New Orleans Indian food scene is upended by two new chefs

Along the edge of the Gulf, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Adams details the people, places, culture and moments that make New Orleans one of America’s most colorful and vibrant cities.

When Sarthak Samantray and Aman Kota first moved to New Orleans, fresh from culinary school in India, they had never seen so much as a crawfish before. The two soon found work in prestigious restaurant kitchens—The Rib Room at the Omni Royal Hotel for Kota and Jack Rose at the Pontchartrain Hotel for Samantray—learning how to cook authentic Creole and Cajun food as well as staples like steaks and hamburgers, and grew to respect the local food culture. Typical Indian food in America, however, was an entirely different matter. Samantray and Kota wince when they recall the sins against their native cuisine they witnessed.

“They were using ketchup,” Kota says. “And food coloring.” Samantray, who goes by the nickname Chef Shan, lowers and shakes his head.

Despite being the first US state to elect an Indian-American Governor in Bobby Jindal, Louisiana is far from a hub for the South Asian community in America. Asians make up less than two percent of the state population and of that group, people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent are far outnumbered by Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino Louisianans. A visitor to New Orleans will not find the rows of desi restaurants and well-stocked grocery stores that anchor South Asians in Jersey City, Atlanta, or Houston.

Over the course of 62 weeks at the LUFU pop-up, Samantray and Kota served 162 different regional dishes.


Samantray and Kota saw a hole in the New Orleans market and moved to fill it, starting LUFU (“Let Us Feed U”) a mobile pop-up kitchen specializing in street food from all over the Indian continent. Aside from the sacrilegious ingredients and lackluster devotion to craft they saw in the average Indian restaurant, the two were frustrated by the lack of regional diversity on typical menus. Now restaurants seem to serve the same dishes, mainly a variety of somewhat Westernized Northern Indian food.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Chicken Tikka Masala,” Samantray says, “but there’s so much more than Chicken Tikka Masala.” (For the record, Chicken Tikka Masala is generally agreed to have been invented by a desi chef in the UK as a new variant on a traditional chicken dish, making it a British dish of the South Asian diaspora.)

“There are 28 different states in India,” Samantray points out. “Every 50 miles the people change, the language changes, the culture changes, and the food changes.”

“I want to let people know what Indian cuisine is,” LUFU co-founder Samantray says.


Samantray is from the state of Orissa and Kota is from Hyderabad, and they’d both traveled and learned about regional food firsthand in many parts of India. So the pair set themselves an ambitious task: As they moved their guest operation from one bar or brewery to the next, they would change the menu daily, never repeating it. Over the course of 62 weeks they served 162 different regional dishes.

Some of the favorites have made it onto their permanent menu. There is Vada Pav, a fried spiced potato cutlet served in a slider bun with chutney and chili, famously served from thousands of stalls in the streets of Mumbai. The LUFU version is pitch perfect down to the slender green chili accompanying the little veggie burgers. They offer four types of Chaat, the ubiquitous snack with its origins in the state of Uttar Pradesh but now eaten all over India. The variations each have distinct bases, but all have the requisite crunch, piquant sweet-sour flavor of sauces and instantly recognizable tangy kick of the chaat masala spice blend, along with a cooling drizzle of yogurt.

Taking pride of place on the menu is LUFU’s show stopper: their Biryani, available with either chicken or goat. Biryani, with roots in the Mughal Empire of India, is a genre of rice dish made in countless ways across the subcontinent. However, Kota and Samantray were disappointed to discover that American-made Biryanis had become homogenous and uninteresting.

“They just throw a bunch of meat and rice and vegetables together with some spices and fry it,” Samantray says with dismay in his voice. “Our biryani is made to order, with 14 layers of ingredients.”

In fact, the LUFU Biryani is a Parda Biryani, a variety rarely seen in Western restaurants in which the layers are covered in a layer of dough and then baked.

LUFU invites diners to come get their hands messy with its Chole Bhature.

LUFU invites diners to come get their hands messy with its Chole Bhature.


Even the breads LUFU serves are regional; alongside the classic naan they make chapattis, rotis, parota, and bhatura. And Samantray enthusiastically talks about the diversity of Indian rices beyond basmati; brown, white, long and short grains.

LUFU’s dedication to authentic Indian cuisine is reflected in the lengths they go to perfect their fare. They use no canned or frozen ingredients, make their own yogurt, and import their spices directly from India. In the future they hope to partner with a local cheesemaker to produce their own paneer and start a small garden to grow Indian varieties of vegetables like okra, onions, and eggplant.

As word spread and they became part of the mutually-supporting network of pop-up chefs and caterers in New Orleans, their reputation for quality began to be noticed by fellow South Asian restaurateurs. Saffron, a highly-regarded Indian-New Orleans fusion restaurant which itself started out in catering and pop-ups, have supported and helped LUFU, as has the popular Turmeric restaurant on the West Bank in Gretna, even going so far as to lend LUFU the use of their kitchen for a big catering job.

LUFU now boasts a permanent location in the Pythian Market in New Orleans' Central Business District.

LUFU now boasts a permanent location in the Pythian Market in New Orleans’ Central Business District.


Their biggest step has been the establishment of LUFU’s permanent location in the Pythian Market in the Central Business District; the market’s catering director, from the Indian state of Karnataka, offered them a space as soon as one opened up. Since then they’ve added a third chef in Sachin Darade, continue to do weekend pop-ups with rotating menus at bars—currently Pals Lounge on Friday and Monkey Board on Saturday—and have expanded their catering business, with the dream of opening their own restaurant to further celebrate the diversity of Indian cuisine. On a weekday afternoon, business is good, with many South Asians stopping in for the chance to taste a little bit of their hometown or state.

“I want to let people know what Indian cuisine is,” says Samantray. “The difficulty of cooking it is its beauty. Indian food is my soul food.”

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