Semma: The restaurant that has put South India on the New York City culinary map

An Indian restaurant in the US has won a Michelin Star for serving traditional food that bursts with flavour and spice and everything nice.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Nov 18, 2022 | 9:00 AMUpdatedDec 31, 2022 | 5:53 PM

Semma founders

Semma in Tamil means awesome, superior and fantastic.

So, obviously, it did not come as a surprise to this writer when she found out recently that a South Indian restaurant called Semma was making waves in distant United States.

Located in New York City’s Greenwich Avenue, Semma has got a big bite of recognition in the form of its first-ever Michelin Star. It also is the only Indian restaurant in The Big Apple to have bagged the coveted recognition this year.

“Semma explores Southern India in a way that we haven’t even seen happening in India,” chuckles restaurateur Roni Mazumdar.

All thanks to Chef Vijay Kumar, originally from Tamil Nadu.

Unapologetically good

Described as “a full-blown South Indian uprising”, Semma opened its doors in October last year. It is run by the hospitality group Unapologetic Foods, which is helmed by partners Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya.

Unapologetic Foods already has a feather in its cap in the form of two other Indian restaurants — Adda (2018) and Dhamaka (2021) — both located in NYC.

“While Adda specialises in street food, Dhamaka serves rural-style Indian cuisine,” Mazumdar tells South First over a Zoom call.

“Every single time we think of Indian food, we think of Punjabi or Mughlai cuisines. But in reality, there are so many beautiful pockets of India that are unexplored and that is what Dhamaka set out to do.”

So how did the idea of opening Semma come about?

“Chintan [Pandya] and I have been working together for five years now. We have known Vijay Kumar, who previously was a chef in California, for sometime. Our philosophy has been that we wanted to cook food that is real… what we have grown up with. In our conversations with Vijay, a native of Tamil Nadu, we decided to start a place that serves authentic South Indian food,” says Mazumdar, who has been in the US for 26 years.

Also read: 3 women cooking up a storm in traditional Andhra kitchens

Memories of South India

Semma serves culinary memories of South India on a plate. The menu is beautifully curated by Kumar. Beautiful, because he grew up eating this food back home in a small town called Natham near Madurai.

“A major part of the menu is based on my childhood memories,” Kumar tells South First.

“For instance, Mulaikattiya Thaniyam, which is essentially sprouted mung beans, coconut and smoked chili, is a snack my mum used to make when I returned home from school. Kudal Varuval is goat intestines served with kal dosa.”

More on the lip-smacking fare are Eral Thokku (tiger prawn cooked in curry leaves), seasonal uttappam (rice and lentil pancake), gunpowder dosa (rice and lentil crepe), Mangalore Huukosu (cauliflower with coconut chutney), Meen Pollichathu (banana leaf wrapped sea bass), Valiya Chemmeen Moilee (lobster tail smeared with mustard and coconut milk), among others.

On the menu also are snails (Nathai Pirattal) which Kumar’s grandma happily cooked for him when he was young

“These are super nostalgic memories for me,” Kumar says. “We are not holding back on the spice level. We cook everything here how it is cooked back home. Nothing is changed to please anyone.”

Serving snails, shattering stigma

Mazumdar says that Semma wants to challenge the entire socio-economic aspect of how people look at certain foods.

“Many a time, we take inspiration from a local guy cooking from a tiny shed in some remote village. However, we recreate it and change it to something that can be served in a posh restaurant. Because we believe somewhere those original dishes are not worthy. Our team, however, is striving to show the world what Indian food is all about. We want our patrons to look at South India with a much bigger canvas.”

Semma, therefore, goes beyond the cliché of serving biryani. It serves ponni rice instead.

“Tell me how many restaurants serve goat intestines and snails?” Mazumdar asks.

“But why not? What is wrong with it? Vijay always talks of how he felt ashamed growing up while sharing with everyone that he was eating snails at home. But then he read somewhere that escargot (edible land snails) is a delicacy in France. So when did we allow such stigma and societal norms to destroy our cuisine?”

The whole idea of Unapologetic Foods, he says, is to “no longer fight to fit ourselves into someone else’s reality”.
“Semma is not just a restaurant… it’s a conversation we are starting in New York.”

Kumar encourages his patrons to eat food with fingers. Because that is how Tamilians enjoy their dosas.

“You cannot cut a dosa with a knife and a fork,” he laughs. “Mainly Indians who grew up back in India or Indians born and raised in the US are super sporty. They trust us when we ask them to ditch cutlery.”

Also read: Theatre artist talks of Dalit food and serves memories of oppression

Onward and upward!

Semma is located in West Village, which Mazumdar says is one of the most expensive parts of New York.

“Within a mile’s radius from Semma, you will not find any other Indian restaurant,” he adds. “We were probably crazy enough to open it in this part of the town and make a statement.”

Still, their customers are a good mix of Indians, Indians raised in America, and Americans.

“A New Yorker is open-minded as long as the food is good and authentic,” Kumar says.

“In India, culturally, we don’t book a table days in advance. But if you need to try Semma’s fare, you need to book a month prior.”

If some of the dishes are unfamiliar, customers can lean on the staff who are more than happy to share stories of heritage.

“There are so many stories to tell,” Kumar beams. “Goanese Oxtail is my favourite. Growing up, there was a Goan family living next to us. Being a Hindu, we were not supposed to eat oxtail. But I asked the neighbour aunty if she would teach me how to make it. Turns out, its one of the best-selling dishes at Semma.”

Kumar says he was sceptical about introducing Attu Kari Sukka (lamb cooked in black cardamon and tellicherry peppers), but the dish has become a huge success now.

Cute cocktails on the menu

Interestingly, Semma also serves cute cocktails that is in sync with the South Indian cuisine.

“Every single idea of our beverage programme is unique,” Mazumdar explains.

“Podu, which is curry leaf infused gin, goes best with Attu Kari Sukka. With every sip, you are taking the essence of garnished curry leaves and gorgeous liquid. It is not too strong and creates a good balance in the mouth. We do have an in-house sommelier who reimagines what wine is and what dish goes best with it.”

On the cocktail menu is also the sensuality queen Silk Smitha (cardamom infused tequila, red peppercorn and agave) and Aiyo! (mezcal, red chilli, tamarind and lemon).

A year since its launch, Mazumdar looks back at what they set out to do and what all has been achieved in such little time.

“When we started, we didn’t think we were worthy of any award,” he tells us. “But we ended up getting all of them. This is beyond our wildest imagination.”

But in a growing world of food commentaries, what does the Michelin Star mean to Semma?

“Honestly, we don’t want any award to waver us from our mission. But lets just say for now, we are ecstatic!” Mazumdar and Kumar sign off.