Meherwan Irani sees himself as a storyteller as much as a restaurateur. Chai Pani, his Indian street food cafe, tells a story of spice markets, hawkers, rickshaws and streetside chefs through smell, flavor, color and taste.
“Indian food seems like an exotic cuisine for most people,” says Irani, who grew up in India before moving to San Francisco to get an MBA. “I felt like if people connected with the story of the food and where it came from, that would make the food much more approachable.” As a result, Asheville craves dishes rarely found outside of India, such as uttapam (Indian crepes) and bhel puri, a bed of rice puffs, chickpea noodles and potatoes topped with yogurt and tamarind and green chutneys.
Irani says a ready audience helps his task. “Asheville embraces stories,” he says. “Stop anybody in the street and ask them how they got here; it’s always an amazing story. It just seems to be that kind of city.”
The tale proves equally enchanting outside of Asheville. Irani launched a second Chai Pani in Decatur, Georgia, and he’s opened a new Indian street grill, Botiwalla, in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market. He also received a James Beard Award nomination. As a result, the Atlanta media has tried to claim him, but Irani remains a proud resident of Asheville. “What if we did what we really wanted to do?” he recalls asking his wife. “I honestly believe because we were in Asheville, we were able to answer that question, and Chai Pani was born.”