Food

An Indian-American woman who spent years rejecting Indian cuisine has become its unlikely champion

Preeti Mistry’s food is like her – of Indian origin. But it is also, like her, much more.

“Daal-bhat-rotli-shaak,” said Preeti Mistry, in a single long breath, as she remembered what she ate when she was growing up – daal, rice, rotis and vegetables. “We ate a lot of that. You know, regular Indian food. When I was a kid, my friends were always enamoured by my mother’s spice boxes, but to me it was just home food. It was boring. I wanted other stuff – meatloaf, burgers, even chaat in the restaurants outside home. From early on, I didn’t want the things that I could just have.”

Mistry, born in London and raised in Pittsburgh, is the chef and owner of Juhu Beach Club – an Oakland restaurant that gathered wide admiration for its stand-out, rebellious ethos before it closed its doors last year. In a book of the same name, Mistry brings together memories, recipes, ingredients and narratives derived from a single universe –hers and her wife (and restaurant partner), Ann Nadeau’s.

Juhu Beach Club is a product of their dinner parties, travels, battles as queer women, and their lives as Americans today. “This is my story – failing up and being true to myself – every step of the way,” Mistry writes in the book. “It’s Juhu Beach Club’s story too: Indian spice and Oakland soul.”

Photo courtesy: Preeti Mistry
Photo courtesy: Preeti Mistry

Bringing worlds together

The book – which includes a sprawling selection of recipes from the restaurant – is an object of curiosity for the American and Indian reader alike. Mistry marries Indian essentials with American favourites, childhood staples with foods found and loved along the way. Sev puri topped with citrus pickled onions; chicken wings served with a blue cheese raita; broths infused with green garlic and saffron; and a Bloody Mira, a whimsical Indian take on the classic cocktail.

Mistry writes as she cooks, with a balance of precision and abandon, chronicling vivid anecdotes of how the recipes came about. “Our most popular brunch dish, the JBC Fried Chicken & Doswaffle exemplifies diversity – just like Oakland. The doswaffle meshes the technique behind a traditional South Indian dosa batter, in the form of a classic Belgian waffle shape, with that most American of breakfast traditions: marrying sweet and savory flavors on one plate.”

Mistry, who studied film and gender studies at New College of California, began to cook when she first moved away from home. She tells stories of her at 24, when she and Nadeau, then her girlfriend, would throw parties for their friends. “We were trying to be fancy adults… [On] the NYE of 1999, I cooked a 10-course dinner for Y2K, and it was a bit ridiculous, but also really fun. And then it began – you should go to culinary school!”

When Nadeu moved to London, Mistry followed, dreams of a culinary school in tow. After Mistry graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, the couple moved back to San Francisco in 2004, where they started a business called Saffron Hill, named after their neighbourhood. They took to doing “boutique Indian food”, but the catering business, with long hours, and little artistic potential, didn’t suit them.

Photo courtesy: Preeti Mistry
Photo courtesy: Preeti Mistry

Next, Mistry worked at Bon Appetit Management Company, where she headed the kitchen at the Google office in Silicon Valley, and also competed in the reality TV series Top Chef. However cooking for thousands for whom her kitchen was a pass-by benefit was not Mistry’s way. She was “always in the office, always giving orders and never cooking. It was all too impersonal. As a chef you want to be loved for what you cook”.

“That’s when I came up with the name Juhu Beach Club and the idea to do Indian food… my Indian food,” she writes.

Translating flavours

Before she launched the restaurant, Mistry and Nadeu went to India with her parents. They stayed for four weeks, and ate continuously. Mistry’s mother acted as her guide to Mumbai, navigating her to the best pani puri, a sev puri waala from her childhood, giving Mistry a spectrum of ideas for her restaurant.

“The first time I went as a kid, I remember being amazed.” said Mistry about Mumbai. “Roasting peanuts, snacks frying in oil, pungent chutneys, there’s always so much going on.”

Photo courtesy: Preeti Mistry
Photo courtesy: Preeti Mistry

While JBC shares an essence with Mumbai, it is not a predictable package of Indian food. Dishes inspired when Mistry was at Juhu Beach took form in Oakland, and meshed with others that may or may not have any relation to Mumbai. While pavs, namkeens and garam masala are prime players in Mistry’s culinary universe, her love for the Scotch egg and fascination with the perfect French puff pastry also make the list. The recipes of JBC have the cacophony of Mumbai, the colours of Juhu, but the rigour of a professionally trained American chef.

“It’s funny because now I own an ‘Indian’ restaurant and find myself championing a cuisine and culture that I spent a lot of my early adult life rejecting,” she writes. “I’ve always felt like an outsider: a lesbian, a person of colour, an Indian-American who doesn’t speak Hindi.”

The first edition of JBC was in a liquor shop in Mistry’s neighbourhood – a place she would go to for “beer and snacks”. In a pop-up edition, she did sandwiches, samosas, tall glasses of lassi, making the place an affordable, democratic venue to eat. In a few months, JBC expanded into a 45-seater restaurant, with pink walls and an open counter. It was here, Mistry writes, that she found she was finally home.

After it opened, the restaurant quickly rose to popularity, featuring in season six of audacious culinary explorer and celebrated chef Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown. At the end of the meal, he asks Mistry, “Does authenticity have any meaning at all?” to which she replies, “I would say our food isn’t traditional, but is it authentic? Hell yeah!”

Mistry with Anthony Bourdain. Photo credit: JuhuBeachClub/Facebook
Mistry with Anthony Bourdain. Photo credit: JuhuBeachClub/Facebook

Voice and conscience

Last year, Mistry became celebrated in the American media for calling out Thomas Keller, a chef she admired but criticised for not addressing the all-male all-white centrism in the restaurant industry. “Fine dining is built from a system steeped in oppression and hierarchy in which women, gays and other minorities, are not treated the same,” said Mistry in a New York Times profile of the chef. “You [Keller] need to go on your woke journey.”

“Chefs like me, women, chefs of colour, queer immigrant cooks with great passions – we never get money thrown at us by investors.” said Mistry when asked about the piece. “Everyone still thinks of chefs the same way – white jacket, French name, white man.”

In her book, Mistry writes of a day in June 2015, when the US Supreme Court legalised same sex marriage across all 50 states. “Everyone was there and celebrating,” she said, recounting the joy in her restaurant. “We never advocated ourselves as a gay restaurant, or a gay bar or anything, but I guess everyone just feels welcome at JBC.”

While Mistry’s food is like her – of Indian origin – it is also, like her, much more. It plays on the two cultures to which she belongs, but it is suspended in a schism of its own. It is Mistry at age 15, in her mother’s kitchen – driving a frozen pizza through a flurry of Indian spices, it is her in her 30s, using her new found professional training to reinvent a biryani recipe for friends.

“It’s really important to me that I tell people that this is not something I learned watching my mother cook, leaning over the stove,” said Mistry, refusing to pander to stereotypes that often define chefs of South Asian origins. “It is not just Indian food. It’s not fusion – I’m not a fused person, I am a whole person, and this is the food I cook, and I love.”

Today, Mistry wakes up every day to hurry to her new restaurant – Navi Kitchen in Oakland, which has already been gushed about by food critics in the US.

“How about a Juhu Beach pop-up at Juhu Beach?” she said, excited at the possibility of taking JBC to its roots. “I’d really love to do that. How great would that be?”


JBC Masala Chai

In the past twenty years in the United States I have seen chai go from a drink enjoyed mostly in Indian house-holds and restaurants to the beverage of choice at every corner café. We make our chai from scratch at the beginning of service with fresh ingredients and our own signature blend of spices. Many Indian customers say that it reminds them of their mother’s or grand¬mother’s recipe. I’ll take the compliment.

Makes 6 cups
5 black teabags (we use PG Tips brand)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon Chai Masala (recipe follows)
1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
2 cups whole milk

Combine all the ingredients except for the milk with 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan, and heat them on high. When the water comes to a boil, add the milk and reduce the heat to medium. Let the liquid come to a simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and strain the solids. This drink can be chilled and served as iced chai. Use the chilled chai within 3 days.

Chai Masala
Makes 1 cup
1/2 cup green cardamom pods
1/4 cup cloves
5 2-inch cinnamon sticks
1/4 cup black peppercorns

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Measure out all the spices onto a sheet pan. Place the pan in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes until the spices begin to slightly smoke and turn a little brown. Remove the pan from the oven and set aside to cool. When the spices are fully cooled, grind them in a spice grinder in batches, until all spices are completely ground. Mix them well and keep in an airtight container for up to 4 weeks.

Reprinted with permission from The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook © 2017 by Preeti Mistry with Sarah Henry, Running Press.

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