The mother-daughter duo of Anita Jaisinghani and Ajna Jai is taking Indian food mainstream for American audiences through their Pondicheri restaurants.
Americans are no strangers to Indian food. But Anita Jaisinghani and her daughter, Ajna Jai, are broadening the cuisine’s appeal by modifying traditional dishes and serving variations of popular Indian street foods. It’s a recipe that’s working—their Pondicheri restaurants, the original in Houston, Texas, and the newest in New York City, have attracted rave reviews and enthusiastic customers.
The driving force behind these restaurants is Gujarat native Jaisinghani, who earned a degree in microbiology at her parents’ urging, but always knew food was her true calling.
“Food was definitely what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t an elegant enough career for my parents,” she says. “I wanted to go to culinary college, but my parents said, ‘We’re not sending you off to another city to learn how to cook; you can do that right here at home.’ ”
Marriage followed university. When her daughter and son were old enough, Jaisinghani got a job in the pastry kitchen at Cafe Annie, one of Houston’s top restaurants. After honing her skills, in 2001, she and her then-husband launched Indika, a high-end restaurant which established her reputation in Texas. Although Indika was very successful, Jaisinghani was thinking about something different—street food.
“I think street food is the best part of Indian food,” she says. “I like it so much. I used to make my dad stop off at midnight to eat some. It has all the many flavors I look for in food. It’s very satisfying and credible the way all the sweet, spicy and salty ingredients are combined. That was what was missing in so many Indian restaurants that focused on high-end cuisine.”
Houston Chronicle called the first Pondicheri restaurant, which Jaisinghani launched in 2011, “the game-changing, Indian street food-inspired restaurant that brought her culinary fame beyond the skillful repertoire of her upscale Indika.”
Her instincts confirmed, Jaisinghani began thinking about another location. Her daughter, Jai, suggested New York City, where her career as a stage and screen actress was already flourishing. Jai, who has a degree in architecture, now manages the Pondicheri restaurant, a huge all-day eatery in Manhattan’s hip Flatiron District. The restaurant’s offerings were described by the Village Voice newspaper as “food that has a kind of rambunctiousness to it: it’s made with fresh, quality ingredients, but it’s not droopy-healthy; it champions flavor over fuss, joy and color over polish and restraint.”
Both Pondicheri locations offer Jaisinghani’s interpretations of Indian classics like lentil-stuffed poori, masala rice pancakes, chickpea flour rolls stuffed with coconut and chili, naan wraps, parathas, stuffed dosas and kebab wraps. Also popular are samosas, curries, salads and snacks inspired by Indian street food.
“I took Indian food toward a mainstream American audience and met them halfway,” says Jaisinghani. “We didn’t make it all bowls of curry with shareable plates. If they order a piece of salmon, they get a nice piece of salmon on their own plates. The Indian food was already great—we just changed the look of it and made it more appealing to Americans.”
Another change was that of customers’ perceptions. “Indian food has been regarded as a ‘destination food,’ ” says Jai. “It’s been more of an event, like ‘Oh, let’s go out and have Indian food,’ instead of ‘Let’s go to lunch.’ Americans haven’t had the idea they can eat Indian food all day, every day. We’re changing that, partially by being open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and partially by what we’re serving.”
The 2016 launch of the Pondicheri restaurant in New York City, which has 135 seats in a 5,000-square-foot modernized industrial space, required dealing with multiple contractors for an extensive renovation of an old building, obtaining various permits and licenses, hiring and training chefs and servers, developing a new menu…and the list goes on.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” says Jai. “I had opened other restaurants with my mom, but I was much younger. I was doing my little part, but thought I was doing a lot. I learned everything from my mom—she does so much. And she was obsessed with food. If we went out to dinner, she would talk about the food versus talking about us.”
Jaisinghani, who commutes between the Pondicheri locations, acknowledges running top-quality restaurants in two different cities is challenging.
“I have to be very organized, keeping track of everything and within that, keeping the creative challenges going,” she says. “I have to cut out everything in my life that I don’t need; I have a very narrow path I walk on.”
While the dishes are delicious, there’s something else on Pondicheri menus.
“I’m very proud of the food of India,” says Jaisinghani. “It’s a cuisine that has evolved over many hundreds of years. I think Indians, in general, are not as proud of our heritage as we should be. We have an amazing heritage and knowledge that we should be proud of.”
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.