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How a South Indian restaurant in New York honours its roots

With meen pollichathu, Dindigul biryani and the snail-based nathai pirattal on the menu, Semma in New York has an unapologetic approach to rustic South Indian food

Gunpowder Dosa
Gunpowder Dosa (Paul McDonough)

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New York was bombarded with snow the last weekend of January, leading to a severe temperature drop. Semma, the new South Indian restaurant in the city, the latest venture of the appropriately named Unapologetic Foods, however, remained resolutely open."We were considering closing up," Chef Vijay Kumar of Semma tells me over a text message. "But surprisingly, we had full house reservations. So we ended up serving with a packed house." 

Peek into their menu, however, and you'll realise why Semma is perfect for an icy New York winter. It is filled with dishes that will definitely warm your insides on a cold night, bristling with spice, warmth and flavour--think meen pollichathu, Goan Oxtail, the famed Dindigul biryani, pesarattu and gunpowder dosas, chemmeen moilee and Kanyakumari nandu masala. And yes, let's not forget the food that possibly has never made it to the menu of an Indian restaurant before—nathai pirattal (a snail-based dish), or the kudal varuval (goat intestines cooked in garam masala and served with soft kal dosas). "This is Vijay's past, his stories," says Roni Mazumdar, the CEO of Unapologetic Foods, which also runs Dhamaka and Adda Indian Canteen, both in New York. 

Also read: The magic of steaming food in a banana leaf

In a freewheeling Zoom conversation, Mazumdar and Chef Vijay Kumar talk about the restaurant's genesis, the dishes that made it to the menu and how those snails pay homage to the chef's grandmother. 

Edited excerpts from an interview.

1. Can you tell me how you settled on the name Semma (a very colloquial Tamil slang word that roughly translates into super or awesome)?

Chef Vijay Kumar: That came from our Chef-Partner of Unapologetic Foods, Chintan Pandya. We were thinking of so many names; at one point, we even thought of calling it Lungi Club. We just wanted to keep it light-hearted, not serious. We thought of a lot of names. Chintan doesn't even speak Tamil, only Gujarati, Hindi and English. But he watches many South Indian movies, and that full credit goes to him. Even the cocktail names-- Thalaivaa, Whistle Podu, Silk Smitha, Aiyo; that is all Chintan. (laughs)

A closeup of Whistle Podu
A closeup of Whistle Podu (Paul McDonough)

2. Can you talk about your cocktail menu a bit more? The names are interesting for sure, but they also contain exciting ingredients like jaggery, curry leaves, tamarind and chilli?

Roni Mazumdar: Our cocktail program really started looking at ingredients like the curry leaf and how we don't really utilise that in a beverage format. Whenever you think of elements like curry leaves, you see them as garnish or some kind of chutney; it is always in a food format. Here was an opportunity to really explore the South, look at very specific ingredients that are so quintessential to the South and bring that in a beverage format that is complementary to the menu. That was the philosophy of what we were trying to do. And that is why we are bringing in tamarind, certain spices, ingredients, very specifically curry leaves and even peppers, into this mix. Things that we normally associate as being food products, here it is used in a beverage or cocktail.

3. The Nathai Pirattal starter made out of Peconic Escargot seem to be getting a lot of press? Can you tell me more about that dish? What went into designing your menu?

Chef Vijay Kumar: It is a tribute to my grandmother. We used to have and still have a lot of rice farms. We would visit her during the holidays in her village (near Madurai). It is a very tiny village; there were no movies, not even a TV back then. So we would go hunting or foraging for snails in the fields—that was entertainment. My grandmother used to make such an amazing gravy out of snails. That was a unique dish. I was a little sceptical about adding it to the menu. But Roni said that we should.

Food from the heart
Food from the heart (Paul McDonough)

Roni Mazumdar: There is this whole stigma in Indian cuisine. Certain ingredients are considered a poor person's food. Even though India's rural population represents the majority of our country, it is not represented in our (restaurant) food. People in larger cities with more education or more money have much larger voices in terms of food. Ask yourself why there is not a single amazing high-end Indian restaurant or hotel that serves snails. On the other hand, we are excited to serve you escargots.

Also read: How the street foods of Amritsar inspire Vikas Khanna

Our menu evolved from Vijay's memories—how he grew up and those personal moments that meant something to him. He brought up those moments with his grandmother and those snails. We all looked at each other in shock. Snails in an Indian restaurant?What a crazy idea. But then we all kind of realised that we were wrong in thinking like this, how much our colonial past has programmed us.

When the menu conversations started, we knew it wasn't about doing 25 different types of dosas, nothing gimmicky. I think the core of this restaurant is authenticity. We didn't want to approach South India with a commercial mindset. A restaurant isn't just about making money; it has the power to change how people look at us, how we look at ourselves. We wanted somebody like a Vijay to truly represent an embodiment of what South Indian food is about.

New York is a lot of bricks, mortar and steel. Everything is about the financial markets and big buildings and whatnot. But somewhere within every New Yorker, we seek that moment of authenticity today. I think that is precisely what Semma is about.

4. Can you talk about the location and what went into choosing it?

Roni Mazumdar: Semma is located in probably one of the hottest parts of New York—the West Village. It has always been known for its artistic community. In addition, it has a phenomenal neighbourhood vibe; the people around West Village have travelled the world and understand world cuisine in many ways. We wanted to not relegate South Indian food as a sub-category of Indian food. Instead, we wanted to look at South Indian food as a cuisine that has the power to stand on its own feet put it front and centre in a city like New York. I think it is time to give South Indian food the respect it deserves.

A closeup of the Nathai Pirattal starter
A closeup of the Nathai Pirattal starter (Paul Mcdonough)

5. What is your clientele like?

Roni Mazumdar: There are two sides to it—New Yorkers who have written off Indian food for a long time. They are coming out of the woodworks and showing up. For many years, we have presented Indian food as a generic version of what Indian food is—it was all over the place. So you are getting an entire crowd that didn't exist before. Also, there is a global set of audiences coming in because that sort of curiosity also exists. What makes me so excited is seeing a South Indian restaurant filled with people from all different parts of the world.

Chef Vijay Kumar: The best part is the guests who come and tell me—I just missed my mum's cooking, or they did it this way in my grandmother's village. There is a lot of emotion involved. That makes our day, knowing that you are doing something right.

Also read: What's driving the burger boom in India

6. How do you source your ingredients? How do you change your dishes to fit into this new ecosystem? Have you toned down the spice to suit a more western palate?

Chef Vijay Kumar: Definitely not less spicy (laughs). That is our philosophy; we are not changing our recipes. We just want to eat the way we used to eat back home. No compromise on it at all. And, touch wood, 99% of the guests appreciate the fact that we are not cutting down the spices or anything like that. We have guests coming back two or three times a week; they're coming back repeatedly, so they obviously like the food. It makes us feel so happy and proud.

Roni Mazumdar: You will find many modern Indian places that say that we have taken a regional recipe and modernised it. In many cases, this process is also killing the soul of the dish. It undermines the very people whose struggles and efforts have gone into creating what that dish has become. When Vijay makes the snails, it is about respecting the way he has grown up. So when you taste the snails, you are also tasting his childhood memories. I think that is the most critical part—it is not always about taking age-old recipes, switching them up, changing ingredients. Our goal is to look back and ask ourselves—how we can be true to where we come from? How can we honour our past?

Chintan Pandya, Chef Vijay Kumar and Roni Mazumdar
Chintan Pandya, Chef Vijay Kumar and Roni Mazumdar

I think you asked about ingredients. Most of our stuff except a few fresh ingredients are imported from India. And even those that we cannot, we are trying to make it from scratch. We, as an organisation, focus a lot on ingredients. We don't spend a dime on marketing. Our entire focus goes on ingredients. Vijay goes out and meets every butcher, the folks bringing the fish, vegetables, and bread to ensure the highest quality in his cooking.

7. What segment do you see yourself in from a price perspective?

Roni Mazumdar: (laughs) We call ourselves fun dining. We don't like the idea of fine dining—it comes with a whole lot of baggage that we have no desire for. We don't believe in the white tablecloth or the stuffiness it inherently comes with. Neither is it the cheap and cheery approach to cuisine that has existed. If our ingredients cost a certain amount and we are confident that we are giving you the absolute best, we need to make sure I charge you appropriately. Otherwise, it is not a sustainable model. I would be doing that for three months and be gone. We aren't the cheapest restaurant in town, but you can afford to eat here, as a New Yorker, twice a week. We are on par with any neighbourhood restaurant in NYC or the West Village – just as every Indian restaurant deserves to be.

8. And finally, what is the most popular dish on your menu?

Chef Vijay Kumar: I think it is the (lamb) Attu Kari Sukka.

Roni Mazumdar: It is just ridiculous how many people order it. The way Vijay does it, it is magical how the spices form a little bit of a crust but don't burn enough to get bitter. I think it takes a real chef who knows when to stop. It is my favourite dish on the menu and one of the bestsellers too.


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