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The Spice Is Right at the Varli Food Festival

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Like a baby learning to use its legs for the first time trying to walk—unsteady, unsure of itself and a bit on the wobbly side—the Varli Food Festival started off a little shaky and there seemed to be some confusion in the atmosphere. But not nearly unsettling enough to deter any of the dozens of individuals who were patiently waiting outside in the slightly chilly early evening air. By the end of the night, however, the Varli Food Festival had found its footing and those few dozen or so individuals swelled to an estimated 800 eager people ready to experience this first-of-its-kind Indian culinary experience in the U.S.

The celebrity chefs made their way down the red carpet, stopping along the way to meet and greet the press and festival attendees before making their way through the white French doors and into the historic Altman Building. The ground floor of The Altman Building was splendid with natural oak floors and vaulted brick ceiling and, although the vast space measured 10,000 square feet, it still somehow managed to appear much smaller when filled to capacity.

By Monday, April 4, the Varli Food Festival had been completely sold out, which is a testament to the level of interest within the community for an affair of this caliber. As the main floor of The Altman Building began to swell with the masses, it became increasingly difficult to make my way through the throng of bodies lined up three deep at tasting booths. Over thirty restaurants and caterers were in attendance, and the food never seemed to stop flowing.

Sparsely decorated and dimly lit, save for the numerous restaurants and caterer’s tasting booths lining the perimeter of the room and six Lucite-like tables with lighted bases and retro-style scooped bar stools inspired by The Jetsons off-center of the room, the Festival emitted a club‘esque vibe with recorded music playing which, at times, was a bit too loud for normal conversation. Above each tasting booth was the name of the establishment on a placard, making it easy for festival-goers to spot their old favorites and locate new ones.

The crowd was a mélange of young, hip and urbane; mature, reserved and traditional; and everyone in between. The festival-goers were Indian, African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic and Asian. This was the event that brought them all together, unified, for one reason: delicious Indian cuisine.

And Speaking of Cuisine . . .

There was an alluring mix of flavors, styles and visual presentations for the tasting that never appeared to cease. Each restaurant seemed to outdo itself with a vast and beautiful array of colors, aromas and flavors.

While the following does not represent the restaurants and caterers in attendance at the Varli Food Festival in its totality, below are a few of the many dishes that were prepared by the various restaurants/caterers for guests to sample.

Master Chef Bachan Rawat (above) was on hand representing his restaurant Bukhara Grill (NYC). His smile lit up the room as he proudly served Paneer Kathi Rolls and Chicken Kathi Rolls to festival-goers, which were a definite hit with my palate. Both rolls were slightly crispy on the outside with a tender and moist inside filled with savory goodness.

Bhatti (NYC) also made a nice showing with two different dishes. The first was Seekh Kebab, minced lamb flavored with herbs and spices, removed from the skewer and mixed with a medley of bell peppers, onions and aromatic spices. The second, Bhatti da Murg, was tender chicken lovingly marinated overnight in a yogurt based sauce then grilled to perfection accompanied by bell peppers, onions and assorted exotic spices. Where one flavor profile finished the other picked up and both ended on a luscious note.

Moghul Catering (Edison, NJ) and Mithaas (Jersey City, NJ), sister companies, were stationed side by side and offered two enticing dishes for the evening. Moghul Catering’s Murgh Roulade (above) was tiny coral hued pinwheels of savory tender chicken, while Mithaas’ Paneer Chatkhara was triple stacked spiced paneer cheese triangles that nearly melted in my mouth.

Thali (New Canaan) represented magnificently with celebrity chef Prasad Chirnomula in attendance. The visually stunning fruit carvings on display were a big draw, along with the fabulous aromas that tickled the olfactory senses. The Konkani Samundri, jumbo lump crab meat and shrimp with garlic green chilies and coconut sauce, was an evenly balanced seafood delight and the highlight of my grazing.

There were many dishes that represented and elevated the flavors of India throughout the evening. While it is difficult to call favorites, a dish that played a repeat performance for me during the night was the Lehja Chaat offered by Lehja (Richmond, VA). Executive Chef Meloza’s delicious blend of mango, black chick peas, bean sprouts, wheat crisps, fingerling potatoes and special blend of spices served in a tiny bamboo boat was refreshing with a mix of textures that complemented one another flawlessly. Bravo to Chef Meloza and General Manager Sunny Baweja for bringing such wonderful flavors to New York.

Bombay Palace (NYC) chose a delightful selection of Lentil Balls, which, surprisingly, is not currently an item on their menu. The lentil balls were appetizing, lightly fried and make the perfect bite-sized snack. Moreover, they were delicious enough to eat without any sauce whatsoever.

There was so much more food to be had all around the Varli Food Festival. From Curry Chicken Salad to Paneer Sushi, Meat Pickle to Cheese Potato, Sarson Ka Shaak spread atop Missi Roti to Chicken Kebabs—it was an Indian food lover’s delight. And if Indian cuisine wasn’t your food of choice, it would be by the end of the evening.

However, despite its name, the Varli Food Festival was not just about the food. Celebrity chef cookbook signings were held, with 100% of the proceeds from the sales going to charity. There were also wine and liquor stations for those so inclined. Downstairs on the gallery level, festival-goers could indulge not only in the aromatic spice market but also make their way to what was probably the most decadent area of the entire festival: desserts. It is on this level that I lost all composure, restraint and the will to be good.

Were it not for the sweet and tempting treats of Executive Chef Surbhi Sahni of Bittersweet I would probably be three pounds lighter today. The extravagantly luscious indulgences on her dessert table were enough to make my teeth hurt just walking in the room and it was all I could do to restrain myself with the napkin chock full of confections that I walked away with.

Barely five feet away from Bittersweet stood Parul Patel of The Cake Designer (above). Next to her was a resplendent seven-layer cake that was just as beautiful as she was, and just as color coordinated. The Cake Designer designs custom cakes for all occasions and specializes in eggless cakes.

Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor

The highlight for many at the Festival was the arrival of Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who arrived from India for this very special occasion. Chef Kapoor, host of the very popular show Kahana Kazana in India, brought the capacity crowd to its feet as he made his way to the stage flanked by two security guards. Introduced by event co-hosts and chefs Maneer Chauhan and Chef and Jehangir Mehta—who took questions from the crowd before during the moments just before Chef Kapoor’s arrival—performed a masterful on-stage cooking show, much to the delight of the crowd.

One after another, lucky audience members reaped the benefits of Chef Kapoor’s cooking prowess as he presented them with the dishes as he prepared them. The restrained excitement could be seen on more than a few faces.

What People Are Saying

Maria Barbone, of Long Beach, NY, and her friend Thomas Vega of The Bronx (above), were excited to attend the Festival. The night was one of celebration for the pair, who was heralding the arrival of Thomas’ fifty-third birthday on April 30th.

“This is Maria’s gift to me,” Thomas announced proudly as he looked around the room at his gift of the culture of India.

Of the two, Maria is the Indian food aficionado, but her proclivities are slowly rubbing off on Thomas. When asked what he thought of the Festival, he glanced around and then fixed me with steady eyes.

“I think it’s beautiful,” he said with a thoughtful smile. “It’s very exciting. I love the music because it has a club-like atmosphere. The wines, and especially the food, are both very good.”

No stranger to Indian cuisine, Maria was more than happy to be attending such an event. “I’m excited because I think the Varli Food Festival is taking Indian food to a different level,” she said. “What really excites me is the introduction of Indian wines. I just never knew much about them, but here they are.”

Maria and Thomas were not the only ones who expressed an appreciation for Indian cuisine and the Festival itself. Bronx resident Maribel Lino (above, right,with Chef Surbhi Sahni) who learned of the Festival simply by searching for New York food festivals and the like, is glad that she decided to attend. A few years ago, Maribel began to develop food allergies. Since that time, she has had to keep a watchful eye on the types of food that she consumes.

“I needed to change my diet to stay healthy. One day, I went to Coromandel, an Indian restaurant in Stamford. I absolutely fell in love with the spices they used and their vegetables.” Soon, Maribel began doing research on Indian cuisine and cooking techniques, which eventually led her to the Varli Food Festival.

“Indian food is filling, it’s healthy and it’s delicious. You can’t beat it,” she said with enthusiasm.

When asked what she thought of the Festival, Maribel was quick to respond. “I think it’s great. I’m overwhelmed that so many people of different cultures have come out. It’s very multi-cultural.”

Maribel’s sentiments reaffirm what Chefs Hari Nayak, Prasad Chirnomula and Maneet Chauhan were hoping for with the Festival—reaching out to the American community, changing the views and misconceptions about Indian food, and introducing Indian cuisine to the general public.

“People have welcomed me here,” Maribel added. “I feel at home here. I feel very comfortable. I came here by myself, yet I don’t feel like I’m in a room full of strangers.”

As for the future of Varli? Well, Maribel has her thoughts on this as well. “I hope it becomes an annual event so that people can appreciate the Indian culture and food. In fact, I don’t doubt that it will be an annual event.”

Are you listening Varli? Maribel, Maria, Thomas and countless others who attended the Varli Food Festival have allowed their actions to speak clearly. This is an event that they clearly would like to see continue year after year.

The views of Maria and Thomas were echoed all evening as scores of people danced to the pulsating beat of the music that throbbed throughout the room, dined on fabulous Indian cuisine, imbibed the nectar of the gods, chatted with old friends and made new friends.

As the old adage goes, you have to learn to walk before you can run. Once they have found their legs, I have no doubt that Varli Food Festival will be sprinting in no time and next years’ event will see them racing to the finish line.

To read Valerie Albarda’s other stories on chefs and the festival, click on her byline.

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