Chef Prasad Chirnomula's Innovative Take on Indian Cuisine
Chef Prasad Chirnomula is no stranger to opening new restaurants. His culinary history includes a string of successful restaurants that have made him an established and respected chef within Connecticut's dining scene. But with INDIA, his newest undertaking, Prasad ventures into different territory, even if within a familiar culinary theme.
Bucking the usual format of tried and true, British-influenced, pseudo-Indian dishes – the likes of which can be found in nearly any Indian restaurant in America – Prasad is instead pursing the potentially risky goal of introducing true, regional Indian cuisine to New Canaan diners, doing so with an emphasis on local meats and produce.
The origin of Prasad's love for the regional cuisine of India goes back to his youth. He began his culinary journey in India, growing up in the southern city of Hyderabad, an area known for its style of biryani (a traditional dish composed of basmati rice, goat or chicken, yogurt, onion, and spices), and, according to Prasad, being a place where "the food moguls really come up." As a young man, Prasad studied hotel restaurant management, and at the early age of 23, found success as a food and beverage director of an Indian hotel. "I used to wear fake glasses to make myself look older," he recalls.
However, it wasn't long before he was drawn by the lure of the American restaurant industry. It was a humbling experience in which he found himself demoted to positions that had him cleaning tables and bussing food, a far step down from managing the hundreds of employees he had been tasked with in India. Looking back upon that time, Prasad is thankful for the hardship.
"It was winter when I arrived in the U.S. I didn't even have gloves or a jacket to wear. I walked to work. I used to curse myself, 'I had a great life. What am I doing here?' But I am thankful, today, that I didn't get a fast break, because the things you learn early on are priceless. You can never truly put yourself in someone else's shoes, but if you work in so many positions – bussing to dishwashing to bartending, to cooking on the kitchen line, even waiting tables – you know what hardships each member of the restaurant team has to face. My 30 years of experience in American restaurants allows me to have an honest respect for every person who works with me."
Prasad's strong work ethic eventually propelled him out of others' restaurants and into his own. In 2000, he opened his flagship restaurant, Thali, in New Canaan. From there, he branched out with similar restaurants, including Thali locations in New Haven and Ridgefield, and the Oaxaca Kitchen in New Haven. But he was always interested in returning to New Canaan. "I wanted something a little smaller . . . more intimate . . . where I can put what I've learned to use in new ways."
His compulsion for culinary innovation led to opening INDIA, which marries the best of "classic" British-styled Indian food with a unique take on traditional dishes from India.
"The British have done a great deal to modernize and popularize Indian food, but because of how popular that style has become, I think chefs have become afraid of serving the regional cuisine of India. They were stuck with tandoori chicken, vindaloo, and tikka masala. But I took a chance and decided to try serving the true, regional cuisine, and I'm proud of it. There is so much to experience, regionally, whether it is different sauces or different takes on familiar dishes. My travels in India allow me to touch upon recipes and styles from across the country."
In addition to being delicious, the variety of new dishes offered by Prasad have their own stories. The Semolina Puffs – tiny, thin-shelled pastries stuffed with black chickpeas, potatoes, and mint extract – span the entire palate, being simultaneously sweet, sour, and spicy. Prasad calls them "the street food of India."
"The dish goes by different names. People in mid-central India call it 'panipuri,' and southern Indians call it 'gup chup,' which basically means 'makes you shut up,' because once you start eating them, you can't stop." Prasad says that Indians line up before street vendors to have a taste.
The menu at INDIA is full of these sorts of regional delicacies: Tandoor grilled lamb chops with mint pesto and pickled tindura, saffron and chili arbol Norwegian salmon bites, grilled prawns wasabi malai, Nepalese-style chicken momos with citrus garlic chili oil; the spice-and flavor-laden list tingles the taste buds.
When asked about his favorite item on the menu, Prasad returns to the flavors of his home city and its unique style of biryani. "Hyderabad is known for its biryani. There have been regional biryani challenges in India for generations, and Hyderabad's version is often considered the best. Biryani's importance goes beyond being a restaurant dish. Poorly made biryani has been the undoing of marriages. If a family has no background in making good biryani, the groom's family may not marry into that family again. It even crosses national lines. Pakistanis and Indians don't usually get along, but when the Pakistani cricket team last played a match in India, the only thing they wanted to take home with them was some of our biryani."
Prasad's version of "Hyderabad Deccan Railway Station Biryani" is made through a slow process where the raw rice and meat are cooked together, along with a delicate balance of spices ranging from garam masala to green chili paste. "The rice can cook in 10 minutes," Prasad explains, "but the meat can take two hours. The art of it is in keeping the rice flakey and the meat tender."
But even the classics are done in Prasad's own style. "My managers were ready to kill me, 20 years back, when I did a kabab with no color or dye. They said 'Oh, you cannot sell a tandoori chicken that is not red!' But I'm not here to sell paint. I'm here to sell good food – real food – that is full of flavor."
Saddling up to INDIA's bar is an exercise in creative consumption. Along with an extensive list of local and imported craft pilsners, stouts, and IPAs (could there be a more appropriate place for an India pale ale?), the bar menu includes an array of unique cocktails designed by mixologist Jessica Spector. Although all are tempting, Prasad assures that the award-winning "Faithfully Ginger," composed of gin, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime juice, ginger, and turmeric is the most popular.
Although the practice of locally sourcing ingredients is not uncommon among Connecticut restaurants, it would be safe to say that there are considerably fewer ethnic restaurants embracing the trend. In this area, too, Prasad seeks to be innovative. The Fennel, Fenugreek, & Nigella Seed salad is composed of sautéed vegetables, nigella (onion) seed, and locally grown mushrooms from Bulich Mushroom Farm.
Chef Prasad produces his smartphone and begins to run down a voluminous list of hundreds of small farms from which he sources local meat and produce. "Hawthorne Valley, Black Horse Farm, Rock Hedge, Blue Star Farms, Hudson Valley Duck Farm . . . this list is pretty long."
Turning his eyes to local ingredients has been less difficult than he imagined, thanks to the versatility of Indian spices. "We're making Indian food, so I've taken my spices and sauces and adapted them to the locally available meats and seafood. Indian spices are so versatile. It's one of the beauties of the cuisine."
Part of Prasad's enjoyment as a chef is found in teaching new ideas about Indian food, as well as dispelling erroneous notions about his home cuisine. "The conception of Indian food in America is often that it is spicy, but also that it is greasy and oily, or that the restaurants that serve it are not clean. I want to change that conception. Indian food can be elegant and healthy, and it doesn't have to have a lot of cream or butter. It is a beautifully complex cuisine: colorful, vibrant, and flavorful."
Yet, as new as INDIA is, Prasad is always thinking about his next enterprise. "I see a lot of future for this kind of food and the restaurant. I might actually replicate one with the same kind of menu in West Hartford." If his customers' response is any measure, Prasad is doing something right. "People are leaving the restaurant and giving high-fives to the staff. They tell me, 'We love Thali, but this is a whole other level.'"
INDIA is open for lunch all week, 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner Mon-Thu 5pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-11pm, and Sun 4pm-8:30pm.
62 Main St., New Canaan