America loves ethnic foods. Arguably, nothing says that your respective cuisine has “arrived” until there is a fast food chain representing it. With that in mind I was thrilled to read in India Abroad about Soho Tiffin Junction, a quick service South Indian chain based in New York. Offering vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and meat options, it’s a niche but one that takes into account the growing American interest in healthier food choices. They use non-hormone meats. The lentils are sprouted for maximum health benefit. They also use no butter or cream, only non-gmo oil. Jawahar Chirimar, one of the three founders was nice enough to do an interview with me along with an invite to a tasting.
With the wraps you can choose between whole wheat or traditional fermented rice/lentil. I chose the latter with egg, mung bean, lemon rice, pickled veggies, and chutney. The dosa is a little thicker and softer than traditional in order to be pliable and to hold all the goodness inside. It was incredibly flavorful without feeling heavy. The sour dough flavor of the dosa contrasts nicely with the sweet and spicy flavors. Meat options include egg, chicken, beef and pork. Vegan/Vegetarian options include potato curry and chana saag. It’s a meal in itself and a bargain (prices will range between $7.50-$9 dollars).
Below is my interview with the amiable Jawahar Charimar. Check them out on Facebook here.
RoodonFood (R): What signs did you see that indicated the U.S is ready for an ethnic South Indian fast food chain?
Jawahar Charimar (JC): See I’ve been in the US since ’87. International cuisines have been popular for years. In the 90s I use to go to London a lot. When I went it was only Indian food (and British). Whereas the U.S. has always had a variety of International food. I think it’s more about understanding the food well enough to present it in a way that a different culture will appreciate. We didn’t plan it to be South Indian per se. I started conceptualizing 5 years ago. We’ve tried different recipes and processes over time. We tried many breads including naan, paratha. We settled on the dosa because it can hold a filling well. From there it became South Indian.
R: Are you positioning it as authentic Indian or a type of fusion like Hampton Chutney company?
JC: In a way you can say it’s South Indian ethnic food but for the American palate. People coming from India will recognize the sauces. We have a rich culture of food in terms of spices. We asked ourselves what we can take from that. Taking into account that Americans eat beef and pork we offer those as well as chicken and vegetarian options.
Food we eat at home is healthy. We’re trying to bring it to the front. Many restaurants will serve food that is too oily or creamy. We don’t use butter or cream. You don’t have anything to hide behind so the food must taste good. We use mung beans sprouts for example. You’re enjoying the pure texture of the mung bean. We make everything fresh. Fresh vegetables. No preservatives. Organic when possible. Nothing is fried. Only canola oil. Non-GMO. No thick gravies. The flavor isn’t masked. There will also be vegan and gluten free options available. Customers can choose from salad bowl, rice bowl or a wrap (dosa based).
R: You and your partner Sam are both of South Indian origin?
JC: Sam is from Chennai. My family is from Haryana but I grew up in Calcutta. (There is 3rd partner, M. Mahadevan, a successful restauranteur).
R: Where is your funding coming from?
JC: We are putting in our own money along with financing from friends. We’ve invested in many restaurants over the years.
R: Why open up in a high risk market like New York instead of say, Cleveland or another frequent U.S testing ground?
JC: I think you start a business where you live at the end of the day. I live here. I know the people. And with great risk there can be great reward.
R: You plan to open up 5 more locations – will those be in NYC to start? After NY – where do you plan to take the venture?
JC: Initially Manhattan. But it all depends when the right locations become available. The first location will be at 8th st and Broadway. In the heart of the NYU area. 42 E. 8th St. With a tentative open in January.
R: What restaurants Indian and American do you admire and why?
JC: McDonalds because they innovated when they came to India. They don’t eat beef or pork there so they created the Maharaja Mac made with mutton for example. In the U.S, Chipotle gives you Mexican food in a form Americans like. They achieve a balance of flavor without overwhelming.