"They become more Indian."
He's talking about his family, who uprooted from rural Chandigarh up north in India's Punjabi region and settled down in Australia. The Singh crew took monthly road trips from Melbourne to Sydney—a nine-hour trek—to sift through spices at the only Indian spice shop in the country at the time. They smuggled in seeds from home to plant at their Melbourne farm.
But the same could be said of the chef behind New York City's buzziest Indian restaurant.
The dining room at Babu Ji | Chef Jessi Singh
At his boisterous spot in Alphabet City, Singh's taking recipes passed down through his family and transforming them into bright, refreshing renditions, like crunchy, nacho-like papadi chaat (see the recipe), comforting aloo gobi (see the recipe) and juicy tandoori chicken (see the recipe).
However, Singh's left a few things back in his homeland: all the ghee, grease and gloppiness that people may associate with Indian dishes.
"We get at least three to four customers a day who haven't eaten Indian food but are dared by their family and friends, and they say, 'I always thought it was spicy, oily food,'" Singh says. "But it's such a beautiful cuisine, and it can be fresh and healthy. So that's the goal: to make flavorful food."
So we're ditching the juice cleanse this January for Singh's wholesome must-orders from the restaurant, which are surprisingly easy to make at home. Plus, it's healthy food festive enough for a dinner party with all your friends, which is how Singh got his start cooking.
"My home was my restaurant," Singh says as he sorts long branches for a vase, then hops on the counter to fix a light. "I would invite tons of friends, anyone who wanted to eat curry."
RELATED Indian Kitchen Essentials »
Singh opened a couple of successful restaurants in Melbourne—Dhaba on the Mill, Horn Please and the original Babu Ji—the last of which The Guardian hailed as one of the best Indian joints in the city. But despite the accolades, Singh and his wife/partner-in crime, Jennifer, sold the restaurants, packed up their family and found themselves in Alphabet City at the end of last year, wondering where to get some good Indian food.
"New York has the best Italian, best French, best Japanese, but it didn't have a great Indian place," Singh says. "As a chef, I would crave Indian, and I would drag my wife to any cheesy place, and we would always say, 'Man, this city has everything except real, simple Indian food.'"
That's when Singh decided to reintroduce Babu Ji, new to the States and named after the village wise man in India, the one who knows everyone's business and opines openly.
"He's on the main entrance to the village, the one no one listens to but still tells kids off and sits all day and watches what's happening," Singh says. "We thought the babuji would fit right in in Alphabet City."
In the restaurant's new home, Singh approaches dishes with a lighter hand, treating papadi chaat ("nachos of the motherland," according to the menu) like a salad, brightening it up with a sweet yogurt dressing, zingy tamarind sauce and strands of fresh vegetables.
His tandoori-style chicken languishes in tomato and yogurt, then is slapped in the Middle East-style grill (broiled for home cooks) before being sprinkled with mango salad. And even with the classic aloo gobi, the traditional Indian side of potatoes and cauliflower, Singh freshens things up with sweet golden raisins and ginger.
"We use our own imagination to create our own space," Singh says. "We just wanted a cool place with good beer, good wine and good food."
Looks like Alphabet City has a new reigning babuji.