abound—from fast food Curry-In-A-Hurry to upscale locations such as Suvir Saran’s Devi—more than 400 of the 3,000 daily lunchtime customers line up each Wednesday for the Indian self-serve buffet set out at the International station at Citigroup.

Responding to the many requests for Indian food, general manager David Clarke and his staff at this Restaurant Associates’ account devised a weekly solution. “The selections change a little bit from week to week, although the chutneys and naan remain the same,” Clarke points out. “Lamb biryani is very popular and basmati rice always goes gangbusters. Also, fish baked in yogurt sauce is generally a sell-out—we do 120 pounds each time it’s menued.

“Some dishes are spicier than others and we do put ‘spicy’ on the sign if that’s the case,” he adds. “But every Wednesday, folks line up for it—and the feed back is totally positive.”

Indian Cuisine Defined

Aloo mater—spicy potato stew
Biryani pastes—for seasoning the meat or vegetable layer of rice casseroles
Dosa—South Indian, paper-thin, platter-sized crepes
Garam (“warming”) masala—ground spice mixtures
Jalferezi cooking sauce—a thick, pale yellow, creamy paste used for a pan-fried chicken dish
Naan—(oven-baked) leavened white-flour bread enriched with yogurt, eggs and butter
Pappadam—wafer-thin East Indian bread made with lentil flour
Puri—(fried) puffed bread
Roti—flat bread
Samosa—fried triangular pastries filled with meat and/or vegetables (street food)
Tikka—boneless cubes of meat, chicken or fish or minced meat kebabs grilled on skewers over coals
Vindaloo—hot, sweet and sour curry made with a spice mix blended with tamarind and a little vinegar

Source: “The Indian Grocery Store Demystified,” by Linda Bladholm

Levy, Sukhi Link on Delhi

Chicago—Levy Restaurants has its roots in a Chicago deli. Now, the recently acquired division of Compass Group is nearing completion of its new Indian concept, Dosa Delhi—play on words intended.

The company, like so many other non-commercial foodservice organizations, worked with Sukhi Singh (supplier of Indian foods and a consultant in Indian menu development) to create the concept. At the end of March, Singh handed off the project to the Levy team having contributed to the development of flavor profiles of what’s typical of dosa.

High time: “I’m excited something like this is coming out at such a high level,” Singh says. “I was totally amazed by the time and effort on their part. I believe customers are ready for this—everybody knows the words now, such as samosas and dosa. Ready-to-eat is the way we see it; back of the house, they want five-pound bags of about 15 choices since they don’t have the time to cook.”

According to John McLean, vice president and chef de cuisine for the Sports and Entertainment Group of Levy Restaurants, an innovation team within Levy worked with Singh on food and flavor profiles, with the goal of making them as authentic as possible while appealing to the American palate.

“We’ll have our Dosa Delhi concept ready to roll out as we identify which locations need a fresh approach,” he says. “We’ve already targeted the O2 Arena in London for a 2007 introduction since Indian food is very popular in the U.K.”

Dosa this, dosa that: The stand-alone concept will be implemented as a mini restaurant or upscale concession in a quick-serve environment. The menu focus is on dosa, the traditional Indian crepe made from lentil flour. These large, crispy, savory crepes will contain a variety of fillings including:

  • Potato and cauliflower masala for a vegetarian dosa.
  • Coconut-shrimp dosa of ginger, cilantro, curry, coconut milk and shrimp.
  • Tandoori chicken dosa.
  • Mushroom, spinach and feta cheese dosa.

"Plus, we’re taking ground turkey and ground lamb to prepare kefka, a traditional curry dish seasoned with curry and other spices, then skewered and grilled,” McLean points out.

The Dosa Delhi concept—geared to stadium, arena and college/university accounts—will also include a dessert offering of three sweet dosa:

  • Caramelized banana and sweet cream cheese dosa served warm (as all dosa are) right off the flat top griddle.
  • Chocolate hazelnut dosa.
  • Sweet cream cheese (a spread of cream cheese, honey and vanilla) with fresh berries.

New look: “It’s fun and it’s interesting,” McLean asserts. “The team looked at it this way: we have award winning chefs but Indian food is so complex that it would be difficult to mimic those flavors consistently from location to location. Sukhi gives authenticity and consistency, as well as very high quality."


More from our partners