Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar, the pair behind restaurant group powerhouse Unapologetic Foods, want you to know that their new fried chicken restaurant, Rowdy Rooster, is not the “McDonald’s version” of Indian food. The fast-casual counter space on Manhattan’s First Avenue — once occupied by a late-night roast beef sandwich joint but abandoned years ago — might feel like fast food, with its buns and buckets, its fried potatoes, and its hyper-colored mural of a rooster. But suggestions that this is an American concept dusted with garam masala miss the mark.
“There’s always been a context of a fried chicken in India,” says chef Pandya. There’s halal fried chicken, sometimes cooked whole, at stands in Delhi. There’s chicken pakora in Mumbai and Kolkata. There’s red chicken fry in Hyderabad. Fried chicken is part of the region’s culinary fabric. There’s sesame seed-sprinkled Dhaka fried chicken in Bangladesh. There is chicken 65, chile chicken, and chicken lollipop, the latter two mainstays of Indian Chinese cuisine.
But in America, fried chicken has long been associated with American Southern cuisine and soul food, and because of that, most people assume any “new” takes on it are starting from an American baseline. “Guests often assume that my fried chicken comes from my exposure to the cuisine of the American South,” writes chef Asha Gomez, who was born in the south Indian state of Kerala, in her cookbook My Two Souths. Her fried chicken, marinated in buttermilk and herbs, dredged in flour, fried and finished with a drizzle of coconut oil and fried curry leaves, certainly resembles American-style fried chicken. “It’s always fun explaining to them that it is actually part of my Keralan heritage.”
Much has been made of fried chicken’s “moment” in America, as Nashville hot chicken has become nationally beloved, Popeyes’ chicken sandwich causes unheralded fervor, Jollibee expands, and the twin blades of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation have everyone reaching for “comfort foods.” Yet even as Korean fried chicken and Japanese karaage have gained notoriety and popularity among wider audiences in the past few years, chefs and the food media often present South Asian fried chicken as putting an “Indian twist” on something fundamentally American.
It would be easy enough for chefs to throw some cumin and coriander into the batter, call it Indian, and cash in. But South Asian chefs in America are instead using the fried chicken wave, and the growing interest in regionality when it comes to international cuisines, to highlight how fried chicken has been part of their cultures all along — and prove that it’s time for America to stop being the center of the fried chicken universe.
It’s slightly ridiculous to believe any country or culture would have a monopoly on fried chicken. American fried chicken has its roots in Scottish and West African cuisines, but basically it’s a universal cooking technique applied to the most popular meat in the U.S. Restaurateurs like Pandya and Mazumdar must figure out how to keep fried chicken in an Indian context while presenting it in a way that is legible to people who might still carry the misconception that it’s not an Indian thing or that everyone in India is a vegetarian.
The main issue, they realized, is that most fried chicken in India isn’t really a main course. It’s either served in the home or it’s a street food snack. Chicken pakoras served at a train station outside of Kolkata may have been a staple of Mazumdar’s childhood, but it’s hard to build a restaurant concept out of that. “The most important part was, How do you then take the fried chicken and transform that into a lunch, dinner, that kind of a meal, and add those sides?” he says.
Instead of throwing chaat masala on french fries or making a “butter chicken mac and cheese” to evoke classic American pairings, Mazumdar and Pandya ensured that all their sides and accoutrements were actually Indian. The chicken sandwich is served on a pao bun, which you can order alongside your chicken pakora at many street vendor stands in India. Rather than offering fries, they prepare potato or eggplant pakora, and in place of corn on the cob, a masala corn salad. Even the way the chicken is butchered eschews American bias. “If you look at the bone-in chicken that’s in Popeyes or KFC, you have a drumstick and you have a leg,” explains Pandya. “But in India, we don’t eat it like that. Our chickens are cut into smaller pieces.” Sure, it would have been easier to serve a bucket of drumsticks — it would have saved time and money and be recognizable to non-Indian customers as a bucket of fried chicken. “But then you are not doing justice to the cuisine and the culture.”
The popularity of South Asian fried chicken has been simmering for a few years, though mostly in a way that highlighted the fusion between American and South Asian cuisines. Butter chicken-esque fried chicken sandwiches or spiced chicken wings have become staples at restaurants like Badmaash in Los Angeles, Gupshup in New York, and Farmers Branch, Texas’s SpicyZest. Before opening Rowdy Rooster, the team at Unapologetic Foods even served a masala fried chicken sandwich at the now-shuttered Rahi, which featured a flavored mayo, fried onions, and, indeed, masala fries. Call it fusion or call it first-generation cuisine; it’s a natural, delicious pairing.
Those preparations enforced the idea that fried chicken was first and foremost American, but perhaps they also created more room for the traditional. Gomez’s fried chicken was fawned over after her cookbook was published in 2016, written about with slight shock that it wasn’t American at all. New York restaurant Badshah, which opened in 2017, and the Twin Cities’ Raag, opened in 2019, have pakoras and Kerala fried chicken on the menu. And in 2020, when Chicago’s Keralan pop-up Thattu was named one of the year’s Best New Restaurants by Food & Wine, writer Khushbu Shah specifically mentioned the fried chicken as one of its highlights.
Margaret Pak and her husband, Vinod Kalathil, opened Thattu in the Politan Row food hall in Chicago in 2019. The stall focused on the food of Kalathil’s native Kerala, which Pak first tasted while visiting Kalathil’s family. “I was literally flipping out 17 years ago,” Pak told Eater about first trying Kalathil’s mother’s fried chicken. “It barely has a touch of rice flour, if that, but it’s just mostly spices and aromatics like ginger, garlic, curry leaves.”
Thattu’s offerings skew traditional, with dishes like appam, fish moilee, beef fry, and pachadi. The fried chicken, says Pak, adheres closely to what Kalathil’s mother makes. But because of the logistics of running a food stall, they decided it would be more practical to serve the chicken boneless, with a yogurt sauce in case some people found it too hot. Despite those changes,the chicken is the real deal. “A year ago, we went back to Kerala. I was very nervous, but I actually made it for my mother-in-law,” says Pak. She got a resounding thumbs-up.
“I think that everyone knows deep down that everywhere has a tradition based on fried chicken,” says Sam Fore, the chef behind Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites, a Sri Lankan pop-up in central Kentucky. In Sri Lanka, she says, that often takes the form of devilled chicken, a snack consisting of marinated chicken tempered and fried with aromatics like mustard seeds, hot pepper, and curry powder. Fore, who was born in Kentucky and raised in North Carolina, takes these flavors as an inspiration for her Sri Lankan fried chicken, which she calls a marriage of Sri Lankan curries and American fried chicken. Hers uses traditional Sri Lankan spices like dried curry leaf and ginger, and is brined in buttermilk.
American fried chicken is also part of Fore’s, and many South Asian families’, fried chicken tradition. She says KFC is a “big deal” both in Sri Lanka and with the American South Asian diaspora. Fried chicken chains are incredibly popular in Asia, where the combined factors of the prevalence of dietary restrictions that eschew beef and pork, its affordability, and KFC’s growth in the ’60s and ’70s — right when the U.S. lifted laws that limited South Asian immigration — made it a staple in many American South Asian homes. “It got woven into our childhood,” says Fore. So her Sri Lankan fried chicken is as much an homage to that as anything else.
For all the fried chicken traditions across South Asian communities, some chefs find that putting an “Indian twist” on fried chicken is what lets them build followings for traditional flavors. Fore, for one, developed a fried chicken spice powder for Spicewalla, so anyone can make her fried chicken at home. And at other modern Indian restaurants, chefs have found that fried chicken is an easy way to meet diners where they are.
Bar Goa in Chicago focuses on the food of Goa, a small state on India’s southwest coast, the cuisine of which is heavily influenced by 400 years of Portuguese colonization. At first, chef Sahil Sethi was focused on serving more traditional preparations of Goan food, like chicken cafreal, a dish that supposedly originated in Portuguese colonies in Mozambique, which is traditionally marinated in spices and vinegar, pan-fried, and served with sauce. However, he found that people weren’t familiar with the vocabulary. Initially, he and Bar Goa owner Rina Mallick changed the name to “Goan Chicken Curry” at Bar Goa’s Time Out Market location. But then Sethi thought to combine it with a bar favorite, the fried chicken sandwich.
Bar Goa’s fried chicken cafreal sandwich is served with cabbage slaw and a cafreal aioli, and by keeping the name “cafreal,” diners now have a word to associate with the flavors. It also offers pork vindaloo sliders and chicken xacuti wings, other combinations of traditional Goan flavors in a more American context. “What [Sethi is] trying to do with our menus at Bar Goa is really open up the exposure to different types of flavors,” says Mallick.
Sophina Uong, chef and owner of Mister Mao in New Orleans, also takes liberties with her Kashmiri fried chicken. Fried chicken, she says, is the “workhorse” of the menu. No matter what, people will order it. But she wanted to make sure it was a dish true to her experiences. “I was messing around with bhajis, or pakoras,” she says, dishes she and her husband loved to eat while living in Northern California. She recognized that dishes like pakoras were similar to Nashville hot chicken, in that they were often dipped in a flavorful oil or sauce after frying. So she decided to use South Asian flavors like Kashmiri chili, fenugreek, and cumin.
Uong, who is of Cambodian descent, doesn’t adhere to one cuisine on her menu. Instead she’s interested in playing with all the flavors she grew up with, whether it’s the Mexican and Indian food she ate in California or the flavors of the American South. So while her Kashmiri fried chicken isn’t a play on a traditional dish, she hopes diners understand that she understands what she’s doing. “We made it pretty clear on our menu that we are inauthentic, but we cook from our hearts,” she says.
Every chef I spoke to was dancing around a frustrating reality. For some, it’s about showing Americans what exists in South Asia without any caveats. For others, it’s about presenting those flavors in ways familiar to people who are still intimidated by the cuisine or about combining flavors into something new. But they’re all still facing an uphill battle. South Asians have been in America since the 1700s and cooking versions of their food in restaurants for over 100 years, and yet chefs still have to speak in terms of “introducing flavors.” Underneath these missions are bigger asks, both “please understand and respect my culture” and “please don’t insist I am nothing more than my country of origin.” They still have to define the cuisine while also asserting their right to change and play.
The South Asian fried chicken boom perhaps represents an attempt to break free of that conversation altogether. The dichotomy is not between authenticity and innovation, but between food that’s made honestly, with both a sense of history and one of modernity, and food that’s made as a gimmick. “Why should Indian cuisine continue to be monolithic?” asks Mazumdar. Authenticity, honesty, and innovation don’t have to be separate ideas but rather tools any chef can use simultaneously.
Pak is thinking about making a fried chicken sandwich when Thattu finally opens a brick-and-mortar location. Uong wants to make a fried chicken “meat and three,” with sides like okra pakoras and green bean thoran. And Mazumdar and Pandya are hoping to test some other Indian fried chicken preparations to showcase what’s out there, whether it’s a whole Delhi fry or a chicken 65. It’s still fried chicken, after all. It’s supposed to be fun. But that drive to cook from a place of knowledge and respect, Mazumdar hopes, is what draws in those people who still need to be introduced to these flavors and keeps them coming back. “If something is real and meaningful to you,” he says, “only then can it be real and meaningful to others.”
Melissa Blackmon is a Chicago-based freelance photographer specializing in food/beverage photography and photojournalism.
Josh Brasted is a New Orleans-based freelance photographer specializing in dining, drinks, festivals and all things fun.
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based food photographer and the co-founder of Black Food Folks.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein