Blog Post by Rushi Dhakad
The promise of creative Indian food served as motivation as I walked in a cold, hostile drizzle, taking several wrong turns before finally arriving at my destination on Prospect Hill. I was welcomed into the home of a young man, Navpreet Lekhi, who had invited his friends over to try his Secret Menu dishes before their premier at the upcoming Asian Food Fest.
The apartment had a spacious deck facing Cincinnati’s dreamy skyline. There was little time to enjoy the view as I was quickly brought into the kitchen to watch Nav prepare his grilled paneer sliders. He turned on his favorite music by Madlib, an American DJ who is skilled at mixing Indian beats. Born in the U.S. to Indian Punjabi immigrants, Nav has clearly been influenced by dual cultures. As blobs of homemade ghee (clarified butter) melted in the pan, Nav began narrating the story of his father.
In the 1980s, a young Indian man doing his masters studies in Boston went on a camping trip to Portland, Maine. He craved Indian food but found not a single Indian restaurant. Taking a giant leap of faith, the young man abandoned his studies, moved to Portland, and started his own restaurant. That’s bold for someone with a conservative Indian background and even more so for a young man with a wife and baby (little Nav).
As Nav grew, so did the restaurant. And Nav began to develop his own taste for Indian food. Today, he has fond memories of having palak paneer and garlic naan every time he went to his father’s restaurant. “For my 16th birthday, my mom made every possible Indian sweet – from GulabJamun to Rasgulla to Jalebi,” showing her love for her son through cooking.
The family moved to Cincinnati and the restaurant followed. Eventually, managing the business alone became highly arduous for Nav’s father and after a successful 25-year-run, he closed shop in 2009.
Nav went to Ohio State University to study Globalization Studies and coding. College provided an outlet to learn about himself as an American child raised in a Punjabi household. He also learned that there were many others just like him.
Now an IT engineer, Nav has been exploring his inherited love for food and the joy of serving others. I watched as he grilled thick slices of fresh, soft homemade paneer cheese on a medium flame with ginger-garlic and cumin fried in the ghee. He showed me the toppings for the sliders – curry-infused slaw and traditional Indian mint chutney. A brown crispy layer formed on both sides of the paneer and it was ready to slide into its soft, yet toasted bun.
I was the first taster of the evening. It was my reward for the struggles endured while trying to reach Nav’s home. Upon first bite, the slider exploded with the tangy magic of slaw and mint chutney followed by the taste of rich, buttery paneer. This debutante stood strong among the reigning monarchs of Indian street food burgers like the Vada Paav and the Kutchhi Dabeli. I didn’t even care how I looked when he captured an Instagram video of my messy first bite.
His friends then filed in – a happy bunch, many of whom have known Nav since high school. They were greeted with chicken wings, marinated in the Indian tandoori style. With the help of Jordan Hamons, who is a chef herself, Nav baked the wings before deep frying-them until crispy. To add to the awesomeness, the wings were then rolled in a mix of spices and tangy lemon juice. The innovative tandoori wings were quickly devoured by his lucky friends.
Much like Nav and the Indian beats playing in the background, the Grilled Paneer Sliders and Tandoori Chicken Wings were a seamless fusion of American and Indian flavors. Thus far, only Nav’s closest friends and family have had the privilege of tasting these unique creations. When Nav heard about the opportunity to participate in Asian Food Fest’s Secret Menu booth this year, he jumped at the chance to test out his concept with a wider audience and establish a brand for his fusion food: ‘Preet’s’. The slider’s magic still lingering on my tongue, I departed Nav’s home, leaving him with all the best wishes for Asian Food Fest. I have no doubt he is going to rock this weekend.
Visit Chef Nav at the Secret Menu booth this Saturday, May 13th in Washington Park, along with 30+ Asian Food Fest vendors who will be cooking throughout Mother’s Day Weekend on Saturday and Sunday! Stay tuned for more news and posts from the AFF blog.