Samosa pies. Naan croissants. Paneer queso. Matcha curry. Food reflects culture, and Deepa Shridhar’s cuisine marries the best of her roots, India and Texas, into her twinned ventures. There’s the pop-up dinner series Anjore, and farmers market stand and delivery service Chaiwalla.
Shridhar thinks of herself as “100 percent Texan and 100 percent Indian.” She was born in Pune, India, and her family moved to Garland, Texas, in 1990, where she was surrounded by relatives. Cooking was a big part of her life, and she would often mess around in the kitchen.
Shridhar, who originally set out to become an Italian chef, began her culinary career (she didn’t attend culinary school) with a stage at Dallas restaurant Lucia in 2010, where she was the sole female in the kitchen. “It took a lot of gruff,” she said, and the atmosphere wasn’t always pleasant, but it was beneficial. “I remember wondering, ‘If I love it in an environment that was sort of hostile to me, how would I be in an environment that was maybe a little less?’”
The energy of creating and cooking appealed to her. “It is all about being really physical and having to be creative in a way that is high pressure,” Shridhar said. “It is also kind of lazy creative because it is instant gratification and you don’t have to deal with it later.” She added, “I loved it, and cooking felt right.”
Shridhar began to realize that perhaps Italian wasn’t her thing when she had to make a family meal at Lucia. “I made this weird cardamom fish soup,” she said. “I remember people were like, ‘This is weird, but I think it’s good.’”
A year later, she entered the Austin scene by way of Dai Due’s Jesse Griffiths, who she stalked to learn how to properly butcher during its stall days. After much persistence, she snagged a one-day stage where she broke down a cow’s head, and Griffiths offered her a full-time job. She worked her way up from dishwasher to becoming “an asset for them, which was good.” From there, she joined Lenoir, but eventually realized she needed to break out on her own.
“I didn’t really go back to those Indian flavors until I really started thinking about what I wanted to do,” Shridhar said. The name Anjore is in honor of her late grandfather, who passed away that same year in 2014. It began as a series of small dinners and quickly grew into Shridhar’s edible creative outlet.
“It is really true that you always gravitate to what you grew up eating as a kid,” which for her meant South Indian and Texas fare. Texas, much like India, is its own entity as a region with variations throughout. “There is this whole state that has its own culture, and within the state, the cooking here is completely different from the cooking over there.”
“I’ve really started to embrace that Indian cooking at its core has a layered and complicated taste to it,” she said, “but at the same time is pretty simple, cut and dry,” similar to Texas cuisine.
“Lowcountry Indian food,” is the best way to describe what Shridhar makes. East Texas gumbo mirrors Indian curries: each involves deeply complicated sauces.
Shridhar branched out into a farmers market stand, too, with Chaiwalla in 2016, what she calls her money-maker. There, she dishes out mashed-up baked goods like naan croissants, samosa pies (soft scrambled eggs, paneer queso, cider chutney, on top of a samosa crust), and masala chai lattes. One day, she hopes Chaiwalla will exist in a proper brick and mortar.
Ghee is essential to everything she makes in the commercial kitchen space she shares with vegan bakery Skull & Cakebones out in Dripping Springs, which she renders herself with Texas cream or butter. “It’s nice to re-introduce these flavors and let people feel a little more comfortable with Indian food.”
The naan croissants came to be because she scribbled the two words together for a menu, and realized she had to do something with it. It’s gone through many different iterations, but finally, they’ve settled on a classic recipe using a sourdough starter (which originated from Indian yogurt), ghee, curry spice, and black pepper, injected with a chai milk jam.
She is coming to terms and accepting what she can and can’t do. “I am learning to let things go this year, even food-wise,” she said. “We are as local as we can be, but sometimes, it is okay if you got to use some coconut, and it will be fine.”
Texas farmers help provide a lot of the harder-to-find ingredients necessary for Shridhar’s arsenal, and she gives them all the credit for taking chances on lesser-known produce. “They’ve been so amazing at not just growing the usual,” like B5’s chili peppers and HausBar’s Hoja Santa leaves. Her secret weapon though? Her father, who grows as much as he can for his daughter in his Dallas garden, including curry leaves, lemongrass, and South Indian white pumpkins.
She prefers the casual approach to pop-up dinners, with two ongoing series currently. First, the weekly curry nights at Texas Keeper Cider (a recent bowl included a matcha duck curry), and then the monthly chicken-focused, female-led Chix Brunch, hosted with Spun Ice Cream and the cidery as well, which benefits a different nonprofit each time. “It makes us feel good like in a tiny way, we’re doing something.”
As for Indian food in Austin: “I feel like it is an untapped market.” She frequents Bombay Dhaba on South 1st Street (“dope samosas” and “on point” paneer tikka masala) and Swad (“great chai and it feels familiar”).
“It is really hard being a woman of color in a field that is not only male-dominated but dominated by one thought about what food is,” Shridhar said. “It is pushing through that, and figuring out how you can give a voice to a cuisine that has been a little bit stomped on.” It’s her driving factor, after all, for Anjore, Chaiwalla, and whatever else may come her way. There are so many more naan croissants to make.