Before Nadiya Hussain won season six of “The Great British Bake Off,” she was a stay-at-home mom with plans to be a social worker. But since her big win, she’s hosted eight TV shows and written a dozen books, including her latest, “Nadiya Bakes,” which is also the name of her Netflix show.
Hussain is British-Bangladeshi, and her dad spent his entire career running and owning Indian restaurants.
“I would always argue with him and say, ‘Why are you serving this stuff? It’s so bland,'” Hussain said. “I mean, it was tasty but it wasn’t what we ate at home. I was like, ‘Dad, why don’t you give people the real stuff? Like, give them the real korma the way mum cooks it.’ And he was was like, ‘No, the world isn’t ready for that.’ Part of me thinks he wasn’t brave enough to make the change. He said, ‘Nobody will eat that and I need to pay the bills.'”
Most Indian restaurants in the United States have the exact same menu. You know it: chicken tikka masala, butter chicken, vindaloo and tandoori, naan. But these menus don’t reflect India’s widely varied cuisine that differs from state to state. Many immigrants, including Hussain’s dad, had to water down or invent new dishes that their western customers would eat. But those homogenous menus are frustrating for some Indian immigrants.
“One thing that we noticed when we lived in New Jersey, Cincinnati, Boston, Pittsburgh, and then finally Seattle was that we didn’t feel like there was any food that really represented what we grew up with,” said Seattle’s Uttam Mukherjee, who grew up in Calcutta.
So Mukherjee and his wife, Dr. Aakanksha Sinha, opened Spice Waala, an Indian street food restaurant, to showcase the cuisine they missed from home.
“There’s such a large Indian population in the U.S. and I think it’s sad that people don’t get to enjoy the food that they grew up eating,” Sinha said. “In Seattle, we went and ate at a food truck and I had a chicken tikka masala slash dal slash roti that was some morphed version of Indian food. When we have kids, I don’t want my kids growing up in this country thinking that this is Indian food.”
In fact, chicken tikka masala doesn’t exist in India; it’s a British invention.
At Spice Waala, they serve Indian snacks called chaat.
“The term essentially means to lick your fingers,” Sinha said.
And Kathi rolls.
“Kathi rolls are essentially the Indian equivalent of burritos, gyros,” Mukherjee explained.
It’s roti, thin Indian flatbread, rolled up with either spiced chicken, lamb, house-made paneer or potato, and garnished with green chutney and onions.
Unlike immigrants from past generations, Sinha and Mukherjee had more financial freedom to take a risk.
“Neither of us cooked professionally,” Sinha said. “I moved to the U.S. for my masters in social work. I finished up my PhD and I moved to Seattle as a professor at Seattle University. I quit my job with them and right now I’m senior director for research for Casey Family Programs. So still continuing to do more of the social work side and working here as well.”
Dr. Sinha just might be the most educated restaurateur in Seattle.
“A double masters and a PhD so, yes, I think so!” Mukherjee laughed. “I used to be a brand manager working in marketing for Procter & Gamble. I quit to do this full time.”
“It was a hobby for a very long time and we were like, this is too much work for it to be a hobby,” Sinha said.