Chef Meherwan Irani on bringing Indian cuisine to America

The Dish: Chef Meherwan Irani

Chef Meherwan Irani is credited with helping change the perception of Indian cuisine in America. He came to the U.S. to earn an MBA but found that he missed the spicy cuisine of his home. So, he learned how to cook it himself. He continued to cook for friends while working in the auto industry in California, but always dreamed of running his own restaurant.

In 2009 he took the plunge with his wife and business partner, moving to Asheville, North Carolina, and opening Chai Pani. It was a big hit and just the first of five restaurants he now runs in Asheville and Atlanta. He's a three-time James Beard Award nominee, and this summer Time magazine named him one of "31 people changing the South."    

Here are some of Irani's signature recipes: 

Corn behl 

Ingredients

4 ears corn (husk on)
2 cups corn poha
1 medium red onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 cup diced, peeled, seeded cucumber
1 cup diced Roma tomatoes
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves
4 mint leaves, thinly sliced into strips
Cumin lime dressing

For the cumin lime dressing:
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion or shallot
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 1/2 cup light olive oil or canola oil

Directions

1. In a food processor or blender, combine the onion, cilantro, garlic, cumin, sugar, salt, and pepper. Once the ingredients are pureed, turn processor to medium-high and add the olive oil in thin stream until fully incorporated. Store in refrigerator.

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place unhusked corn on baking sheet and roast until the husk can be peeled back to reveal lightly browned cork kernels, about 40 minutes.

3. Remove from oven and cool. Remove husks and cut kernels off ears. In a mixing bowl, combine roasted corn kernels, poha or corn flakes, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, and cilantro. Toss with enough cumin lime dressing to moisten. Garnish with mint. 

Okra fries

Ingredients

1 pound okra
2 quarts canola oil (or other neutral oil)
Fresh lime
Sea salt
Chaat masala 

Directions

1. Julienne okra lengthwise into thin strips, about the size of shoestring fries. In a stockpot over medium-high heat, heat the oil to 350 degrees. Drop small batches (about two cups total) of the okra into the hot oil, taking care not to crowd the pot. 

2. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until lightly brown, using tongs to gently turn okra over for even cooking. Remove okra with a slotted spoon or skimmer onto a paper towel to absorb the oil. Okra should be crispy but not dark or burnt. Repeat with remaining okra.

3. Transfer hot okra to a bowl and toss with juice from half a lime, a pinch of chaat masala and salt.

Mustard green masala

Ingredients

1 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 serrano pepper, diced (or two if you like it a bit spicy)
1 large red onion, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
½ cup chopped cilantro
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon garam masala
4 bunches mustard greens stems removed and roughly chopped 

Directions

1. Masala means "mixture," and this is one fine combination of ginger, garlic, onions, and a flurry of delicious and fragrant Indian spices (turmeric, coriander, garam masala). We call for mustard greens here, but you can substitute with other leafy greens, like kale or spinach.

2. In a wide-bottom pan, heat 1/4 cup of canola oil over medium-high heat. (You can use some of the frying oil). Add the cumin seeds and within 30 seconds or so add the diced serrano peppers, and then within a minute add the onions with the salt (the salt helps the onions cook quicker by drawing out the moisture.)

3. When the onions start to lightly brown, add the ginger-garlic paste and cook on medium heat until the onions start turning completely brown.

4. Add the powders (red chili, cumin, turmeric, coriander), and when they start to clump together with the onions, add half the cilantro and 1/4 cup of water to deglaze the pan. Stir and scrape to get all the fond (good stuff) off the bottom of the pan. The spices cook quickly, around 2-3 minutes.

5. Add the garam masala and stir well into the tomato mixture, and then add the mustard greens and a cup of water. Stir and fold the greens till they start to wither and cook down.

6. Cook the greens on medium for 10 minutes or until the greens are dark and tender. Salt to taste, garnish with the rest of the fresh cilantro, and serve with rice, warm roti, or paratha.

Malabar chicken curry

Ingredients

2 lbs. chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
½ cup vegetable oil plus 1 additional Tbl.
1 ½ tsp. mustard seed
½ tsp. fenugreek seeds
12-15 curry leaves, finely chopped
2-3 small dried red chiles
4 cups chopped red onion
2 ½ Tbl. grated ginger
1 tsp. chili powder
1 ½ Tbl. ground coriander
1 tsp. turmeric
½ cup chopped cilantro (leaves and/or stems)
3 cups chopped tomatoes
2 Tbl. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. salt
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk  

Directions

1. Pour ½ cup oil in a large sauce pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seed, fenugreek seed, curry leaves and red chiles.

2. Saute for 1 to 2 minutes, and then add the ginger and onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the onions to brown until they are dark and soft enough to smash with a spatula, about 25 to 30 minutes. 

3. Add the chili powder, coriander, turmeric and cilantro. Mix together. 

4. Increase the heat to medium and add the tomatoes, salt and lime juice. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have disintegrated and the oil separates out, about 15 to 20 minutes.

5. Add ½ cup water and 1 cup coconut milk. Bring to a boil, reduce heat. In a separate skillet, heat the remaining oil over high heat. Add the chicken to the skillet and brown on all sides, leaving the centers pink, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add the chicken to the curry and simmer 5 to 7 minutes until the chicken has cooked through.

Raita 

Ingredients

1 cup yogurt
1/4 cup water
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp pressed garlic
1/4 tp finely diced ginger
1 tablespoon canola oil 

1. Whisk the yogurt, after, salt, and sugar together until smooth.

2. Heat oil to almost smoking and add the mustard seeds, cumin, ginger, garlic. Cut the heat immediately and after a few seconds of seeds sputtering, pour the entire contents into the whisked yogurt. Mix in well and serve with cilantro garnish.