A Glimpse Into Indian Street Food: Interview with Chef Hemant Mathur

By: Saira Malhotra

Amid the towering corporate offices and New York City's enthusiastic and multiplying energy lies a very serene locale 'Tulsi'. Meaning 'holy basil', Tulsi is a plant that is worshipped in the morning and evening in India - could a name be any more fitting to this dining sanctuary? Mr. Mathur, a powerhouse in the Indian food scene is behind this culinary mid-town gem.

Mr. Mathur's reputation and accolades precedes him. A chef at the legendry grill house in New Delhi 'Bukhara' and a former partner and chef of Devi in the Flatiron district, Mathur pulls it off yet again with Tulsi, according to Sam Sifton of the New York Times, "No one in New York makes lamb chops like Mr. Mathur".

Tulsi, was recently awarded a Michelin star to be published this month. The menu is progressive and the meats used are non-conventional by Indian standards, such as duck and rabbit. The restaurant, without a doubt, serves up 'haute cuisine' fare, yet some of its most popular dishes are those eaten by the masses on the streets of India.

With loose sheer drapes, latticed windows and hues of green and blue, I sat down to interview the brains behind the business and the magical hands behind the cuisines, Executive Chef and Co-owner, Chef Hemant Mathur.

Tell me about your back ground? What led to you being a chef?

Traditional schooling and high school subjects had not been exciting to me. When I was 17, I started working as an apprentice at the Ram Bagh Palace Hotel, and once I started working in the kitchen, I found myself really enjoying my work and my life. So, that started me on the path to become a chef.

You have worked at landmark restaurants in India, such as Bukhara, and the U.S with restaurants, such as Tamarind and your own restaurants, Devi and Tulsi. How has the experience been different?

Tulsi is my first solo restaurant where I've been able to share my voice and experiences through my own menu. I also have my longtime friend, Dhandu Ram, on my team. He is the Chef de Cuisine and a wonderful Tandoor master. We met when we were both apprentices at Bukhara in New Delhi, and now with Tulsi, we finally have the chance to work together again.

Let's talk about street culture. What is the difference between street food, restaurant food, and home cooking?

Street food is quick, inexpensive and convenient, and reflects the vibe and culture of the locale. Restaurant dining is an experience, an escape; much more technical and imaginative in preparation and presentation. Home cooking is simple, practical and sometimes more elaborate for celebrations, but it's more about nurturing and connecting with family and friends.

Is street food different in diverse parts of India? What are some of the differences one could expect to find?

Yes, there are overlaps of ingredients, but preparation and combination of spices are different from region to region. Depends on what is available locally, the season, the climate, etc. For instance, Bombay Bhel Puri is served cold, light and crunchy; while Delhi Papri Chaat is served hot and hearty with crisp potatoes.

Tulsi was recently termed 'Haute Cuisine' by Huffington Post, yet you have very interesting street food options on the menu. Are they popular? Is there anything about them that sets them apart?

Our selection of savory chaats is very popular. We offer 4 or 5 different types and change them seasonally. We try to vary the region, flavor profiles. Guests seem to love the colors, the textures, and explosion of flavors in each mouthful. It's a great start to the meal.

What is your most famous dish and what makes your desserts get so much attention?

My tandoor-grilled lamb chops is probably my most famous dish. My wife and pastry chef Surbhi Sahni is responsible for the desserts at Tulsi. Her specialty is blending Indian flavors with American and European pastry techniques.

You got great reviews from Sam Sifton and a star from NY Times and very recently a Michelin star for yet another one of your restaurants. Tell me about that. How does it impact who you are in the kitchen?

While we're very honored by the awards and accolades, we take great pride in what we do and continue to strive for excellence and stay focused in the kitchen.

For more information about Chef Hemant and Tulsi, click here. For more interviews, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)