UPDATE: Chani Pani earned the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2022.
Meherwan Irani, THE OWNER of popular restaurant Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, entered the restaurant business in 2009. At the time, he felt that the Indian food he grew up eating—his mother's cooking specifically—was underrepresented in the South. It deserved more fans. The best way to spread the word? Open a restaurant.
“I wasn't trying to be groundbreaking. I was just trying to do what I knew people would love. I was thinking, ‘Wait till they try Indian street food. They'll lose their minds.”
Owning and operating an Indian street-food restaurant in the South required Meherwan to think deeply about his product and goals as well as his own identity as a Southerner.
A turning point came a few years ago when a fellow Indian chef working in the southern United States encouraged Meherwan to attend a conference of food professionals in Oxford, Mississippi.
The conference was about the Latinx experience in the South and how Latinx immigrants have influenced the ever-changing food culture of the region. The experience inspired Meherwan to consider and tell his own story. “The South isn't only Latino, it's Korean and Vietnamese and Indian.”
Meherwan began asking himself, “At what point do I stop saying that I'm an Indian living in the South and start saying that I'm a Southerner that happens to be Indian?”
“The South today is changing,” Meherwan tells me. “It looks completely different than what someone from Boston or Philly or New York thinks it is. That's because people like me are standing up and saying, ‘I'm a Southerner.”