After traveling all over India, chef Tyler Stuart returned to New Orleans and launched his regional Indian pop-up Thali Llama. His monthly pop-ups focus on different regions of India, where he explores dishes he learned throughout his travels. Stuart also hosts weekly pop-ups at The Crown & Anchor English Pub and Old Point Bar in Algiers. He spoke with Gambit about cuisines throughout India and how dishes vary from region to region.
What originally brought you to India?
Stuart: I was a sous chef at Carrollton Market for a year-and-a-half and left there (last) July, because I always wanted to travel, and at the time I didn't have any big obligations. ... I looked into India and I was really intrigued. I wanted to cover as much ground as possible. When I did research on the cuisine, I found out how diverse it was — it wasn't just your typical butter chicken and paneer that's usually associated with Indian food. I covered 10 different regions in two months, which was a lot. I started out in New Delhi. ... From New Delhi I went to Jaipur, which is in the state of Rajasthanl. I went to Sikkim, which is one of my favorite regions. ... It's right in the Himalayas and the food and the people were amazing.
How did you go about learning the different cuisines while traveling?
S: I tried reaching out to a million people before I left. I didn't have a work visa, and all I was able to do was schedule one cooking class. But then I went to a few restaurants and asked if I could come check out the kitchen and they were all more than happy to have me in there. There was a language barrier ... so there was a lot of pointing, but also tasting and smelling and just seeing their procedures. As I kept going I would reach out to the Airbnb places I was staying with, and they were all more than happy to teach me everything. They brought me to their friend's homes where I would cook with them there, and they would provide me with handwritten recipes. It was amazing being able to do way more than I thought I would be able to do. There are about 10 people that I keep in touch with in India, and I always run things by them and make sure that I'm doing it right.
How do the cuisines vary from region to region?
S: They differ wherever you go. In Sikkim, there's more of a Chinese influence: They have momo, which are Indian-style dumplings, and chow mein that still have a distinct Indian taste to them. Up north you won't find any coconut or mango; it's a lot spicier. There are a lot more curries, too. In particular, Rajasthan is known for the huge amount of chilies because it does get fairly cold there, so there's no coconut trees or mangos or tamarind anywhere up north. There's a dish called laal maas, it's a lamb or a mutton curry that was one of the recipes I paid to learn about from a chef in Rajasthan. It has a lot of garlic and a lot of spicy red chilies — it's stupid spicy, but so good. You get addicted to the spice there. Now when I'm back here I have to put hot sauce on everything.
As you go down south, you get the introduction of a little bit cooler weather, and while all Indian food can be fairly spicy, now you get more coconut milk. And then there's the amount of fish in Goa and Kerala. I never associated Indian food with fish, but they had all types of different fish and lobsters I had never seen. Goan cuisine is also a lot more vinegar-based because the Portuguese introduced vinegar to the (region). So these curries are very different, because they all have vinegar in them. From Goa, I've made a coconut curry with mango rice, and I make this really good squid with a paste made from tamarind, chilies, a few different spices — cumin, coriander — and a little bit of jaggery (from various palm trees or sugar cane juice), which is like their style of molasses or brown sugar, and a coconut vinegar. They use an abundance of curry leaves in Goa, too, which are kind of like bay leaves, but edible.