Among the biggest food trends of 2016 has been chefs taking foreign cuisines and twisting them just enough to present them in cool new ways. Look what Bad Saint has done with Filipino food, for example. Or Maketto with Taiwanese and Cambodian cuisine. Though not as recently, Little Serow did the same with Thai. What these three restaurants also share is that they often feature street food.
Bindaas joined the rising tide of elevated global street food restaurants when it opened in August. The buzzy Cleveland Park dining room (3309 Connecticut Ave. NW) is from owner Ashok Bajaj and Chef Vikram Sunderam, whom Washingtonians know for their work at Rasika and Rasika West End. Bajaj describes his latest endeavor as serving “the kind of food you eat by the roadside.”
But what happens when the diner is someone who grew up eating the ethnic cuisine in question? Do they embrace the liberties taken? Or do they balk? If dining at Bindaas with cookbook author and Delhi, India native Monica Bhide is any indication, the twists and turns are welcome.
After living in Delhi until she was six years old, Bhide moved to Bahrain, where she stayed throughout her schooling. She spent much of her career as a computer engineer and moved to the District in 1991 to pursue a degree at George Washington University. But she eventually shed her computer engineer life—and its six-figure salary—to do what she loves: writing.
Bhide has published seven books, and two more are forthcoming in 2017. She’s written best-selling fiction, a memoir, several cookbooks, and more. Her most recent work, Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, features storytelling that blends food and culture. Her recipes have also been featured on NPR.
Together, we sampled dishes from Bindaas’ menu of street food and snacks. Most of the dishes originate in Mumbai, from which Bhide’s husband hails. She travels there every year and is intimately familiar with the city’s street food.
“My son and I share the same birthday and we like to feed poor people,” she explains. “It’s hard to take food from our house, so we have a street vendor we love come and set up, and we say, ‘feed as many people as you can.’” They typically serve between 200 and 300 people.
These Bindaas plates represent the highlights of a meal worth repeating:
Avocado Golgappa ($7)
This dish consists of a paper-thin biscuit that’s puffed and stuffed with creamy avocado and a lip-smacking sauce of sweet yogurt and tamarind chutney. On top sits a few crunchy wisps of sev (small pieces of crunchy chickpea flour noodles). “Avocado is a modern take,” Bhide says. “He’s done a nice job with it.” She explains that she’s only seen avocados in South India, but never in golgappa or in other recipes. “They serve them with honey or as is.”
Bhel Puri ($6)
Much like Rice Krispies cereal, this snack has snap, crackle, and pop. It’s sweet and sour and composed of puffed rice with raw mango, mint, and cilantro. Bhide describes it as Indian “trail mix” and advises diners to eat it as soon as it arrives at the table because all of the sauces that make it so flavorful can also make it soggy. The snack is especially popular near Mumbai’s beaches.
Pao Bhaji ($10)
Pao means bread in Portuguese, so this dish is widely eaten in both Mumbai and Goa, which saw Portuguese rule. Most bread in India is flat and baked in a tandoori oven, but pao is more akin to a soft, fluffy, and slightly sweet potato roll. It’s served with a dipper of mashed vegetables (bhaji). “At home, it’s a beloved dish to make because it’s comfort food with that warm roll,” Bhide says. “If they do it right, they slather it with butter as if butter is going out of style.”
She says the traditional way to eat it is to swipe at the mashed vegetables with pieces of the pao bread, much like Ethiopians use injera bread. She says her kids prefer to make a sandwich from the dish’s two components. “There’s no wrong way. It all goes to your stomach,” she says. The overall effect is something you’d want as an afternoon snack growing up, much like a grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Sweet Corn-Pepper Uttapam ($9)
These round, flat pancakes made from rice flour are typically topped with tomato, green onion, green chilies, and cilantro. While they’re somewhat reminiscent of a dosa, they’re much thicker and more toothsome than a thin crepe. Bindaas takes many liberties with the toppings, and Bhide welcomes it. The sweet corn variety has all the flavor of a satisfying summer succotash.
The meal is a hit, and Bhide is pleased with the way Sunderam dances between being traditional and being original. But she wants people to know it’s not fusion, it’s just evolving cuisine, much like the food featured in her 2009 cookbook Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen.
“This is what the kids eat. It’s more playful,” she says. “I’ll bring my family here. They’ll love it.”
Meet Bhide and learn more about her latest release Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken at the National Press Club on Dec. 12. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $80 and include the following menu:
Passed Hors d’oeurvres
Basil-Wrapped Scallop (coconut curry marinade)
Eshaan’s India’s Best Home Cook Childhood memory soup
Ginger Honey Shrimp on papaya, shredded cabbage, cucumber salad
Eshaan’s Mother Butter Chicken in Tomato Sauce
The Beggar’s Curried Potatoes (spicy)
Rice with peas
Red lentils with garlic
Rice pudding with mango carpaccio