Second part of two parts, click here to read part one
A country’s or region’s cuisine is often thought of as static unchanging, a collection of recipes based upon local ingredients and cooking traditions. Though with trade, war, conquest and colonization what’s now viewed as a static or an ethnic cuisine evolved over a period of time and is shaped by both internal constraints and external influences. This is especially true of Indian cuisine. As Akasha Richmond noted, “Indian food came together from many cultural references.” Even prior to opening up her restaurant Sambar in Culver City, Akasha did a lot of research over the past twenty to thirty years to understand where specific Indian dishes came from plus why certain ingredients are used the way they’re used. The vast culinary library that Akasha has amassed includes many Indian cook books.
So, for example, she has read a lot of books on the history of curry and how it came to be. That history includes all the different influences that different cultures have had on India like that of the Portuguese who brought chilies to the country. The Portuguese also turned Indians onto vindaloo. Vindaloo is a Portuguese meat dish cooked with garlic, vinegar, and spices. Indians adapted the dish and the dish was further modified by the British who created their own dishes like chicken tikka. As Akasha further elaborated, “People came there for the spices and it’s a real fascinating. Than the moguls came from the Middle East and they brought all the kebabs, things marinated in yogurt as well dried fruits and nuts. That all came from the Persians in the Middle Ages. The moguls coming into Northern India. They brought fruit and seeds. When people conquer another country, they want to have some of their own food there. In India you can grow so many things….Many people think Indian food is something like chicken tikka… but Indian food is a blend of many cultures and many micro climates. “
India’s history is reflected in its beliefs, and those different religions have different dietary restrictions. A lot of Hindus are vegetarian, but a lot of Sikhs eat meat. Whereas Muslims don’t eat pork but in southern India there are a lot of Christians like the Syrian Christians in Kerala who eat pork and beef. Those Hindus that aren’t vegetarians don’t eat beef. Plus twenty to thirty years ago everything was local in India. Thus due to the different climates, there were large differences in what ingredients were available. So until more recently in the north or Himalayas there weren’t many bananas available during the winter. However in Kerala in the south on the West Coast, bananas, coconuts, pineapple and mangosteen were available. In the Himalayas, they ate yak butters, and yak meat. Whereas in Kerala they instead cooked with coconut milk. In the north they might also use yogurt. So curries, especially, vary a lot from place to place. Furthermore in the north they traditionally ate more bread whereas in the south they ate more rice. Now in India in the cities they’re doing a lot of the Pan-Indian from all over the country plus things like their versions of nachos and burgers. There are some very hip restaurants in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore and Goa where Indians can eat all kinds of food.
Before opening Sambar in Culver City, Akasha also did a lot of research on what restaurants all over India are currently doing. Akasha understands that what she is doing at her new restaurant isn’t unique, other restaurant in major India cities are doing things very similar. People are very sophisticated in the big cities of India. So Sambar has a multi-regional menu as well as “new wave Masala” dishes that are items like burgers and chicken wings with Indian spices. Sambar itself is a southern Indian dish. They eat sambar in the north too but it’s still a southern dish. Akasha has other southern Indian items on the menu like the uttapam and Goan chicken shakuti. This chicken dish from Goa is a lot different from chicken tikka which is tomato based. The shakuti has a coconut sauce. The restaurant has some Northern dishes too as well as items from other regions, so the menu is truly Pan-Indian.
The lunch menu features kati rolls, a Calcutta street food. There’s a chicken, pork and two vegetarian kati rolls on the menu. Kati rolls are a big paratha, a type of Indian flat bread, that’s put on the griddle and brushed with a little bit of egg. The paratha is flipped over, which cooks the egg, and then filled with different things like spicy slaw, chicken, and chutney. Sambar didn’t open with lunch, lunch was added the second week of October. Lunch is geared towards the neighborhood with salads and burgers, all with Indian flavors in addition to the kati rolls. One of those lunch time salads, the vindaloo steak salad, is also the only item on any of Sambar’s lunch menu that contains beef. There is one dinner item too, the masala braised short ribs though, in general, beef isn’t a primary ingredient since a large portion of India’s population doesn’t eat beef.
As noted above, Indian cuisine evolved from an array of internal and external influences. Akasha stated what California adds to this cuisine is local California ingredients. For example, Akasha’s chef de cuisine Kirk Plummer took some fairytale squash from the market and roasted it with garam masala and palm sugar. He also did a spiced goat cheese where he takes goat cheese and mix it with another masala, and serve this with a mango chutney and arugula salad. So the arugula is a bit new, though if you went to New Delhi you’d probably find arugula. New Delhi is very cosmopolitan. California also adds a different perspective regarding what’s perceived as healthy. A lot of Indian restaurants put a lot of cream into their sauces. Akasha feels people in LA don’t want to eat a lot of cream. So Akasha and her executive chef Kirk instead try to do things with coconut milk, fresh tomato and or chicken stock that are reduced to make sauces a little lighter.
Before opening Sambar, and after training her chefs and team, Akasha had Ragavhan Iyer come out for a week and worked with Akasha on various things she wanted to perfect. Ragavhan is originally from Chennai but he’s been living in America for thirty years. He’s written five cook books and has a sixth book coming out. He wrote one book 660 Curries which Akasha asserted is a great book to have at home for anyone who wants to know curry. So Akasha just wanted to stand and work with someone who really understood things she didn’t fully understand. But she wanted to train her chefs before Ragavhan looked at everything. Thus Akasha wanted to first have her team re-imagine everything with her rather than have someone from India saying “no this is the way you have to do it.” Akasha noted, there are certain ways to cook things like breads and spice blends but, in general, she first wanted to reimagine the cuisine. So she said to herself and team, “Okay where can we go with this and not be bogged down like you have to make vindaloo this way.” So Ragavhan wasn’t in from the beginning. He helped towards the end with further refinement on items including the spice blends. There are a lot of different grades of spices. Akasha and her team use really high quality spices. Every Indian family has a different blend to come up with their garam masala. Sambar came up with a garam masala they really like. There are the dry blends of masala. There’s also wet masala which includes onions, ginger, and garlic cooked together to make a paste to which spices are further added to make a base for a curry sauce that gets tomatoes and other ingredients. Akasha and her team, though, are always fine tuning since she noted “With food sometimes you make it, and like it, but other times you go hmmm not as much.“
Akasha has received some really nice compliments about the food at Sambar including from customers that live here in the States but are originally from India. She has had young girls born here of Indian descent who tell her that her food is like elevated home cooking. Akasha also had a woman from Bangalore who told Akasha that the sambar was perfect. So despite being a white Jewish woman who grew up in Miami, Akasha has received really positive feedback from guests who really know Indian food. Akasha’s dedication to plus passion and respect for Indian culture and cuisine has help here transcend boundaries. But Akasha isn’t complacent, she realizes she has so much more to learn. So she finally noted, “I could research Indian food for the rest of my life and be happy and just study and write about that though I’m not much of a writer. I’m just a cook. Though I feel like I’m just starting to get it…This is the kind of cuisine you can spend your whole life studying it and still need another life to study it. It’s vast. It’s huge. It’s a lot and that’s what I love about it.”
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