Suvir Saran has been regarded as a legend in New York City food circles, having garnered a Michelin star at Devi, a first for Indian cuisine as well as the first for any non-French or non-Italian restaurants in North America. New Delhi-born Top Chef Master Suvir Saran has nurtured a lifelong passion for the traditional flavors of Indian cooking, which has led him to become an accomplished chef, cookbook author, educator, and farmer. Through his approachable and informed style, he has demystified Indian cuisine in America and ultimately formed American Masala, his culinary philosophy, which celebrates the best of Indian and American cooking.
Suvir Saran, What is your food philosophy? How do you define American Masala?
I look at food as the most essential thing we do in our lives. I see it not just as fuel for the engine that is our body, but also the muse for our heart, mind, and soul. When we are eating yummy and delicious food that is at once healthy and nutritive as well as local and seasonal, chances are we will feed good about it and also be better for having indulged. As they say, we are what we eat, it is incumbent upon us to eat smart, eat tasty, and eat right.
American Masala is the story of my life thus far. A life where I lived the first 18 years in Delhi and then 27 years in New York City. A way of living and being that made me a global citizen. Taught me to see the world as my oyster. With that appreciation of the universality of the human journey, I saw the clear connections we share in our foodways across geographies and borders. This in turn brings a world of flavors to my kitchen and through that onto the food I serve and share. American Masala is a way of thinking about and creating food that is at once of the world and prepared with regard and respect for the cultures it culls from and celebrates, together or as focused highlights on their own.
What was the inspiration behind starting Devi? It was the first South Asian restaurant in the United States to receive a Michelin star, how did it help Devi?
Indian home cooking, the foods of our homes across the length and breadth of India was the inspiration behind Devi. It was the first time that the world saw Pan-Indian cuisine. It was funny that my mother was dining at the restaurant in Manhattan a few days after we opened, and the first words out of her mouth were about how shocked and excited she was to see glimpses of so many different regions of India on one plate, and across the menu.
Diners until then had eaten degustation dinners of cuisines from across Northern Europe but had never even imagined that possible in an Asian realm. Devi shared that possibility and with great attention to detail and all the nuance and polish associated with that genre of dining. Newspapers, magazines, and critics that never reviewed a tasting menu made an exception and reviewed that at Devi. It was that groundbreaking that they felt comfortable taking a departure from the norm.
The Michelin Star, when the guide book first arrived in NYC, was a wonderful affirmation of what Devi stood for. That we got it the first year the guide arrived in the US, was a most thrilling happening. Of course, it didn’t change who we were, it only made us more impassioned about doing what we did, and how we did it. It ensured that passion, integrity, and commitment to India, Indian food, and refined home cooking never lost center stage from our attention and care.
Business at Devi till we closed, was never lacking for critical acclaim or customer business. Unlike businesses that are closed, we closed while very popular and sought after. Of course the reviews in the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Michelin Guide, and magazines of note across the world, all helped get us our share of attention and customers.
You have immense experience of running a restaurant, how is the response to your latest venture and the first in India, The House of Celeste?
The House of Celeste in Gurgaon never really formally opened. The pandemic had our business shut its doors along with all other restaurants in the NCR on the 18th of March. We were going to open at the end of March. But of course, we had started our soft opening and so had served a few hundred meals by then. Customers and critics alike were most thrilled by our offering and were shocked at the quality of food, the attention to detail in the food, and the layers of discovery that each dish brought to the table. It was food prepared with love and care, and our diners appreciated all the loving attention given to every aspect of each dish.
What did The House of Celeste mean to you, Suvir Saran? What is the one thing that it defines?
The House of Celeste was the restaurant I helped create after my arrival back in India. It was my creation while still recovering from my mini-stroke. It was my way of keeping connected to my culinary artistry and also with my passion and hobby. It was conceived when I was healing and recuperating. It was crafted with thoughtful and mindful care. It defined the endless possibilities that exist in the future of Indian fine and fun dining.
With the hospitality industry undergoing a new normal, how are you planning the growth of the restaurant? Are you planning to open a chain of restaurants pan India?
Indian cuisine is in flux for defining its identity and it is coming of age. It is a new cuisine, that is being enjoyed by people that belong to an old culture. It is this dichotomy and the incongruent challenges posed by the polar opposites that are playing ball in our landscape – that make our culinary scene seem a tad young and immature to people who come from nations with old restaurant traditions. Our food and food traditions are rich in lore and legend. They are steeped in history. Yet, our restaurant dining and offerings reflect a very reflexively planned offering and hardly have the sophistry and nuance that one would expect from an old tradition. It is this that is now being challenged and slowly but surely, India will come to a better understanding of itself, and with that appreciate its food for what it is, rather rich panoply of tastes and flavors, textures and colors, all tested by time and celebrated by life and living. When we get closer to Indian Foodways of yore, we will learn to embrace our heritage and we will become a people and nation that is serving incredible food that the world will revere and consider equal to any other cuisine from across the world.
The lockdown and this pandemic have taught us all much about ourselves and life and living. That we closed The House of Celeste in March even before we formally opened, was a sign from me from the Gods. A telling moment that I had to reflect upon and consider with utmost seriousness. As the lockdown prevailed and continued, each day of me not having to sit in a car for 4-5 hours to go back and forth between home in Delhi and restaurant in Gurgaon was a day that made me feel more complete and one with myself and at peace with the world. Long hours spent commuting take a toll on the best of us, and I am not immune to the wear. I have decided to not go back to the restaurant now that it is open again. And it seems it is the best thing to have happened. Diners are not going to flock to restaurants in any urgency or numbers until at least the middle of next year. Plus no one is going to be eating fine food or anything too serious. People will eat what can be enjoyed quickly and I am sure younger chefs with less experience can handle that just fine. Of course, greed never has an end, and I could think of financial gains, but I truly feel diners and businesses alike must look at the pandemic as a clarion call for a change in focus and operating styles. Customers would be better served by staying in and supporting the delivery model, and businesses have to offer something more deliverable and take out friendly. I am happy to use this time for introspection and to study the market and create something special that I can put into place by end of next year. With that in mind, I am developing my next offering in Delhi and my next cookbook and writing a novel. My Slice of Life column in the Sunday Eye by Indian Express keeps me busy as does my social media and consulting work.
What was your thought behind Instamatic? Can you take us through the journey of this book?
An insta-moment made Instamatic, a collection of photographs and musings come together.
Those who know me know that I am far from shy about sharing my reactions to whatever I see and feel at any given moment. And so, penning my thoughts into musings, sharing them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook is nothing foreign to me.
Over the years countless people have suggested I compile my reflections into a book, write a novel based on them, or even turn them into a movie. Those suggestions, as flattering as they were, never got my attention.
But as the first monsoon rain hit Delhi this year, and I started sharing my photos and thoughts on social media, I was overwhelmed by the encouragement that poured from every corner of the world, from family, friends, and acquaintances alike. Each and every email or message came with an admonition for not having put my mutterings into a coffee table book. Next thing I knew my dear friends Yogi and Priya Suri, publishers of Milap Publications had convinced me to pen this book and also to allow them to publish it in India. A departure from me as my other three books had been published in the US. It was easy for me as Yogi and I have been friends since my school days at Modern School, Vasant Vihar in Delhi. Also, I know how deeply embedded their family is in publishing in India, and so I knew I was in safe and caring hands.
It is not about the quality of the images, but rather they are all about capturing a moment and the thoughts and reflections that moment elicits.
We all see what we see, but we are capable of seeing so much more if we pause, filter the moment, capture its gravitas, and reflect upon it.
Life lives on, with or without us. We can learn to capture its essence in its entirety, or get lost in what we deem to be important. We are but a small afterthought in the larger scope of life’s scope. That isn’t to say that we do not matter. On the contrary, if we allow ourselves to think beyond ourselves, we might appreciate all the hidden jewels sent our way daily. Waiting to be appreciated, but never getting our attention.
It is my hope that the images, the prose, and the impressions shared in Instamatic, encourage readers to document their own day through the images they capture on their phones. As they look through a lens, lose fear, inhibitions, stereotypical reactions, and unnecessary distractions, they dive into a moment in most unexpected ways.
Lost to a moment without the discombobulating fog of one’s own invention, one might not only see life where earlier one saw none but also find beauty and sadness. Both mind-altering, cathartic, and healing.
As readers dive deeper with each photo they take, they might start questioning life a lot more. They will also start finding answers.
It is my hope that the pages of Instamatic bring out reactions from readers that take them to new places within themselves and that I encourage them to live mindfully.
Quick Questions, Suvir Saran:
Your 5 Must spices in the kitchen: Cumin Seeds, Cardamom Pods, Coriander Seeds, Black Peppercorn, Dried Red Chiles
Your 5 Must utensils or gadgets in the kitchen: Food Processor Stand Mixer, Blender, Chinese Wok, Jam Pot
Favourite cuisine: Indian is my favorite cuisine of course, but Italian and French come very close to it.
Recipe of Mushroom Biryani
This is a vegetarian biriyani purely of my own invention. It is unusual that there are no onions or tomatoes in it; its flavor is based solely on mushrooms and a south Indian palate of spices. For a more substantial meal, add one can of drained chickpeas to the mushroom mixture. Serve this as a main coarse with raita, or as a side dish. In India, we leave whole spices in the final dish, but if you prefer, you can pick out the whole spices before layering the rice into the casserole dish.
That it is without any onion and garlic, makes it totally a holiday recipe. But, rest assured, this is a dish that packs tons of flavor and hits all the right spots. Make this and add pinches of delicious masala to your festive entertaining.
For the rice
10 cups water
6 black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
4 green cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 cups aged basmati rice
For the biryani
1/4 cup canola oil
6 black peppercorns
6 green cardamom pods
3 whole cloves
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
36 curry leaves, roughly torn
2 to 6 dried red chiles
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 pounds white button mushrooms, trimmed and thickly sliced
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon sambhar powder
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked peppercorns
1 tablespoon unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup chopped coriander leaves and tender green stems
1/2 cup water
Bring the water, peppercorns, cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaves and cinnamon to a boil in a large pot.
Add the rice and stir so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Return to a boil and reduce heat to a vigorous simmer.
Cook, partially covered for 6 minutes. Drain and set aside (you can pick out the whole spices if you like).
Heat your oven to 350°F. Heat the oil, peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, mustard seeds, and cumin in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat cooking until the cumin is browned and the mustard seeds start to pop about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes.
Add the curry leaves, red chiles and the turmeric and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute.
Reduce the heat to low, add the ground coriander and cook while stirring, until the red chiles are starting to darken, about 1 minute.
Add the mushrooms and salt to the skillet and increase the heat to medium-high (the skillet will be full at this point).
Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms release their liquid and the total volume of the mushrooms is reduced by about 1/2, about 4 to 5 minutes. Mix in the sambhar (or curry powder) and then stir in the buttermilk.
Bring to a vigorous simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced by 1/2 and slightly thick, about 8 to 12 minutes (there will still be quite a bit of sauce). Stir in the cracked pepper and turn off the heat.
Grease a large 10-cup oven-safe casserole dish or Dutch oven (preferably one with a lid) with butter.
Add 2 cups of the cooked rice, spreading it evenly over the bottom of the dish.
Cover with 1/2 of the mushroom mixture and sprinkle with 1/3 of the cilantro.
Evenly spread 1 1/2 cups of rice over the cilantro and cover with the remaining mushrooms and 1/2 of the remaining cilantro.
Evenly spread the remaining rice on top and pour 1/2 cup of water around the edges of the dish.
Cover tightly with aluminum foil, seal with a lid and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the casserole from the oven and let it stand for 10 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle with the remaining cilantro and serve.
You can know more about Chef Suvir Saran here!