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In New Cookbook, Acclaimed Indian Restaurant Finally Spills Its Secrets

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 7:18 pm

Rasika, an Indian restaurant in Washington, D.C., has won just about every recognition possible. The Washington Post called it the No. 1 restaurant in the city. The chef has won a James Beard award — basically the Oscars of the food world. President Obama celebrated his birthday there — twice. And though the place has been open for more than a decade, it is only just now coming out with a cookbook.

Rasika's owner, Ashok Bajaj, has run high-end restaurants in Washington since the 1980s — places where you might spot a senator or even the president. He had a fancy Indian restaurant in London, called Bombay Brasserie, but when he first tried to do something similar in D.C., he ran into walls. Every landlord told his location scout, "We don't want our lobby to smell like curry."

"And I would say, put me in front of the landlord, let me talk to them," Bajaj says. "It is no different than an Italian restaurant or an American restaurant, where you use a lot of garlic and other spices. And see how the cuisine has changed now? In most American restaurants, they use Indian spices."

Rasika takes a modern approach to traditional Indian flavors. The cookbook, Rasika: Flavors of India, has recipes for Kerala bison and rhubarb chutney. Traditional flavor combinations get a modern twist. A classic dish of eggplant and potatoes comes stacked in an elegant tower.

One trick of the cookbook is that a lot of stuff can be made in advance: Marinade the eggplant, mash the potatoes, simmer the sauce. When it's time to actually make dinner, it just takes a few minutes to heat and assemble everything.

But Rasika's most popular dish, palak chaat, needs to be prepared the moment before it's served. Palak means spinach. Chaat is a Hindi word for a bunch of different flavorful snacks. The restaurant has never revealed the recipe for the famous crispy spinach.

Chef Vikram Sunderam says they were always waiting for the cookbook.

And in the Rasika kitchen, he agrees to show us.

"The most important step in the dish is the frying," Sunderam says, explaining that the oil needs to be exactly 400 degrees — more and the spinach will burn, less and it'll get greasy.

He also makes a beautiful yellow-orange batter with gram flour, turmeric and chili powder. He pours this over the spinach, almost like a salad dressing, and lightly tosses it. Once the spinach is perfectly crispy, it gets a cascade of toppings, including roasted cumin powder, chili powder and black salt; drizzles of yogurt and tamarind chutney; and sprinkles of chopped red onion and tomatoes. The restaurant makes about 200 bowls of this a day — every other table orders it.

Sunderam tried to do something similar at a London restaurant, but it wasn't a hit. "It wasn't as popular as it is here," he says. "From day one it took off."

Why?

"I think Americans are more adventurous," he says. "They're more appreciative of the food and dishes like these, which are different."

And in Indian cuisine, there is plenty of room for adventure and creativity. "Indian cuisine is a very personal cuisine. It's made from family to family, how they like to cook," says Sunderam. "So there is the basic foundation of a dish, but it's always personalized."

Of course, the sheer number of ingredients in Indian recipes can be daunting to home cooks. But Bajaj says it isn't difficult if you have the right pantry at home. Sunderam agrees, pointing out that the book helps with setting up an Indian pantry, with basic spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, turmeric and cumin — all of which are widely used in Indian recipes.

Says Bajaj: "Don't be afraid of the spices!"

Bajaj says the acceptance of Indian food is generally much wider than it used to be when he opened his first restaurant more than 25 years ago. He credits this partly to the explosion of the Internet, but also says that many people are now traveling to India and coming back with a new appreciation for the cuisine.

And he says that younger generations are more open to trying foods of other cultures. "They want to have an experience, and it doesn't have to be a French cuisine, or American or Italian. It can be any cuisine, as long as it has the flavor and the taste — the whole package is there."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An Indian restaurant in Washington, D.C., has won just about every recognition possible. The Washington Post called it the No. 1 restaurant in the city. The chef has won a James Beard Award - basically, the Oscars of restaurants. President Obama celebrated his birthday there twice. It's been open for more than 10 years, and the restaurant is just now coming out with a cookbook. There's a reason I haven't said its name yet.

ASHOK BAJAJ: I'm Ashok Bajaj. I'm the owner of Rasika.

VIKRAM SUNDERAM: Hi, I'm Vikram Sunderam, the chef at Rasika.

SHAPIRO: Did you notice that? The chef and owner pronounce the name of the restaurant differently.

I've often heard people say Roseeka (ph). You said Rahsika (ph) - Rahsika.

BAJAJ: Rahsika, Rasika - as long as you come to the restaurant, I'm good with it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK. The owner, Ashok Bajaj, has run restaurants in Washington since the 1980s, high-end places with white tablecloths where you might spot a senator or even the president. He had a fancy Indian restaurant in London called Bombay Brasserie, but when he first tried to do something similar in D.C., he ran into walls. Every landlord told his location scout, we don't want our lobby to smell like curry.

BAJAJ: And I would say put me in front of the landlord. Let me talk to them, and it is no different than like in an Italian restaurant or an American restaurant where you use a lot of garlic and other spices. And see how the cuisine have changed now. In most American restaurants, they use Indian spices.

SHAPIRO: Rasika takes a modern approach to traditional Indian flavors. So the cookbook has recipes for Kerala bison and rhubarb chutney. Traditional flavor combinations get a twist. A classic dish of eggplant and potatoes comes layered in a stack.

SUNDERAM: So the tawa baingan - tawa means the griddle and baingan is eggplant. That's why we call the disk tower baingan.

SHAPIRO: At the open griddle facing the Rasika dining room, Chef Sunderam marinates the sliced eggplant, then slaps it on to the grill.

SUNDERAM: Now, so once I grill the eggplant on both sides, then we have basically mashed potatoes sauteed with onions, tomatoes, ginger, green chiles, little bit of lemon juice and salt. And then we're going to sandwich it in between the eggplant slices.

SHAPIRO: He pours a creamy sweet and sour sauce over the top made of coconut milk, lemon, peanuts and a type of sugar called jaggery.

BAJAJ: So here at Rasika what we wanted to do - give the same effect of the dish but served and prepared in a very modern way.

SHAPIRO: One trick of this cookbook is that a lot of stuff can be made in advance. Marinate the eggplant, mash the potatoes, simmer the sauce. When it's time to actually make dinner, it just takes a few minutes to heat and assemble everything. But Rasika's most famous dish needs to be prepared the moment before it's served.

There are bags and bags of raw spinach in the kitchen getting ready for the most popular dish in the restaurant.

BAJAJ: Palak chaat.

SHAPIRO: Palak chaat.

Palak means spinach. Chaat is a Hindi word for a bunch of different salty snacks. In all the articles that people have written about Rasika in the last decade, the restaurant has never revealed the recipe for the famous crispy spinach. Vikram Sunderam says they were always waiting for the cookbook, and in the Rasika kitchen, he agreed to show us.

SUNDERAM: The most important step in this is the frying.

SHAPIRO: We love the sound of frying on the radio, so that's perfect.

Sunderam says the oil needs to be exactly 400 degrees; More and the spinach will burn, less and it'll get greasy.

SUNDERAM: So I've got this batter made with gram flour, a little bit of turmeric powder, chili powder.

SHAPIRO: It's a beautiful yellow color, almost orange. So you're pouring the batter over the spinach leaves, almost like a salad dressing.

SUNDERAM: Yes. And you see it's not too much. It's very, very light.

SHAPIRO: Just lightly tossing it with your hands.

SUNDERAM: Yes. And then the oil is just at the right temperature. Now you can hear it sort of crackle.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL CRACKLING)

SHAPIRO: Once the spinach is shatteringly crispy, it gets a cascade of toppings.

SUNDERAM: Got some cumin - roasted cumin powder, chili powder, black salt.

SHAPIRO: A drizzle of yogurt and tamarind chutney, then chopped red onion and tomatoes sprinkled on top. The restaurant makes about 200 bowls of this a day. Every other table orders it.

I was so surprised to read in the book that you tried to do something similar in London, and it was not popular at all.

SUNDERAM: It wasn't, to be honest with you. You're right about that, yes. It wasn't as popular as it is here. I mean, here from day one it sort of really took off.

SHAPIRO: How do you explain the difference?

SUNDERAM: I think Americans are more...

BAJAJ: Adventurous.

SUNDERAM: ...Adventurous and they're more appreciative of the food and of dishes like these, which they find different.

SHAPIRO: Restaurant owner Ashok Bajaj says that was not always the case.

BAJAJ: Twenty-five years ago, I used to write on a cue card to say what to order in an Indian food. Now, they come with a cue card giving me what they want to eat.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BAJAJ: That's the major changes.

SHAPIRO: I know you have to get ready for the lunch rush, so let me just say thank you for having us here in Rasika, and it's been a pleasure eating your food.

BAJAJ: Thank you for coming to meet with us. We really appreciate that. Thank you so much.

SUNDERAM: Thank you again. Thank you for coming.

SHAPIRO: The book is called "Rasika: Flavors Of India." And now, let's eat the rest of this spinach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.