Indian American Chefs on Taking Their Cuisine To The Next Level
Food & Recipes

Indian American Chefs on Taking Their Cuisine To The Next Level

On a windy evening in West Los Angeles, a small group of mostly strangers gathered inside a trendy loft apartment.

The 15 or so folks were an interesting cross section of humanity — from a winery owner/operator to this very reporter — and all had been selected to attend the dinner series, hosted by chef Palak Patel.

The author of the new cookbook “Food is Love” and former “Chopped” winner is one of the many chefs amplifying Indian cuisine in the United States.

Though Indian eateries only make up about 7% of Asian restaurants in the U.S., according to a 2023 analysis by Pew Research Center, it’s a cuisine on the rise.

In an interview with, Patel says she is excited to see Indian food expand into a new era.

“I think Indian food is very limited in the U.S. to just north Indian food,” she says, adding that “there’s a million people in the country!”

“Each region has its own flavor, its own take, household to household, things are different,” she continues. “And so how do you bring that much diversity to a culture that is obviously intrigued and loves it? You just need to get them to try it.”

Chef Palak Patel has recently been hosting a dinner series with “On the Pass” podcaster Gabriel Ornelas in Los Angeles.Courtesy Palak Patel

She says it’s not just Indian food seeing increasing diversity in its stateside representation — Chinese, Thai, Korean and Mexican food is all seeing a rise in more regional dishes.

“People are getting more regionalized,” she says. “I think that Indian food is just benefiting from the collective, like, raise of every cuisine.”

She adds that Americans are realizing there’s more to Asian cuisines than go-to’s, like pad thai or chicken tikka masala.

“I think collectively, the flavor profiles have expanded,” she says, adding she believes “the tolerance for flavor and expansion of flavor is going through the roof.”

Nik Sharma, author of “Veg-Table,” agrees. He says in the nearly 25 years he’s lived in the U.S., he’s seen a profound shift in how non-South Asian Americans approach food.

“We’ve gone from having to satisfy the palate of what our consumers expect from us that aren’t familiar with the culture to doing these things that are, I would say, fun takes,” he says. “We’re taking the techniques and we’re applying it in a very different way and making it our own.”

And chef Vijay Kumar of Semma in New York City tells he loves “to see how things have been changing.”

Manish Mallick of Soirée Hospitality in Chicago also thinks the wider U.S. audience today is more inquisitive, and that Indian Americans are open to sharing their culture with friends outside their diaspora.

Patel says Indian flavors are also much more readily accessible at American grocery stores now than they were in years prior.

“I think 15 years ago (for) turmeric you’d have to go to some, like, very specialized store,” she says. “The fact that we can get garam masala, cardamom, clove powder — I mean, these are the basics of Indian cooking and you can get them at like a Kroger or Publix or Vons.”

Food from Rooh Chicago.Courtesy Samantha Kubota

Patel says it just takes one spice — garam masala — to introduce Indian flavors to your cooking.

“I always called garam masala the gateway — like if you’re not going to buy all of them; just buy one,” she quips. “If you just want to throw that on roasted vegetables, you’ll get a good representation of what it’s like to have these spices kind of play together.”

And according to Sharma, integrating these flavors is more natural than some folks might think. He says, “at the end of the day, one of the things we have to remember is that borders are a much more recent human construct than cultures and traditions. Cultures and traditions and ingredients, especially in people more so, have been immigrating and migrating for centuries. We’ve taken things and moved them along.

Sharma, who got his start in the culinary world as a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, gives the example of tomatoes and potatoes. Both are a “huge part of Indian culture” but didn’t “come from India,” he says.

“They came from the Americas,” he chuckles, adding he often thinks about this in his own work developing recipes. “As an immigrant, I came from India (and) I’m doing things in my very own, different way. It’s telling a story of where I grew up and where I am.”

Though, it’s not just his story growing and evolving.

“I think the palate of the consumer is changing,” he says. “I would say like the past eight years or 10 years, the biggest revolution in food has not been cultural so much as it has been the openness of the consumer to try new flavors.”

Sharma continues, adding he’s seen people becoming more and more curious about flavors. “And I think that’s a huge thing,” he says, “because if we can get there, then people’s minds open up to different cultures and trying new things.”

Chef Kumar is capitalizing on that newfound openness at Semma. The chef — who is from Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India — opened his restaurant in 2021. Its menu features dishes from his home state, and Kumar says all his food is “just as spicy” in his restaurant as it was in his family’s home kitchen.

He hopes his restaurant will serve as a representation of Indian food in Western countries without “sacrificing our own identity” or “trying to be Westernized Indian food.”

He says he takes that message to heart, crafting each dish “based on a childhood memory” of his upbringing in a “tiny village” back in Southern India — the presentation is just nicer.

Some of the dishes featured at Kumar’s restaurant Semma in New York City.Courtesy Paul Mcdonough

“I’m trying to change the perception of Indian food,” Kumar says. “When every food is being presented beautifully, why (not) our food?”

Kumar notes his restaurant was the first Indian restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star — one of the highest honors in the culinary world — back in 2022.

“The next year, there were two other Indian restaurants (awarded stars),” he says, referring to Rania in Washington, D.C., and Indienne in Chicago. “I’m hoping there will be more this year and then there will be more and more in the following years.”

Kumar clarifies he’s not just talking about seeing these eateries on Michelin lists, rather he wants to see more of them in general. “I hope there will be a lot more great Indian restaurants which represent good Indian cuisines.”

It’s a niche that Mallick is trying to fill in Chicago. He says he left a job in tech after seeing a “dearth of elevated dining experiences” featuring Indian food.

“That’s what led me to open all these modern Indian restaurants,” Mallick says. “And fortunately, I was right. The demand was there.”

He’s since opened two Indian eateries in the Windy City — Bar Goa and Rooh.

Mallick says the community has been overwhelmingly supportive — “both Indians and non-Indians.”

“People were tired of the whole buffet-style Indian restaurants, not focused on the elegance of the cuisine, from a presentation perspective, from a conversation perspective, ambiance,” he says.

“The more the Indian community grows, the more they want places to go and enjoy and are unique,” he says.

It’s this family and community aspect of eating that Patel says she’s trying to replicate in her own life with her cookbook “Food is Love.”

After growing up in a multi-generational house “full of women cooking” back in India, Patel says she grew to associate the task with how her family showed their appreciation for each other.

“I mean, maybe (cooking) was a chore and kind of sexist culturally, but it did get me in the kitchen,” she laughs. “And it kind of opened up this way of cooking that I love and you know, the title of (the cookbook) came from that — food is love, right?”

Over wine and lemon meringue pie, she tells the guests at her dinner party that sentiment is why she wrote the book, and why she’s hosting the in-person series we attended that brought all of us unlikely companions together.

Patel says in her family’s native language, Gujarati, there is no word for “I love you.”

“But I knew my mom loved me because she cooked for me. I knew my grandmother loved me when she cooked for me,” she says. “So it was this idea that love can be shown through many different ways.”