August 08, 2010

Chai Pani~ A Dream Incarnate

If you had to reinvent yourself...if your family's future, and your personal joy, depended on a new career choice, what would you do?

In the last couple years, many have had to ask themselves this question and resolved that life can be different. No, life can be BETTER than it was before. The brave have pressed a mental reset button and haven't looked back!

Our friends Meherwan and Molly Irani did just that, a little over a year ago. They tell the story of a pivotal discussion while driving home from vacation in June 2009. With the real estate market crumbling beneath them, they asked each other, "How can we make a living doing something we love? What are we passionate about?" The answer? Food. They were passionate about food.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Express.

August 2009, in the middle of the worst economic crisis of our time, they opened the doors of Chai Pani--a 'fast-casual' restaurant focusing on affordable Indian street food. They had no experience in the restaurant business and lacked the know-how to run a professional kitchen, but they are smart and resourceful.

Meherwan's mom flew in from India to collaborate on the menu and help train the cooks. The first three days of business had such an overwhelming response, they ran out of food and had to shut the doors early! They closed shop for 3 more days to revamp their tactics. Then they reopened Chai Pani and have been kicking tail ever since!

Chai Pani just had its first birthday and has doubled all projections this year. It has received the Mountain Express Editior's Pick for 'Best New Restaurant' and 'Best Lunch' in 2009. A slightly higher honor (in my opinion) is that it has become an unofficial hangout for some well respected chefs in town!

I couldn't get over all the spices they use. Many I had never seen before!

Meherwan explains, India does not have a restaurant-culture like the US. Most Indians cook well, so they eat at home. When they do eat out, they grab something quick from a street vendor. What you are served at most Indian restaurants in the states is Northern Indian cuisine with a slight British influence. This food would only be served in high-end restaurants in India, not eaten by the vast population.

The Irani's dream was to intermingle street food with home-cooked dishes from all over India--and prepare them with local and organic ingredients. Meherwan reveals, "Chai Pani offers a new flavor experience for most Americans, because the food is AUTHENTIC. This is how Indians eat."

The authenticity, quality and prices keep Asheville coming back for more!

The Iranis cordially offered their Malabar Chicken Curry recipe (served on the Thali Plate) to A Spicy Perspective. A vivacious south Indian favorite with tropical flair, that seamlessly marries robust earthy flavors, heat and acidity with the rich cooling effect of coconut. Trust me, this recipe is a keeper!


Chai Pani’s Malabar Chicken Curry

2 lbs. chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup vegetable oil + 1 Tb.
1 ½ tsp. mustard seeds
½ tsp. fenugreek seeds
12-15 curry leaves, finely chopped
2-3 small dried red chiles (cayenne, bird)
4 cups chopped red onion (2 large onions)
2 ½ Tb. grated ginger
1 tsp. chili powder
1 ½ Tb. ground coriander
1 tsp. turmeric
½ cup chopped cilantro (leaves and/or stems)
3 cups chopped tomatoes
2 Tb. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. salt
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk

Pour ½ cup oil in a large sauce pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, and red chiles.

Sauté for 1-2 minutes, then add the ginger and onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the onions to brown until they are dark and soft enough the smash with a spatula—about 25-30 minutes.

Add the chili powder, coriander, turmeric, and cilantro—mix together.

Raise the heat back to medium and add the tomatoes, salt, and lime juice. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have disintegrated and the oil separates out—15-20 minutes.

Add ½ cup of water and 1 cup coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat.

In a separate skillet, heat 1 Tb. of oil over high. Add the chicken to the skillet and brown on all sides, leaving the centers pink—2-4 minutes.

Add the chicken to the curry and simmer 5-7 minutes until the chicken has cooked through. Serve over basmati rice.

Cook's Notes: I went to a small foreign market to collect some of the unique ingredients for this recipe. There, I had no trouble finding everything on my list. Extra curry leaves can be wrapped and frozen for later use. This is a GREAT make-ahead! Letting the curry sit overnight enhances the flavors!

Asheville Locals~ It's voting time! Make sure to go to Mountain Express THIS WEEK and vote for your favorite restaurant in every category. Your votes help our restaurateurs gain exposure and keep their doors open!

Here are A SPICY PERSPECTIVE's picks:

BBQ- 12 Bones
Bakery- Well-Bred
Breakfast- Sunny Point Cafe
Burger- Packs Tavern
Burrito- Mamacitas
Caterer- Okie Dokie Smokehouse
Cheap Lunch- Chai Pani
Home-style- Tupelo Honey
Favorite- Curras Nuevo Cuisine
Fine Dining- Cucina 24
Ice cream- Kilwins
Italian- Cucina 24
Indian- Chai Pani
Japanese- Wasabi
Late Night- The Lab
Latin- Limones
Pizza- Nona Mia
Pub Grub- The Admiral
Outdoor Eatery- Chorizo
Romantic Eatery- Red Stag Grill
Seafood- Posana (It's not a seafood restaurant but they have killer seafood dishes!)
Service- Red Stag Grill
Sweets- The Chocolate Fetish
Thai- Thai Basil
Top Chef- Corner Kitchen, Joe Scully
Vegetarian- Laughing Seed

Cocktail- Limones
Coffee- Izzy's Coffee Den

Best local blog/website- A SPICY PERSPECTIVE  ;)

Chai Pani on Urbanspoon
Chai Pani’s Malabar Chicken Curry on Foodista


  1. That's a lovely story, the food looks fantastic. They are lucky they can work with something they love.

  2. This is such a great story! I kinda teared up reading it! I don't even know your friends and yet, I can't help but hope really hard that their restaurant continues to thrive- it looks like a fabulous place :)

  3. That is a really inspiring story.I wish them continued success. The chicken curry looks awesome. Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  4. Congratulations to your friends towards their restaurant success. Please thank them for sharing their curry recipe with all of us. It is already saved and I will be cooking it in the near future.

  5. That is so amazing--it always makes me happy when people finally get to focus and pursue their dreams--and it works out! And a big thanks to the Iranis for sharing this--it looks fabulous and has been saved to make in the near future. All I need are fenugreek seeds and leaves from one of the local Indian markets. I love real Indian food so much.

  6. You know I love love love this Sommer :)

    Nothing beats an authentic Malabar chicken curry. And yours looks right. Hooray for Chai Pani - I love it :)

    Ciao, Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

  7. I'm glad your friends have a hit!! Thanks for sharing a great story.

  8. The restaurant looks nice.
    And the chicken curry makes me so hungry!

  9. Such an inspiring story...Thanks for sharing maybe your friends' story will give me the courage and boldness to do what I love to do!

  10. Ouch... Just skimming through the pictures. Got my mouth salivating like a dog with fever.
    Love it!

    It's so great that a passion can trigger such success. I wish them well. I particularly like their local approach and applying the authentic techniques.

    And the Malabar Chicken... I've worked in 5 different Indian restaurants for year... It's sure is one of the stuff in the Authentic Indian menu. (Just so happen I got all the ingredient listed up there in my pantry. I better give it ago later this week)

  11. Wow, this looks superb! Best wishes for your friends' success. They are brave souls.

  12. Congrats to Chai Pani! I will have to come visit. So many of us are finally waking up to the "reset" button and so happy to hear when others have really found satisfaction in it.

  13. What a cool, inspiring story!!! And how sweet of them to share this awesome recipe.

  14. It makes me feel so good when I see people doing something that makes them happy....I see to many people miserable with their lives....and to me the food industry is so rewarding! Thanks for sharing this success story with us!

  15. I love to hear about people taking a risk and succeeding. That sounds like a fabulous place to eat!

  16. This is wonderful to hear about someone following a dream and experiencing great success and joy! Thank you so much for sharing their story... and this awesome recipe... my mouth is watering, I can almost taste the spices! I am also going to forward this on to a friend, she is actually travelling to Asheville this week for vacation so I am sure she will want to check this place out. :)

  17. This post makes me want to move to Asheville! Bravo to this couple for living their dream despite the recession! WHat a handsome couple.

  18. It's so wonderful that your friends have found success by following their passion! Thank you (and your friends) so much for this recipe and the tip on where to find curry leaves!

  19. I trust you, this recipe looks delicious, thanks for sharing!

  20. Looks so good...I will try this out. My daughter and I are looking at this and drooling....

  21. Pops and I must visit Chai Pani. We will be in Asheville in about six weeks. Can hardly wait. Perhaps while we are there you can take me to the market to buy spices.

  22. My mouth is watering - how come I haven't heard of so many of these, places? The concept of affordable Indian street food is brilliant and perfect. I absolutely love it!

  23. While I don't eat meat, I do love Indian food, and this restaurant sounds like a great place. One of the best parts of my visit to India was the smells and sights of street vendor's carts, and trying the different kinds of chaat. What a treat, and another good reason to visit Ashville. (I haven't been there yet, but it's on my list of U.S. cities to check out.)

  24. Too cool! Love success stories like this!! Congrats on the top nine too :-)

  25. Wow, such a nice story and the food look so yummie...great pictures!

  26. What a great story. I actually have all of the ingredients! Must try. I'm so hungry looking at all the photos.

  27. The Malabar Chicken Curry looks and sounds fantastic. I'm also loving the story of how the restaurant came to be!

  28. Thank you for this wonderful review! My husband and I are traveling to Asheville for our summer vacation (we leave tomorrow!) and we've been researching restaurants to try while we're there. We'll definitely be stopping by Chai Pani.

  29. Wow...this is such an inspirational story! I love hearing how people make their dreams happen! Your version looks amazing...Indian food has such wonderful colors and flavors! Beautiful dish and beautiful story. Thanks for sharing!

  30. So inspiring! Looks like a great restaurant. And that chicken curry - yum!

  31. Ok, Sommer. I'm driving up right this minute to try out that restaurant, will you join me? It looks so amazingly delicious!! I'm definitely adding it to my list of must try's for when I'm in Asheville next month. Yum!! Congrats to your friends, I can see instantly why it's so successful!

  32. Great story, great recipe. Congrats to your friends too!

  33. The Malabar chicken curry looks fantastic! Makes me want to have a bowl of it now.

  34. Awe, this makes me so happy, Sommer. Opening a restaurant is so hard even for seasoned restaurant people, so it's good to see someone who loves food with a great idea do well. I mean, Indian street food made with natural and organic ingredients-awesome! Cheers to Meherwan & Molly's bravery.
    p.s. that food looks like the jam-seriously!

  35. I'm so glad things worked out for the owners of Chai Pani… I love the food from Malabar and the fish curry I'm sure is absolutely delish!

  36. What a great story and the Malabar Chicken Curry looks absolutely amazing!

  37. great story, I love that they followed their passion, I wish them all the best...lovely recipe..

    ps...missed ya girl, catching up on old post..

  38. Sommer...I'll have to go easy on the heat (really sensitive to it) and you certainly picked a winner of a dish...looks so appetizing.

    How very nice of you to showcase your friends' life changing story the way you did. I really admire their courage. With support from friends like you...they never did to worry of failure.

    Great, warming post.
    Ciao for now,

  39. What a wonderful post and story...The food looks amazing :)

  40. I completely agree, this is what Indians eat. Looks very homey.Oops.. i am drooling at the Malabar chicken curry. I blog hopped from Indian Simmer and I am so glad I did. Looking forward to connect with you. Happy Blogging!

  41. This is a lovely piece. The photos are mouth-watering, and the dish actually looks feasible to make! I loved the feature on the restaurant as well--it's inspiring to see people who love street food themes succeed! Thanks for posting.

  42. What a wonderful story, its not very often that we get to spend our days doing something that we love.

  43. Ask them to open up a branch in vegas too...LOL
    I badly miss Indian street food in here! Cant make everything at home :(
    Its licked my lips while browsing!!!!

  44. A wonderful place! Lovely food.

    your curry looks mighty good! I am drooling...



  45. The food sounds fantastic! And they are adorable. How nice of them to share a recipe. It looks absolutely delicious - I bet I could even pass this off on my Indian food hating family without them even realizing what they were eating.

  46. That is a gorgeous curry - even my mum would approve and she's no curry pushover! Your photos do great justice to the food :)

    Your friends are lucky to succeed spectacularly at something they love so much - I bet it never feels like they're going to work!!

  47. I feel like this is a dish I could actually make. I can almost smell it. I have no experience with this type of cooking, but I'm game to try.

  48. Thank you Sommer for sharing our story - we are so touched! We love A Spicy Perspective and are so proud of what you have created with your blog and your classes. With all the hard work involved in following your dreams and what you truly love, there is nothing better! Thank you all for your endearing comments and feedback - here's to following what you love and some good home cooked food!!

  49. oh my goodness ....that curry reminds me of back home soo badly. delicious presentation! where is this restaurant?

  50. delicious love the addition of coriander into the sauce

  51. I found a Malabari restaurant in Toronto this summer and it was the best Indian food I have ever had, so I'm SO excited to find this recipe. Thank you!

  52. I wonder if the owners had ever considered offering a tiffin box take-out program? Or would be receptive to the idea of using a customer's own tiffin box for take-out vs. using styro containers that end up in the landfill?

    For those of you who don't know what a "tiffin" is, it's a stainless steel Indian or Thai lunch box made up of several small, round containers that stack on each other and secured in a frame with a handle.

    I'd read of Indian restaurants in Vancouver BC that offer a 2-tier tiffin box for a modest price with the first meal and the customer can get a daily "tiffin special" to-go by simply bringing back the container on subsequent visits for take-out food.

    That, and tiffin boxes are just plain cool for carrying your lunch to work, school or wherever.

    Here's an article:

  53. It seems that the Iranis have offered tiffins to their customers for the past year.

    Sad I don't live there, but nice to see they're ahead of the game!

  54. I just made this, and it's delicious!

  55. "curry leaves". Don't have any.

    Gourmet sleuth says substitute either fresh basil leaves or kaffir lime leaves.

    Don't have any kaffir lime leaves, but a basil plant is still hanging in there.

    Anyone use basil? Yea? Or hold out for curry leaves?


I love to hear your thoughts! Thanks for taking the time. If you have a question, I'll get back to you ASAP!