Special of the Day: Chef Anita Jaisinghani

February 20th, 2017


Houston to NYC – Pondicheri restaurants celebrate the fresh vibrancy of Indian cuisine

Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri

Anita Jaisinghani works long days. Her restaurants serve Indian-themed casual fare for breakfast and lunch, then transform to more upscale dining at night. She opened her first restaurant in Houston in 2001 – which just celebrated five years of Meatless Monday. Last summer, she added a second Pondicheri in Manhattan. Over her career, Anita earned two nominations for the coveted James Beard Awards and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and TIME Magazine. We sat down with her for some table talk.

You’ve said your menu is guided by the principles of Ayurveda. Could you explain? 

Ayurveda is a philosophy that’s all about balance, not just in food and flavors, but also in life. For instance, Ayurveda doesn’t say you can’t eat meat, but you should eat it in smaller portions. We surround meat with vegetables and other foods so the meat doesn’t become the center of the plate. With Ayurveda, the food should not only taste good, but make you feel nourished and rejuvenated after. I plan my food that way. I would say guided by Ayurveda because I don’t see the philosophy as hard rules. We’re really trying to examine our own history and heritage and select what we think makes sense for modern life.

You also serve a popular Meatless Monday menu each week. What should diners expect?

India is the world’s best place to be a vegetarian. It has the highest percentage of vegetarians in the world, which is why the cuisine is so extensive and imaginative. Our Meatless Monday menu is really special and it goes back to my roots. Pondicheri, to me, is such an expression of my heart. And growing up in India, it was a rule in my family that we didn’t eat meat for at least one day a week.

Pondicheri also has a Bake Lab and you’re famous for your chocolate chili cookies. How did that come about? 

My first restaurant job was as a pastry chef at the legendary Café Annie and I love to bake. We named our bakery the Bake Lab because we are always experimenting. The chili cookies were actually a happy accident. My first cookie ever was a Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookie at an airport. It was warm, soft and delicious. I do not have a sweet tooth, but I loved that cookie. I began to play with cookies and, after many years of reworks, ended up with an oatmeal cookie that was not cakey and slightly gooey on the inside. One day we were out of walnuts in the Indika kitchen, so we added spiced walnuts to the recipe since that was all we had. And voila! The chocolate chili cookie was born!

 

Pondicheri's mawa cake

Pondicheri’s Mawa Cake

You also hold specially themed pop-up dinners. What’s your inspiration?

Our Houston location holds six course pop-up dinners that usually feature a different region of India every three months, although we’ve done all kinds. The most recent one was Masala Sichuan, inspired by the Chinese expatriate community in Mumbai. With Indian food, there’s such an immense scope that it’s impossible to run out of inspiration – the tasting menus give our chefs and I the opportunity to explore that scope and incorporate seasonal ingredients.

 

If you’re in Houston or NYC, make sure to stop by Pondicheri and taste the Meatless Monday goodness. For more information, visit their website. And if you can’t make it to one of their restaurants, stir up your love of Indian cuisine by making Pondicheri’s Peanut Noodles recipe at home.