After running a Bay Area food truck for the last six years, chefs and married couple Diana Afroza and Nick Ahmed are about to open their very first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the East Bay. Munch India, also the name of their food truck, will open in Berkeley on Wednesday, Nov. 7, on the Indian holiday of Diwali.
Munch India isn’t Afroza and Ahmed’s first rodeo in the food world. They’ve been cooking together for the last 29 years, starting from when they opened a neighborhood Indian restaurant together on the East Coast, with Afroza as head chef. After they moved to the Bay Area in the early ’90s, Afroza started East West Catering in Berkeley, which specialized in regional Indian cuisine, while her husband pursued a career in sales and marketing in the tech industry. During this time, Ahmed helped his wife with catering gigs on the weekends. She also taught Indian cooking classes at places like COPIA in Napa, Tante Marie’s Kitchen in San Francisco and Sur La Table in Berkeley, and wrote a cookbook called Flavors of Mirch Masala, for which Hubert Keller wrote the foreword. Throughout the years, the couple’s culinary focus has always been on Indian regional cooking.
“We believe in greater Indian cuisine, which means we also cook dishes from Bangladesh, we also cook dishes from Pakistan, and of course, India,” Ahmed said. “We do all regional cooking of the subcontinent of India.”
Many of the same ingredients and spices are used throughout the subcontintent, but “how we cook it, when we use certain spices, those are the little nuances that separate regional cooking,” Afroza said. Family upbringing and religion, she said, are the biggest factors that determine what people in various parts of India like to eat and how they prepare it.
About six years ago, the couple decided to officially work together again, starting the Munch India food truck. Appearing at four locations during lunch hours in San Francisco and Emeryville five days a week, the truck offers a menu of dishes from areas across south Asia. The idea of a mobile restaurant excited the couple because it gave them the freedom cook a variety of dishes showing off their culinary repertoire while introducing a wide range of customers to Indian cooking styles and flavors that aren’t typically served here. The food truck’s menu changes every week on Mondays.
“We had the problem when we first started that the people would come and say, ‘Do you have chicken tikka masala? And what about naan?’ And we had to explain to them that there’s more to Indian food than chicken tikka masala and naan,” said Ahmed. “There are so many different breads in India, naan is not the only bread, “Afroza said in agreement. “As a matter of fact, there are some regions that don’t even have a tandoor (clay oven). Not all regions have that but they have breads, but people don’t know about it because they only have the generic idea of what ‘Indian food’ is.”
Their new restaurant, Munch India will be based on a similar concept as their food truck, serving a menu that will change every two weeks and using fresh ingredients, meats and produce from a variety of local purveyors like River Dog Farms, Full Belly Farm, Monterey Fish Market, Halal Foods Berkeley and Berkeley Bowl. And, the couple stresses, everything will be made from scratch, which they say isn’t a common practice amongst most Indian restaurants in the area.
“I don’t use a spice mix, I make my own spices,” said Afroza. “A lot of restaurants make a pot of sauce, they cook different things and put the same sauce, which is why they all taste similar. Each of my foods tastes different because I don’t have a base sauce… I don’t have a master sauce because it’s not supposed to be that way.”
The couple warns the dead giveaway that an Indian restaurant isn’t making food fresh is what Ahmed calls “the Bible,” or menus that consist of more than 50 dishes. Another is the all-you-can-eat buffet.
“When we see an all-you-can-eat buffet, we run the other way,” said Ahmed. Recalling his days working as a waiter at an Indian restaurant during his college years, he said the common practice was for leftovers to be frozen at the end of the day, then reheated the next day to be served to unsuspecting customers. He and Afroza have tried most of the Indian restaurants in the East Bay and they notice a similar lack of quality and freshness in the offerings.
“The area has given a perception that Indian food is cheap. The area has completely destroyed the market because of uneducated so-called cooks, not chefs, doing Indian food in the East Bay… Because of that perception we’re extremely worried. If [a customer] walks in and says ‘What? $14 for a chicken dish? I can go down the street and go to an Indian restaurant and get the same chicken for $10. Who do they think they are?’,” Ahmed said. “We are coming and trying to be a trailblazer [for the idea that] Indian food is not chicken tikka masala for $10 and all-you-can eat buffet for $12. That’s not what Indian food is; there’s more than that.”
Because of Munch India’s dedication to freshness and quality and its weekly changing menu, customers can expect higher prices than other Indian restaurants in the area. Afroza and Ahmed said individual appetizers will cost $10 to $12 and entrees will be $12 to $25 or more, depending on the ingredients used. Munch India will require a $20 minimum per person.
The space, the former location of Smokey J’s BBQ on Shattuck Avenue, seats about 20 customers, which was a selling point for the couple, who want to keep overhead and labor costs highly controlled, especially in the beginning. The restaurant will be open for dinner only (and closed on Sundays and Mondays), as the couple — who live in Berkeley, about a 12-minute walk away — will also continue running their food truck during lunch hours, although they may end up amending their appearance schedule once the restaurant opens.
The menus at the truck and the restaurant will always be different, the couple said. At the restaurant everything will be served a la carte, with a choice of 10 to 12 total dishes, from appetizers and main dishes to desserts. Diners will be able to watch Afroza and Ahmed cook their meals to order in the open kitchen. The couple purposefully decided not to install a tandoor, but the kitchen is stocked with the standard cooking appliances, along with two sous vide machines, a charbroiler for cooking grilled foods like kebabs, and a wok for preparing Chinese Hakka-style Indian food that can flipped over to cook a variety of Indian breads.
Munch India’s opening menu will feature a version of Murgh Musallam, made with a whole pan-roasted Cornish hen stuffed with a boiled egg and served with yogurt, and chicken roulade, brined chicken breast that’s been flattened and rolled with a filling of ground chicken and spinach, then sous-vide, pan-seared and sliced into pinwheels and served with a sauce. Both dishes are popular in Northern Indian, in places like Delhi and Lucknow, which Ahmed considers the food center of India. There’ll also be lamb kebabs, lentil dumplings, a layered vegetable dish made with garbanzo beans and the chef’s special, grilled shrimp. For now, Munch India will not serve alcohol. Eventually, it will offer a variety of soft drinks and lassis, along with non-alcoholic cocktails.
Ahmed fought against putting up a sign outside (Afroza and others convinced him otherwise), and the couple hasn’t advertised the restaurant’s opening — even with many of their regular food truck customers or on their social media feeds. Their thought, perhaps audacious and naive, is that the quality of their food will spread the word of their existence. The couple is willing to take a chance, at least at first.
“They will know because we’re good,” said Ahmed. “I want [them] to say, ‘Man, we had a dinner to remember for a long time.'”
Munch India opens on Wednesday, Nov. 7. Hours will be 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. Follow Munch India on Twitter for its most current food truck schedule.