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In New York, Semma earns a Michelin star for its rural Tamil Nadu cuisine

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Chef Vijay Kumar’s menu, inspired by childhood holidays spent at Arasampatti in Tamil Nadu, stars snail pirattal and gunpowder dosas. We find out why his regional recipes are connecting with American critics and diners

Chef Vijay Kumar’s menu, inspired by childhood holidays spent at Arasampatti in Tamil Nadu, stars snail pirattal and gunpowder dosas. We find out why his regional recipes are connecting with American critics and diners

“Semma is the most unapologetic South Indian restaurant in the world,” says Roni Mazumdar, in an attempt to explain what it is about this barely-a-year old restaurant in New York that has connected so powerfully with diners and critics, resulting in a slew of rave reviews and glittering awards. The latest being that famously elusive Michelin star, once considered the sole preserve of fancy French dining.

Even as the Michelin expands its world view, working on encapsulating the globe, the team behind Semma is delighted by the irony of a fine dining award celebrating down-to-earth, rural Tamil Nadu cuisine. Chef Vijay Kumar, who helms Semma, along with Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya (who also run the trendy Dhamaka and Adda restaurants in New York, under their brand Unapologetic Foods) took a leap of faith when they decided to veer away from conventional Indian — read North Indian — cooking in the United States, so diners could discover the joys of kaikari kurma, Dindigul biryani and Chettinad maan (venison). 

“Indian food itself is a risk in the West, then adding on the component of regional South Indian cuisine, it was a highly risky venture,” says Roni, adding, “However, given the success of Dhamaka and Adda, we realised that people were hungry for regional cooking and curious to learn about our cuisine with a real cultural context. We knew we wanted to push the envelope on South Indian food and go far beyond dosa and idli that even the rest of India associates with the South.” 

Chintan adds that the restaurant “does not shy away from having a real conversation and explores the life of chef Vijay with utmost vulnerability and integrity. Each menu item deeply explores a specific moment of his life and breaks away from the shackles of perception and judgements.”

Vijay grew up in Natham, near Madurai, where his parents still live. He spent summer holidays with his grandparents in Arasampatti, so his cooking is heavily influenced by his grandmother. 

Stating that he was surprised by the warmth with which Semma has been received, he says, “I was skeptical as to how New York would accept authentic Southern Indian food that is consumed in a rural part of Tamil Nadu, but in actuality the response has been joyfully overwhelming.” He adds that Indian guests say they feel connected to home when they eat at the restaurant. “It brings back all their nostalgic memories from when they lived or visited South India. We get this feedback almost every night,” Vijay says, adding “The non-Indian guests are completely taken up with the flavours and ingredients… our team cooks with heart, soul and pride.” 

Roni says he has noticed that diners are more willing to explore diverse cultures and learn about their food now. “They want to understand different ingredients and go beyond the typical trappings of Eurocentric cuisines. This is a moment where each cuisine is empowered to share its authentic voice… Diners are seeking new and unexpected flavour profiles and Indian cuisine has the ability to provide a wide range of those dishes. 

So far, Vijay says the Gunpowder Dosa and Aattu Kari Sukka (lamb) move the fastest, along with the nathai pirattal, or snail stir fry. “We were so concerned about how the feedback will be as it’s considered poor people’s food in India,” says the chef, for whom the dish, cooked with ginger and tamarind, then served with kal dosas, is a personal favourite. 

As for the response from his family back home? “They are surprised that rural Indian food is connecting with diners across the world,“ he says. Then adds, “They are so happy and proud even though they aren’t too familiar with what it means to have these accolades.”



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