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Food Festival Steers New Yorkers Beyond Chicken Tikka
If the scent of roasted cumin wafts over Manhattan this week, it’s thanks to the Second Annual Varli Food Festival.
On April 5, the city’s Metropolitan Pavilion will host over 60 Indian restaurants and 20 celebrity chefs for a gourmet carnival complete with cooking demonstrations, tastings, a silent auction and the pièce de résistance, a spice market, all in the name of delivering Indian food to the people.
“Last year’s response was overwhelming, which is why we’ve decided to go three times bigger this time,” said Varli Singh, founder and publisher of VARLI Magazine, the event’s chief organizer. With an expected attendance of nearly 1,500, this year’s festival features a constellation of high-profile gourmands including Suvir Saran, Vikas Khanna and Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor.
While New York City’s three Michelin-starred Indian restaurants confirm the cuisine is a formidable player in the Big Apple’s fine-dining scene, Ms. Singh and her supporters are committed to showcasing Indian food’s broad range, a concept that is sometimes overshadowed by the predominance of North Indian flavors.
“There’s much more to it than chicken tikka masala,” said Ms. Singh. “The recognition of Indian food’s diversity is long overdue in this country.” It’s a sentiment that many festival participants like Maneet Chauhan, executive chef at Vermillion, can relate to.
“When I came to the States back in 1998, I would ask people to go out for Indian food and they’d be like, ‘$8.95, all-you-can-eat?’” Ms. Chauhan recalled.
At Vermillion, Ms. Chauhan melds Indian and Latin flavors, resulting in an eclectic fare that is heavy on the heat. “I’ve had the classical training,” she said. “If you ask me to make a mean béchamel sauce tomorrow, I will. But I choose not to because what’s added to my repertoire is my heritage and I want the entire world to love it.”
Though Ms. Chauhan enjoys the many cameos that South Asian ingredients now make at posh eateries in New York City—“you see small things like a Madras curry emulsion or cardamom flavored gelée,” she explained—she’d like to see Indian food attain ubiquity across the U.S. and eventually claim grocery store counters in middle America.
“Given time, it would be amazing to see Indian food seep into the mainstream culture here,” she said, adding that Varli can contribute to that.
For other participating chefs, like Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti and Mehtaphor, Varli Food Festival’s attendees will serve as prime indicators of Indian cuisine’s reach and clout. “Who are we attracting?” he asked. “If I see that the crowd is almost 90% Indian, I would say that we are still steps away from making it a success. I’ve always felt that the day you start putting an imprint on the population of the country you’re in is the day the country will realize who you are.”
At the festival, Mr. Mehta will be one of the chefs without a formal Indian cooking background. “What’s different about my style is that the base is French and American with a few Indian accents,” he shared. At his two New York City-based restaurants, Mr. Mehta’s avant-garde plates—think chickpea-crusted squid and green mango paneer—represent an approach where Indian flavors are used as starting points rather than ingredients that stifle or constrain.
Ultimately, regardless of their different approaches, Ms. Singh remains hopeful of her festival chefs, declaring them brave new ambassadors of an often misunderstood cuisine. “Not only do they introduce Indian food,” she said. “They help it evolve.”