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This story was published as part of a weeklong series produced by the WGLT Newsroom in March 2022.

Indians in B-N: Translating a vast and varied cuisine

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Rocky Venu
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Carrot halwa, an Indian dessert served at Bloom Bawarchi.

The United States boasts a variety of regional cuisines. The southwest has Tex-Mex, Maine has lobster rolls, Louisiana has gumbo, and the Midwest has corn and ranch dressing.

Just kidding. We also have hot dogs.

But no matter where you may be in the U.S., you are guaranteed to find a sandwich. Siva Busa is the owner of Aroma restaurant in Bloomington. He said sandwiches are like a unifying thread in American food, knitting together a diverse group of regional offerings.

There is no such thread in Indian cuisine, according to Busa. Each of India's 28 states has its own unique style of cooking. And that can make assembling a single menu beneath the banner of "Indian food" a challenge.

“It’s very difficult to represent,” Busa said.

Busa is originally from Andhra Pradesh in southern India. He moved to Bloomington-Normal in 2001 to work for State Farm as a software analyst. But Busa’s true passion has always been food. Settling into his new home, Busa noticed that there weren't many local options for Indian cuisine.

“When we came here in 2001, there were no good Indian restaurants here. So, we used to go to Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis,” Busa said.

Siva Busa
courtesy
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Siva Busa and his family

Eventually Busa decided he was tired of scouring the Midwest for the flavors of home. The Indian population in Bloomington-Normal was growing: from the 500 or so families that Busa remembers when he first arrived, to its eventual height of 7,000 people. As of 2019, those numbers had dropped somewhat to 5,700.

Busa predicted the growing market could support a restaurant, and he began experimenting with a concept that eventually grew into Aroma. He opened the restaurant on Eldorado Road in 2018.

Aroma represents the flavors Busa's home state in southern India. Andhra Pradesh cultivates fittingly aromatic spices like green cardamom and cinnamon. It's also a major producer of fruits and vegetables, like mango, papaya, green chili pepper, and tomato.

It's a bright, fresh cuisine that lends itself naturally to vegan cooking. That’s helped Busa amass a loyal following of vegan customers over the years. But when word of the novel coronavirus began to spread in March 2020, Busa worried that he would lose everything he'd been working to build.

“When (the) pandemic hit on March 14 and the state shut down, the first two weeks, I had hardly 50 guests,” Busa recalled.

Like so many restaurants, Aroma shuttered its dining room and shifted to takeout only. Surprisingly, what could have easily spelled disaster for the restaurant soon bloomed into an opportunity.

Expanding palates

People stuck at home during the shutdowns seemed to get tired of typical takeout food like pizza and burgers. The pandemic spurred a foray into previously underexplored cuisines. People became “more adventurous eaters,” Busa said.

He began to see a steady influx of new customers. And the slower pace of the pandemic meant that Busa was able to cultivate relationships with new diners, recommending dishes and talking with people about what they liked – and perhaps what they didn’t. Busa used the feedback to home in on the flavor profiles and spice levels that each diner enjoyed.

The pandemic also proved an unexpected opportunity for Rocky Venu. Like Busa, Venu is originally from southern India. He grew up in Warangal, a city in the state of Telangana. Venu came to the U.S. for school and earned his master’s degree in pharmacology. He then worked as a scientist for Pfizer for three years.

But, also like Busa, Venu’s true passion is food and hospitality. So, when he saw the chance to take over Bloom Bawarchi, an Indian restaurant in Bloomington, he jumped on it. Venu said the original owner was struggling amid the pandemic shutdowns and agreed to sell.

Venu soon found himself facing many of the same challenges as Busa encountered at Aroma. He had to figure out a way to integrate a wildly diverse range of cuisines under one menu. In keeping with his personality, Venu chose a maximalist approach.

Rocky Venu
courtesy
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Rocky Venu

“So, when you go west, you have different kind of food. East, north, south,” Venu said, underscoring the challenge. “So, what I have done, I picked professional chefs from each part of the country. I have seven chefs right now.”

Those seven chefs are responsible for the 370 items on the menu at Bloom Bawarchi. And if that weren't enough, each dish can be scaled along a spice spectrum ranging from "American mild" all the way through "Indian extra hot."

“But do not think that a white girl, a white guy, wouldn’t eat spicy,” Venu said. “We have more customers in the American community that eat spicier than milder.”

Venu’s distinction between a “white girl” versus an Indian palate is tongue-in-cheek. But he said spice tolerances are a very real thing. And maybe it's his training as a pharmacologist, but Venu takes very seriously the effort to prescribe just the right amount of spice to every diner.

But because the cuisine varies so widely among Indian regions, those adjustments can only go so far. “The north Indian dishes, we can make spicy but not as spicy. The south Indian dishes, we can make mild but not as mild,” Venu said.

Northern India is known for dairy production. Dishes from that region tend to be creamier and milder, like Mutter Paneer – a curry dish made with peas and cheese. The south uses more coconut milk and indigenous spices, like the fiery green chili pepper grown in Busa's state of Andhra Pradesh.

Like Busa, Venu also collects customer feedback on dishes and spice levels to cultivate an understanding of his diners’ preferences. The difference is that Busa calls it conversation while Venu calls it data.

Cheers

Both Venu and Busa say they’re happy to introduce a bit of Indian cocktail culture to Bloomington-Normal. Busa recently installed a small bar in his restaurant where he offers a selection of Indian beer and liquor including Amrut, a Indian single malt whiskey. Although the peat is imported from Scotland, the liquor is distilled in the south Indian state of Karnataka.

Venu also operates a bar, although it’s not just any bar. In keeping with the spirit of maximalism, Venu describes it as the area's finest Indian sports bar. It's a passion project he opened in the space adjoining Bloom Barwachi.

Rocky Venu
Venu says Indian liquor packs a punch

Venu said people might be surprised by what an Indian bar has to offer.

“The cocktails are completely different. The proof of alcohol is different,” he said, explaining that liquor in India is often stronger.

Venu softens that blow by introducing a variety of aromatics into the cocktails, like cilantro, star anise, and less common herbs like betel leaf.

“I’m sure in America, we don’t get the betel leaf,” Venu said. “Back in India, in ancient times, kings used that leaf in order to freshen their mouth.” Venu said, in a testament to the herb’s aromatic properties.

Should betel leaf fail to register on a guest’s flavor spectrum, there’s always beer. And Venu offers a selection of beers made in India and America. “I think the beer is better here,” he said of domestic brews, “But we do have some popular beers like King Fisher,” an Indian lager that's also on offer at Aroma.

Something for everyone

As for sports, Venu said the bar airs everything from football to MMA. Cricket is a big draw for many customers of South Asian descent. Venu said he tries to air all the matches, but because they’re broadcast from Asian countries, they often come on around 7 a.m. And that can be a bit of a challenge for a bar.

Venu said he found a workaround, though. Instead of drinks, he just serves breakfast during cricket broadcasts. “Because we want to watch the game, too,” he said. “Every Indian does.”

And while Americans may be slow to warm to cricket, the cuisine of India is becoming increasingly popular. Both Busa and Venu said their customer base includes a diverse mix of people.

“What I’ve observed in the American community is that they love everything. They try everything,” Venu said.

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Siva Busa
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A selection of dishes at Aroma

Busa says he similarly heartened to see people who are newer to the cuisine move away from standards like butter chicken toward other dishes from a variety of regions. When people ask about the food that best exemplifies southern India, Busa always recommends dosa.

“Dosa is the true representation of southern cuisine,” Busa said. Dosa is almost like a crepe, Busa explained. It’s a delicate pancake made of rice and lentil batter then filled with savory ingredients.

Biriyani is also becoming more popular, according to Busa. Aroma offers several variations of the rice dish that Busa said carries a middle eastern influence and is one of the most popular in south India.

During the pandemic, Busa dedicated himself to expanding his customers’ palates and nurturing in them a love for his native cuisine. He was so committed that if a diner didn’t enjoy his recommendation, Busa didn’t charge for the dish.

Instilling a love of food in others has always been a matter of passion, Busa said. But during the pandemic, it became a matter of survival. Fortunately, Busa said, it seems to have worked.

ABOUT THE SERIES

Why we did it

Bloomington-Normal has more Asian Indians than any other downstate metro community in Illinois. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children have shaped Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways, and that's worthy of attention. WGLT's Newsroom aimed to measure that impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.

How we did it

Bloomington-Normal’s Indian community is not a monolith — socioeconomically, politically, culturally — and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT Newsroom interviewed over 30 people from various backgrounds. We acknowledge these sources do not represent every Indian in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves, and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.

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We want to know what you think of the series, and what future reporting we should consider. You can send our Newsroom a message at WGLT.org/Contact.

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