ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
An Indian restaurant in Washington, D.C., has won just about every recognition possible. The Washington Post called it the No. 1 restaurant in the city. The chef has won a James Beard Award - basically, the Oscars of restaurants. President Obama celebrated his birthday there twice. It's been open for more than 10 years, and the restaurant is just now coming out with a cookbook. There's a reason I haven't said its name yet.
ASHOK BAJAJ: I'm Ashok Bajaj. I'm the owner of Rasika.
VIKRAM SUNDERAM: Hi, I'm Vikram Sunderam, the chef at Rasika.
SHAPIRO: Did you notice that? The chef and owner pronounce the name of the restaurant differently.
I've often heard people say Roseeka (ph). You said Rahsika (ph) - Rahsika.
BAJAJ: Rahsika, Rasika - as long as you come to the restaurant, I'm good with it.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK. The owner, Ashok Bajaj, has run restaurants in Washington since the 1980s, high-end places with white tablecloths where you might spot a senator or even the president. He had a fancy Indian restaurant in London called Bombay Brasserie, but when he first tried to do something similar in D.C., he ran into walls. Every landlord told his location scout, we don't want our lobby to smell like curry.
BAJAJ: And I would say put me in front of the landlord. Let me talk to them, and it is no different than like in an Italian restaurant or an American restaurant where you use a lot of garlic and other spices. And see how the cuisine have changed now. In most American restaurants, they use Indian spices.
SHAPIRO: Rasika takes a modern approach to traditional Indian flavors. So the cookbook has recipes for Kerala bison and rhubarb chutney. Traditional flavor combinations get a twist. A classic dish of eggplant and potatoes comes layered in a stack.
SUNDERAM: So the tawa baingan - tawa means the griddle and baingan is eggplant. That's why we call the disk tower baingan.
SHAPIRO: At the open griddle facing the Rasika dining room, Chef Sunderam marinates the sliced eggplant, then slaps it on to the grill.
SUNDERAM: Now, so once I grill the eggplant on both sides, then we have basically mashed potatoes sauteed with onions, tomatoes, ginger, green chiles, little bit of lemon juice and salt. And then we're going to sandwich it in between the eggplant slices.
SHAPIRO: He pours a creamy sweet and sour sauce over the top made of coconut milk, lemon, peanuts and a type of sugar called jaggery.
BAJAJ: So here at Rasika what we wanted to do - give the same effect of the dish but served and prepared in a very modern way.
SHAPIRO: One trick of this cookbook is that a lot of stuff can be made in advance. Marinate the eggplant, mash the potatoes, simmer the sauce. When it's time to actually make dinner, it just takes a few minutes to heat and assemble everything. But Rasika's most famous dish needs to be prepared the moment before it's served.
There are bags and bags of raw spinach in the kitchen getting ready for the most popular dish in the restaurant.
BAJAJ: Palak chaat.
SHAPIRO: Palak chaat.
Palak means spinach. Chaat is a Hindi word for a bunch of different salty snacks. In all the articles that people have written about Rasika in the last decade, the restaurant has never revealed the recipe for the famous crispy spinach. Vikram Sunderam says they were always waiting for the cookbook, and in the Rasika kitchen, he agreed to show us.
SUNDERAM: The most important step in this is the frying.
SHAPIRO: We love the sound of frying on the radio, so that's perfect.
Sunderam says the oil needs to be exactly 400 degrees; More and the spinach will burn, less and it'll get greasy.
SUNDERAM: So I've got this batter made with gram flour, a little bit of turmeric powder, chili powder.
SHAPIRO: It's a beautiful yellow color, almost orange. So you're pouring the batter over the spinach leaves, almost like a salad dressing.
SUNDERAM: Yes. And you see it's not too much. It's very, very light.
SHAPIRO: Just lightly tossing it with your hands.
SUNDERAM: Yes. And then the oil is just at the right temperature. Now you can hear it sort of crackle.
(SOUNDBITE OF OIL CRACKLING)
SHAPIRO: Once the spinach is shatteringly crispy, it gets a cascade of toppings.
SUNDERAM: Got some cumin - roasted cumin powder, chili powder, black salt.
SHAPIRO: A drizzle of yogurt and tamarind chutney, then chopped red onion and tomatoes sprinkled on top. The restaurant makes about 200 bowls of this a day. Every other table orders it.
I was so surprised to read in the book that you tried to do something similar in London, and it was not popular at all.
SUNDERAM: It wasn't, to be honest with you. You're right about that, yes. It wasn't as popular as it is here. I mean, here from day one it sort of really took off.
SHAPIRO: How do you explain the difference?
SUNDERAM: I think Americans are more...
SUNDERAM: ...Adventurous and they're more appreciative of the food and of dishes like these, which they find different.
SHAPIRO: Restaurant owner Ashok Bajaj says that was not always the case.
BAJAJ: Twenty-five years ago, I used to write on a cue card to say what to order in an Indian food. Now, they come with a cue card giving me what they want to eat.
BAJAJ: That's the major changes.
SHAPIRO: I know you have to get ready for the lunch rush, so let me just say thank you for having us here in Rasika, and it's been a pleasure eating your food.
BAJAJ: Thank you for coming to meet with us. We really appreciate that. Thank you so much.
SUNDERAM: Thank you again. Thank you for coming.
SHAPIRO: The book is called "Rasika: Flavors Of India." And now, let's eat the rest of this spinach.
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