Episode 8 February 17, 2020

Chicken Biryani with Meherwan Irani

Chef Meherwan Irani pays homage to his homeland at his Indian restaurants in Atlanta and Asheville, NC. His innovative take on chaat, the crunchy, spicy street snacks he eats in India, has earned him four James Beard Award-nominations.

Yet he is not bound by any notions of authenticity. In fact, some might balk at how he makes biryani in this episode. He cooks this traditional layered rice dish in a most untraditional way, and talks about why he believes it’s not fusion, it’s evolution.

Follow SpicewallaChai Pani, and Meherwan Irani on Instagram. Learn more about his restaurants at ChaiPaniRestaurantGroup.com.

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Jen Nathan Orris [00:00:00] This is Skillet, the podcast where we cook together and listen to each other. I’m Jen Nathan Orris. Here on Skillet, we love a good meal and the stories behind it. Just this season we’ve baked tres leches cake, braised oxtails, fried tostones, and made chicken from many corners of the world.

The guests on the show are a mix of award-winning chefs, every day families, and talented farmers. They pick a dish that means a lot to them, then I go over to their home to cook it and talk about the memories that come up.

I record every sizzle and chop, which become a soundtrack to stories about family and identity – the ways people honor traditions and break through them to explore new ideas.

James Beard Award-nominated chef, Meherwan Irani, is an ambassador for the nuances of Indian cuisine. He’s the founder of Spicewalla, a company that sources spices from around the word and blends them for restaurants and home cooks.

His first restaurant – Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina – serves chaat, the crunchy, spicy street snacks he likes to eat when he visits family in India. Thali are also on the menu. They include several regional dishes on one platter – part of Meherwan’s efforts to highlight India’s culinary diversity.

Before the restaurant opened, his mother flew here to help craft the menu, and her influence can still be tasted at the restaurant, like her suggestion to add the peppery flavor of caraway seeds to the pakora batter.

Meherwan’s Atlanta restaurant, Botiwalla, serves Parsi cuisine inspired by the Irani Cafe his grandfather once owned. Faded black and white photos of his family hang on the wall.

But this reverence for tradition doesn’t preclude him from trying more unconventional approaches to Indian food. His dinner series Brown in the South is a collaboration between chefs of Indian and Sri Lankan descent who have embraced their identities as Southerners. The dishes they serve at the dinners combine Indian spices with Southern ingredients – think of the lentil dish daal topped with collards and country ham. Sometimes the recipes ruffle some feathers, and traditionalists might balk at how he makes biryani on the show today.

Before we get in the kitchen, a little background about biryani. It’s a one-pot dish that layers basmati rice with vegetables, spices, and sometimes chicken, goat, or lamb. It varies greatly based on the region of India and the religion of the person making it, but the through-line is the steam. After the layers go in the pot, the dish is covered and the lid is sealed with dough. It’s cooked over a low flame for about half-an-hour, then you pull off the bread, lift the lid, and steam erupts. Plunge a spoon inside and you’ll find that the rice and vegetables are soft and saturated with spices. The meat is incredibly tender and the aroma is divine.

Biryani is usually saved for special occasions because it takes a while to prepare the layers and make the dough, and then you have to be patient while it cooks low and slow. But not today! Meherwan totally surprised me with how he makes his version.

I had no idea what method he’d be using when I walked up to his house in Asheville, North Carolina.

[Car door slam]

Meherwan lives with his wife and business partner, Molly Irani, their daughter Aria, and their dog, Rosie.

[Rosie barking]

[Meherwan and Molly say hello]

Meherwan and I have had many long conversations—I’ve interviewed him for a few magazine stories over the years—and this time he delved into family history that he hasn’t talked about with reporters before.

But before we get to that, we need to get started on the meal. Meherwan is all set up in the kitchen, so let’s turn things over to him.

Meherwan Irani [00:02:56] My name is Meherwan Irani, and we’re making a Parsi-style biryani today. It’s my go to comfort meal, a biryani. It’s a great one pot meal. It’s also considered special meal. Like usually you don’t just make biryani at home. It’s usually a special occasion. Whenever I come home to India, my mom will always make biryani as sort of a welcome gift because she knows how much I love it.

[00:01:16] [rice bag crinkling].

Meherwan Irani [00:01:21] Let’s do one, two, just put all of it in. Two and a half cups.

[00:01:25] [rice falling into measuring cops].

Meherwan Irani [00:01:25] My mom’s parents were rice farmers from the foothills of the Himalayas, and that’s where this rice comes from, from the foothills of the Himalayas. Every year, sacks of this would show up instead of like a Christmas present almost. I think it’s taken me two years to get through this bag. So you’ll see you’ll see how fluffy he gets.

[00:01:43] [water washing rice].

Meherwan Irani [00:01:43] So I got myself a new instapot and I’m curious to see how biryani can be made in an instapot.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:01:48] A little bit of a new take on a very old dish.

Meherwan Irani [00:01:52] Yep. That’s what we’re doing. [laugh]

Jen Nathan Orris [00:01:56] That’s kind of your style.

Meherwan Irani [00:01:57] Some Indian is probably rolling over their graves saying, “What? You’re cooking biryani in an instapot?” I’m like, “Get over it.” [laugh] It’s going to be fine.

[00:02:05] [knife chopping onions].

Meherwan Irani [00:02:05] So it’s funny, you notice I have white and red onions and we used different onions for different kinds of food. So biryani is meant to be soft and warming, so we use a white onion, that’s a little bit sweeter instead of a sharp red onion. But the raita that I’m going to make, I’m going to use the sharp red onion, because that works better with the acidity of the yogurt.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:23] So where’d you grow up?

Meherwan Irani [00:02:24] I grew up in India in a small town called Ahmednagar. I moved there when I was four, so I was born in London, but my parents moved back to India and me and my brother, who was just born, ended up in a small little, almost like a village called Ahmednagar, about five hours outside of Mumbai.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:02:42] Tell me about your family.

Meherwan Irani [00:02:44] So let’s see. My mom is from North India, from an area called Dehradun. She’s, you know, in India, you define yourself by your ethnicity, and your religion a lot. So she’s Hindu-Brahmin and she’s a mountain folk. She likes to call herself, in India, the colloquialism for being from the mountains, which actually means mountain. And my dad is a Parsi and Parsis are Zoroastrian Persians pre-Iran that left Persia to come to India escaping persecution as Persia was becoming a Muslim dominant country. They’re escaping religious persecution. So the majority of them settled in India. They arrived in Gujarat. Then we’re talking about twelve hundred years ago, give or take. And then there’s been a steady sort of diaspora over the years. My father’s family came much later. They came in the 1800s. So they were late Parsis, so to speak, to India. And interestingly enough, there’s a distinction culturally between the early Parsis that came about a thousand years ago. And then the later Parsis that came a little bit later.

[00:03:52] [knife chopping onions].

Meherwan Irani [00:03:52] My great grandfather, when he showed up and he arrived in India with no paperwork, just an immigrant from now Iran. His last name became Irani, and that’s why my family name his Irani.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:04:03] Oh, that’s so interesting.

Meherwan Irani [00:04:04] Kind of like when people arrived on Ellis Island, their last names follow their occupations in a Schumacher became Shoemaker and so on.

Meherwan Irani [00:04:10] All right. Onion is done. What else? Some ginger.

[00:04:20] [spoon scraping ginger skin].

Jen Nathan Orris [00:04:20] So tell me about how you’re peeling the ginger here.

Meherwan Irani [00:04:23] So I just use a spoon to scrape the skin off. It’s so much easier than trying to use a peeler or a knife if you just use the edge of your spoon. The skin comes off and you barely lose any ginger. It’s just a real efficient and easy way to peel some slice up the gender.

[00:04:39] [knife cutting through fibrous ginger].

Meherwan Irani [00:04:39] So for the biryani, the onions and ginger get sauteed.

[00:04:43] [knife mincing ginger].

Meherwan Irani [00:04:43] Ginger and garlic are the building blocks of almost all Indian cuisine.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:04:48] So you mentioned this is something that your mom makes a lot. Tell me more about her.

Meherwan Irani [00:04:53] Well, my mom is she’s a remarkable woman. And I know everybody feels that way about their moms. But I’ve actually got proof. And what I mean by that is she was married when she was 18. It was an arranged marriage. And she didn’t even make it to college, got married straight out of high school, and then had to go and leave immediately and go to a foreign land with a new husband, my dad, because my dad was living in England at the time. So, you know, her English, she spoke sort of you a high school English as a second language in India, arrived in London and had to immediately acclimatize to a whole new culture. Well, OK. Fair enough. But here’s where things got different. My dad was losing his eyesight. So by the time she married him, he was almost completely blind. And by the time I was born, he was completely blind. And which is the reason that we came back to India, because, you know, my mom realized that with my dad unable to see, he wouldn’t be the earner in the family. And in India, those rules are very traditional. You know, the women stayed home, at least back then. I mean, of course, I’m talking about in the 70s. So they moved back to India. And my mom had to become sort of, you know, play that role. The male role in the family was very difficult entity back in the day because it’s so patriarchal there. It’s a male dominated society. Women are just not out conducting business. Not going to the bank and in doing sort of these male dominated activities, even now when you walk around in India, the one number one thing you’ll notice is a lot more men, like almost 9 to 1 out and about than they are women shopping this that the other. Now, of course, in the major metropolitan cities, that’s different because those are much more Westernized. But in rural India and in small cities and you know, it’s it’s men. Women are at home. And if they’re and about, they’re doing sort of more, you know, traditional women sort of, you know, allocated assigned roles like maybe the shopping for the vegetables.

Meherwan Irani [00:06:50] But my mom had to come in and do it all. So she had to navigate through sort of all the traditional male roles, you know, of running the house of doing business. And she also had a creative business from scratch because my dad couldn’t just work in the traditional sense. Not having a college education, she couldn’t just go out and get a job somewhere unless it was something, you know, menial. So to speak, or secretarial, if you will. And also, she couldn’t just leave my dad at home and she had these two kids. So she started a home based business. We were staying at a place where a lot of Westerners came. Well, she noticed that they’d go out and go shopping and buy like Indian jewelry and scarfs and trinkets and all the traditional fabrics and, you know, traditional folk art of India. And we’re getting ripped off because, you know, the Westerners didn’t know what they were doing. So she went out and started buying all this sort of stuff that she thought would be, you know, souvenirs and gifts to the Westerners going to buy and out of her home. I remember it was a tiny little room in the back, had like a little boutique going on. And the Westerners loved it because they trusted my mom. And the prices were where a hundred times better than going out and navigating through these markets. And she would then start traveling. She’d go to Jaipur. And then there’s my mom negotiating with, you know, silver merchants. And this is the you don’t see women doing these things normally. And she was she was amazing. She had I mean, people just respected the hell out of her. I mean, she walked in the room and commanded the room. She’d walk into a bank. And, you know, women didn’t go and set up bank accounts back then. My mom would do that and file taxes and get this business going. And she transformed this tiny little room into a thriving business. That and taking care of her blind husband and raising two kids and basically being one of the best cooks I know. Yeah. My mom’s pretty remarkable woman.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:08:42] So the reason that your family moved back to India was because your father went blind. Do you think the course of your life would have been very different if he hadn’t if that hadn’t happened?

Meherwan Irani [00:08:52] Oh, absolutely. I would have grown up a British, you know, Indian, which is not unusual, there’s a huge Indian diaspora in London, in England. So it wouldn’t have been an unusual place for me to be. I felt like culturally OK, place for me to be. But yeah, it changed trajectory of my life.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:09:07] Amazing story. I didn’t know that about you.

Meherwan Irani [00:09:08] Yeah, she’s she is, you know, the single biggest influence in my life, my entire drive to be entrepreneurial is because I saw my mom do it from scratch. My fearlessness of just trying things that, you know, other people like. Well, I can’t. My mom and just people are constantly saying, how are you doing so much? You’ve got Spicewalla and Brown in the South and these restaurants and you’re constantly expanding. It’s like, that’s what my mom did. She just was this sort of tornado of energy that just went out there and just did it and never once stopped to think about, is this something I can or can’t do? She just did it.

Meherwan Irani [00:09:40] Sear off the chicken

[00:09:46] [chicken sizzling in pan].

Jen Nathan Orris [00:09:46] But the whole idea for biryani is that you’re cooking all the ingredients under pressure anyways, so traditionally the biryani would be layered with the chicken, the masala, which I’ll make with the ginger and the onions and some and some more garam masala, a little bit of curry powder or curry leave and the rice sort of almost like a casserole in layers. And then you seal the whole thing with a ring of dough between the lid and the pot so that you get a real airtight seal and then you cook it sort of low and slow until everything sort of cooks in there. So an Instapot should essentially do the same thing. It’s cooking under pressure and it’s keeping the steam inside of the single most important parts. So it doesn’t dry out. And then in India, when you crack the pot, the dough ring around it, sort of the steam escapes. And and it’s called dum biryani. The word dum literally means sort of breath of life, because when you crack it in, that breath comes out. You know that the Chinese also use the word breath to describe sort of, you know, certain cooking techniques. That’s when you know that you did it right. Instapot, it should be made for this.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:11:02] So how long will this take to cook in the Instapot?

Meherwan Irani [00:11:05] Five to eight minutes.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:11:06] What?

[00:11:06] Yep. Right. The longest part of the damn prep. The instapot’s the easy part. Okay. Now we’re going to cook up the onions and I’m gonna do it in the chicken fat slash grease.

[00:11:29] [gas stove ticking before flame ignites].

Meherwan Irani [00:11:31] Get in and smell the ghee also now.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:11:31] Oh, that smells good.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:11:45] So chicken just went in the Instapot.

Meherwan Irani [00:12:04] Maybe just a touch more water.

Meherwan Irani [00:12:15] Eight minutes and pressure is, how do we get the pressure level? Here we go.

[00:12:22] [Instapot beeping].

Meherwan Irani [00:12:23] High pressure. Normal. That’s it. It’ll turn out in a second.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:12:29] It gives a little beep to let you know that it’s heard.

[00:12:55] [Instapot beeping].

Jen Nathan Orris [00:12:55] It’s heard.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:12:55] The biryani is in the Instapot, somehow conjuring centuries of Indian cooking in just eight minutes. Chef Meherwan Irani and I still have lots to talk about, so don’t go away, we’ll be right back.

[break music]

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Music fade

Welcome back to Skillet, a podcast about food and memory.

I’m at Meherwan Irani’s house in Asheville, North Carolina. He’s been nominated for four James Beard Awards, he owns a spice company, and three Indian restaurants that celebrate the multifaceted nature of his homeland’s cuisine.

At his restaurants in Atlanta and North Carolina, he serves platters of Indian street foods like bhel puri and vada pav. But when he’s dreaming up new recipes for the dinner series Brown in the South, there might be anything from fried green tomatoes to country ham in the mix.

How did he become so comfortable combining Indian and Southern ingredients to create dishes that challenge preconceived notions of both cuisines? And how do people react to this melding of cultures and foodways?

Meherwan was born in London and moved to a small village in the Indian state of Maharashtra as a young child. I started by asking him about some of his earliest memories of Western culture.

Meherwan Irani [00:12:55] So my mom, dad and I came back from England when I was 4 years old in 1974, and we came to live with my grandmother. My grandfather passed away. And this is on the paternal side. My dad’s mom and she had a large rambling compound and after husband passed away, he was the bread winner in the family and she needed to figure out a way to earn an income. So what she did, which is very enterprising, she open it up as a bed and breakfast, almost like an inn, but not for Indians, because why would an Indian go and stay in a bed and breakfast in 1974? The concept didn’t even exist. In the town we lived in was an ashram, a spiritual ashram, it was called the Meher Baba Spiritual Ashram. And there was sort of a center there. And Westerners from all over the world, there were followers of him were coming to visit this his tomb. He had just passed away in 1969. And you gotta remember, this is sort of the late 60s, early 70s. Everybody was searching for a spiritual master. The West was going to India and to Asia. The Beatles were in India, you know, and some of these long haired, almost like hippies from all over the world are coming to this, my little hometown in the middle of nowhere and staying at my grandmother’s house. And so for me, even though I was born London, I mean, I was four when I came to India and the rest of my life would have been the normal version of it would have been small Indian town surrounded completely by my people, eating only the cuisine of my people and speaking the language of my people with only cultural references of my people. And by my people, I mean Parsis, because that’s where my parents are. And the little town of Ahmednagar in the state of Maharashtra. But instead, I had exposure to Western culture with all of these Americans and Europeans coming from all the world, you know, listening in and conversations about world politics and movies and cultural references to the West. And my mom became sort of the head chef, if you will, and started learning how to prepare food to feed all these Westerners that were coming. So she had to learn, I mean, literally how to cook European food. And when I say European, I mean in English. I mean, you know, Italian, Asian sometimes. And it wouldn’t be unusual to be sitting at the dinner table and to have rice and daal being served. But next to it, spaghetti and meatballs.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:15:25] And was there like blood sausage and all of those like classic English dishes?

Meherwan Irani [00:15:29] And so my dad loved those classic English dishes. So even though we weren’t necessarily making them for the guests, I remember eating baked beans on toast and every breakfast was an English breakfast. It was always, you know, eggs over easy, beans on toast, the kind of toast where it doesn’t come warm out of the oven. They actually have these little stands on the table on which you can hold toast, which basically ensures you have this completely dry, brittle, cold piece of bread and porridge sometimes and quite often cereal. And trust me, none of my friends, none of our friends were eating a breakfast anything close to that.

Meherwan Irani [00:16:07] This melding of Indian and Western cultures that you experience as a kid, is that something you’ve taken with you like other areas of your life now into adulthood?

Meherwan Irani [00:16:19] It absolutely has influenced who I am. I mean, I’m sort of really a you know, I’m a global citizen is how I felt like. You know, my dad was Parsi. My mom was Hindu Brahmin. Those two cultures normally don’t mix together. So just the fact that these two sort of religions slash cultures combined to produce me was already unusual to begin with, especially back in 1970 when I was born then growing up, being born in England and having English as my first language, I mean that, you know, it has an imprint on you. I mean, I still am more comfortable in English than I’m in Hindi. Even though I was four when I moved back to India and then started speaking Hindi. The fact that I was in Maharashtra, which is as a state, doesn’t have quite as long and deep of its own history and heritage as do certain parts of North Indian and South India. India was mostly populated from the south first. I mean, we’re talking about 10,000 years ago when humans were coming out of Africa and then over the centuries to the north where people immigrated down from Sumaria. And now what we think of as modern day Iraq and Mesopotamian, that entire area and Persians. So already Maharashtra was sort of like this land in the middle was sort of a melting pot of cultures, the largest city in India. Mumbai was there, which is sort of the cultural hub of India. And that influenced a lot of sort of my childhood and upbringing. And then to have this bed and breakfast that my grandparents ran with my mom and dad, with Americans and Westerners from all the world coming year in, year out, I mean, how could that not impact and affect who I am? So when I finally came to America, it was hardly culture shock. I mean, I arrived here fully informed, fully aware of the cultural sort of nuances and and arrived in the south in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina first. And then I went to Columbia to go to grad school and add a level of comfort with being here that was unusual. Even my other Indian friends that was literally their first time in America was surprised at how comfortable I seemed navigating, you know, what for them was really different and difficult. And then the food part of it, like I had already been exposed to so much Western food, and my mom was a phenomenal, phenomenal cook. I mean, if she was in America, you know, she’d be writing cookbooks. And so to go back, the question like how that influenced me. It is who I am. It’s like it’s very hard for me to think of myself as Parsi or Hindu or Maharashtra and or Indian or American. I just feel like I’m all those things.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:19:01] It seems like that philosophy of being a global citizen might come into play in your dinner series, Brown in the South. Do you think that’s right? And maybe you can tell us more about that.

Meherwan Irani [00:19:12] Yeah. So, you know, having lived all around the U.S., I mean, in the South, originally in South Carolina, then having moved to California and spending 10 to 12 years there and moving around in California and then coming back to the south to now Asheville, North Carolina. I never quite had a sense of this is where I’m from again. You never really had that sense even coming from India. But ten years after having opened Chai Pani and 15 years after having lived here, I suddenly one day was struck by the thought that I don’t have to worry so much about whether this region’s accepted me. Of course it has. I mean, my business is a successful, my family’s here. I feel like I’m a part of the community and respected. There’s nothing about this region that has in any way, shape or form not embraced me, accepted me for who I am. The problem was that I felt like I hadn’t quite embraced and accepted the region and counting myself as one of this area. I didn’t call myself a Southerner and it was a really sort of almost transformational thought for me personally. And the conversation that started it, I remember, was at the Southern Foodways Alliance, where I was hanging out with Vishwesh Bhatt, who spent his entire life in Oxford, Mississippi. So at least I have the luxury of being in Asheville. It’s sort of little, you know, liberal progressive corner of the south of you wukk. He’s in Oxford, Mississippi. And he, too, felt one hundred percent that he was from there. And this conversation started about us exploring this idea that at what point do you stop calling yourself an Indian that happens live in the south and start calling yourself a Southerner that happens to be from India? I mean, generations of immigrants have had to deal with that. You know, Germans, Irish, Italian. And at some point this transformation happens where they think of themselves as New Yorkers first and Italians second. And I was looking at Vish saying, how long’s it take? 10 years, 20 years, a generation. And we built, in that conversation, decided like, why not start now? I mean, look around us. The South is diverse, has these vibrant pockets. More immigrants are moving to this part of the country than any other part of the country just because of economics, job opportunity, cost of living. And yet, because the South is such a complicated history, immigrants that come here are slow to say I’m from here, myself included at the time. And the minute I decided to accept that it’s OK to say I’m a Southerner. And if somebody looks at me with the odd look in their face and says, You don’t look like a Southerner. Well, great. Let’s start that conversation. Let’s talk about, well, what does being a Southerner look like and how embedded do you have to be in this region to feel like you can belong here? Do you have to be part of its history? Yeah, for some people. But can you be someone that’s trying to be part of its history moving forward? Yeah, for some people. So when that ideas sort of coalesced into a conversation, we said, well, let’s see if there’s other people that are interested in talking about this. And as we looked around, we discovered something else is remarkable. We discovered that a whole bunch of young Indian chefs that were revolutionizing Indian food had decided to open the restaurants in south, not in New York, not in Boston, not in San Francisco, not in L.A., in the South. Maneet Chauhan was Nashville. Vish is in Oxford, Mississippi. I’m in Asheville, North Carolina. Asha was in Atlanta. Cheetie Kumar is in Raleigh. You’ve got somebody living down in Miami, we’re like, well, the south and we’re, let’s get us all together and talk about this phenomenon and being chefs, the only way we know how to do this is like, well, let’s have dinner. So we decided to launch a dinner series called Brown in the South and make it about a conversation. The first one will be called it Desi Diner. Desi is a colloquialism for being from India. It’s kind of like saying homie And we said if all of us worked in a southern diner and owned it, what would the food there look like? Well, we’d still be cooking southern staples, meat and three, meat loaf, fried chicken pancakes. you know, shrimp and grits. But every one of those dishes that we did, we said. But let’s also bring to it something from where we came from. And that’s how the whole dinner series evolved.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:23:51] Yeah. Can you give me some examples of dishes that really highlight this message that you serve at the dinner stories?

[00:23:57] Sure.

Meherwan Irani [00:23:58] Shrimp and grits is a great example. It’s such a southern, quintessentially southern dish. And the first time that I had shrimp and grits I said, oh, this is upma. We do a semolina-based sort of grits type porridge almost in India. That’s flavored almost exactly the same. The differences that we use milk to make upma with and season it a little bit with curry leaves and cumin and a little bit of ginger and chilis and then the shrimp on top. When I first experienced this tomato based shrimp and grits as it oh that’s exactly like patia, which is a Parsi dish where it’s also shrimp basically cooked in a spicy rich red gravy. And as it. It’s exactly the same dish. Can we bring elements from that to this? Use, you know, gulf shrimp and geechee boy grits use, you know, Cruze buttermilk, but then also bring some curry leaves, some black pepper, some ginger and essentially take something that’s so familiar and so comfortable for the typical Southerner and then add a little bit of something extra to it that just takes it to the next level. I don’t call that fusion. I call it evolution. I mean, Vish loves to talk about how so many things that we take for granted as Southern staples are not actually from here. There’s nothing more southern than sweet tea. But neither tea nor sugar are from the south. They were all bought by immigrants and traders from other parts of the world. So another great example is Sam. Samantha did a dish, this tomato pie, and all she did was added a hint of turmeric to the dough and a little bit of curry leaves to the tomato and onion filling and transform that dish into, I believe, what it was meant to be. And the only reason it never got there in the first place was because somebody didn’t come along with his ideas and ingredients. Maybe 50 years ago or a hundred years ago, you know, they had a limited set of ingredients. Now we’ve got a global set of ingredients and we can apply the same idea to dish and take it to where it could be. In my mind, was meant to be because it is phenomenal. You know, it made the cover of Food Wine magazine. And my understanding is people go about doing this thing called Cook the Cover, where they essentially try to cook the dish on the cover of a magazine. And it’s one of the biggest hits for Cook the Cover that they’ve ever received for Food and Wine.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:26:24] So I love the way you phrase that. It’s not fusion, it’s evolution. And I’m wondering, though, if you’ve gotten any pushback from that. And, you know, you mentioned Food and Wine. Maybe you could tell us about one of the Instagram posts that went up and if there was some pushback there.

Meherwan Irani [00:26:40] Oh, the infamous the infamous country ham dal makhani. [laugh] My friend, Vish, said, there you go, ruining perfectly good country ham by putting dal underneath it.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:26:50] So tell us more about that dish and then the response.

Meherwan Irani [00:26:53] So, again, you know, to me, the evolution of food isn’t necessarily trying to put two things that really shouldn’t go together together just because it’s cool. But there’s plenty of opportunities for things to go together that make perfect sense. And just because somebody hasn’t done it before doesn’t mean you can’t do that. I mean, everything that we think of as being bound by tradition, somebody made it up from scratch. So why does the process suddenly stop? Because you’ve named it and that’s all it’s ever meant to be. I mean, you know, cacio pepe. Well, it’s got to be made with, you know, with pasta. And Massimo, you know, demonstrated that, you know, you could make risotto based, cacio pepe, which they did when they had that huge earthquake and all that Parmesan was essentially going to be damaged, all those wheels. And they needed to come up with new ideas and new ways to use it. And in my mind, the risotto based cacio pepe is an evolution of what it could have been and should be. So why is it so hard to take something that’s “traditional” and say, I’m going to try something new with this? So for me, that was with dal makhani, famously has happened. When Food and Wine magazine did an article about Brown in the South, they asked for examples of dishes that were evolutionary, where we took something that we saw here and bought something from where we came from and try to meld the two together to see if something new could come out of it. That was a step forward. Da Makhani is a traditional North Indian Punjabi style dish in India. We use black lentils and these kidney beans called rajma and cook it low and slow with a lot of cream, a lot of butter, tomatoes. And traditionally you put it in a pot and laid it over the tandoor that was cooling down at night and the residual heat would slowly cooke the dal makhani and give it also this fragrant, smoky essence to it. The first time I came here and saw sort of any kind of a red bean stew with collards and ham hock in it. It reminded me so much of dal makhani to me that, you know, cured country ham or ham hock to get a smoky ness to that particular, you know, collards and beans dish that you saw, dal makhani. And I said, this is, why don’t I try to combine these two dishes, take a traditional sort of black eyed peas and red beans, sort of a stew here and and bring elements from dal makhani to it. Add that cream. Add that butter. But I didn’t take anything away. I left the collards in and I left the country ham in because I feel like, well, that’s what we were trying to do in India in different ways. We’re trying to get to the same thing – a depth of character, a smokiness, add pungency to this dish that’s meant to be warming and meant to fill you up in a one pot meal. And and yeah, it was a beautiful dish and it tasted incredible.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:29:54] I’ve had it and it’s amazing. It’s very memorable.

Meherwan Irani [00:29:57] So the problem is, is that the Food and Wine did a post on it. And they basically said, hey, try try this, take on dal makhani and every Indian lost their ever loving mind cause they basically thought a bunch of white magazine editors were essentially trying to recreate a traditional Indian dish and essentially, you know, completely ruined it or bastardized it by adding country ham to it. And of course, if you’re Muslim in India, you don’t eat, you don’t eat ham. And even if you’re Hindu, you don’t eat meat often. So their minds like this is a sacrilege that just happened. What was really interesting to me was that, well, that the term that was used being used the most was cultural appropriation. And that term drives me insane because we are nothing, if not the end product of cultural appropriation. All of America as this melting pot of cultural appropriation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And for the record, Indians are the undisputed masters of cultural ppropriation. They will wholesale take, you know, European and Western ideas that should have never been Indianized and go do it anyways. From Bollywood movies to song, hit songs to even food. That happens all the time. And in my mind, like that’s what’s fun about two cultures colliding is the fact that somewhere in India some guy saw pizza and said, Oh, I bet I can make that with naan. And this and that and use processed cheese and makes it a vegetarian or make it tandoori pizza, whatever I like. That’s where fun happens. So what’s the long and the short of it? For me, I was able to have this long conversation with other chefs here about this idea that maybe the quote unquote outrage economy needs to just back off from when somebody is trying to move something forward and evolve it. Just give it a chance and see what it can into being. I don’t know. I don’t know that there’s a lesson to be learned in the whole thing. It certainly doesn’t stop me from doing that again. If anything, I get determined to say, ooh, how can I continue doing more of this.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:32:12] Yeah. I think you mentioned conversations? Do you think that these conversations, if if you can call commenting on social media back and forth, do you think that they move us forward in efforts to kind of honor identity and culture or no?

Meherwan Irani [00:32:26] No, absolutely not. I mean, a the conversation on social media was barely a conversation. I mean, it was a bunch of people, you know, 300-400 comments who just outraged, you know, without any context, without any effort to understand what was going on here, without even knowing that it was an Indian chef that had done it. They automatically assumed that some American editors at a magazine just decided to appropriate an Indian dish. So even though there wasn’t much of a conversation there, but because of that, I was able to have conversations with other chefs, with my community, with friends within our restaurant group about, you know, what does it mean to do this? A big conversation, for example, that’s happening right now is that at all of our restaurants are chef de cuisines are all American or Hispanic, and they’re cooking Indian food. And so many times Indians will come in and kind of just be taken aback by the fact that there’s an American cooking in the kitchen, you know, what they would consider extremely traditional food. Luckily, you know, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. They just sit down and you can tell they’re nervous about like what to expect here and wondering if they wandered into the right place and then the minutes after they start eating the food. You can just tell they go, they don’t care anymore. But for the longest time, I’ve been the face of Chai Pani Restaurant Group. I’ve got so many young, talented chefs working with me that are cooking incredible Indian food has changed the way I’m thinking about who to promote as the face of an Indian restaurant. And I’m realizing like, no, I want everybody in Atlanta know that. Gustavo, you know, my cnef to cuisine there who starts as a dishwasher is making some of the best Indian food in Atlanta. And I wanted to be the face of restaurant to Daniel Peach, who’s in India right now and has spent a year sabbatical there, coming back, is also a face of a restaurant. And it’s going to be an interesting experiment to see how people respond and react to the fact that someone, like Daniel, is calling himself an Indian chef. But certain cultures take themselves so seriously and Indians sometimes do that little bit. So it’ll be interesting.

Meherwan Irani [00:34:31] All right. So we’re gonna turn this little sucker here to make sure we get this team.

[00:34:41] [steam release].

Jen Nathan Orris [00:34:41] [forks clinking against plate].

Jen Nathan Orris [00:34:41] Mmm.

Meherwan Irani [00:34:42] That came out really well.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:34:43] So as you’re eating this, does it bring back any memories?

Meherwan Irani [00:34:48] The memory I’m having right now is I was in boarding school in India for a while. And whenever we got a break, my parents picked me up from the boarding school and the first place would go would be to eat biryani at this place that is still there in Pune. That’s how special. You know, you just came out of purgatory in boarding school. And the first thing my parents, my mom would do was like, let me feed you this special meal biryani, and in every biryani is different. Like, you know, it’s it’s you. There’s no one dish or one recipe. That’s. This is the way you do it. And so I guess what I’m thinking about is like I’ve never quite made my biryani, something that I can say, this belongs to me and my family now. I know my mom’s style. I know the style of the restaurant I ate in. And just sitting here eating this bowl is like getting me thinking about that. Like, what could I do to create something that every time I cook, it’s Meherwan’s biryani. And I’ve never done that before.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:35:47] Well, this is pretty tasty.

Meherwan Irani [00:35:48] Thank you. Appreciate it.

Jen Nathan Orris [00:35:49] Well, Meherwan. Thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Meherwan Irani [00:35:53] Thanks for having me, Jen. That was awesome.


Jen Nathan Orris [00:40:53] Many thanks to Meherwan Irani for surprising me with his Instapot biryani today. The rice and chicken were tender, the onions melted down nicely, and the spices he sourced from around the globe gave it a flavorful punch.

We have links to Meherwan’s restaurants and the Brown in the South dinners in our show notes.

Thanks for tuning in to the season finale! I had so much fun making season two and I want to give a special thanks to Team Skillet. If you didn’t know, we’re an all-volunteer crew. We make this podcast in our spare time, in between multiple day jobs, because we love it, and I want to take a minute to say thanks to the team.

A big thank you to digital producer Rich Orris, who designed our awesome logo and website. He also takes beautiful photos at the tapings – It’s amazing how quiet and stealthy he is with the camera. You can see his photos from season two on our website. Skillet podcast dot com.

Many thanks to story editor CA Carlson. She listens to early drafts of each episode and adds valuable insights, like when an episode needs more “yum” moments or if I’m being too sassy in the script.

And I’m your host, Jen Nathan Orris. I also record, edit, and mix each episode. All of these nights and weekends, huddled under headphones, making sure every chop and sizzle sound just right, have made me incredibly happy.

Most of all, I want to thank you, dear listeners. You really came through this season with the donations that made this show possible. The way you shared your favorite episodes on social media and commented on our posts. The times you supported the storytellers on the show by eating at their restaurants and following them on social media. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

We’re going to take a few months to record the next season, and this summer I’ll be helping young women from Appalachia make their own podcast with PAGE, the Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education. Stay tuned for a special rebroadcast of their work and a whole new season of Skillet when we return this fall.

In the meantime, please rate us and write a review in your podcast app to help new people find the show in between seasons. Share an episode with friends and family on social media, and around the dinner table all year long.

[Music fade]

Coming up next season on Skillet –

Pork dumplings, collard greens, ribs with homemade barbecue sauce, and so much more. We asked seven chefs and families to pick the dish that means the most to them and share the stories behind it.

Follow us on social media to go behind the scenes as I record and eat it all. We’re @ skillet podcast on Facebook and Instagram.

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