In 1982, inspired by the curry houses of Europe, Har and Anila Keswani brought Indian cuisine to the Greater New Orleans area. Nirvana on Magazine Street has been in operation since 1999.
The following are excerpts from the introduction to the unpublished cookbook written by the late Har G. Keswani. We invite you to get to know the man who started it all.
My first memories of cooking are from the time I was 17 years old. Due to varied circumstances, I was living with my sister Pourkila in the eastern part of India. I had just turned into a bridge freak and would take every opportunity to go to the club and partner my brother-in-law. We would walk home the two miles way past midnight, and of course build up an appetite. Having got home, and both of us being scared to wake up my sister, we would then proceed to make all sorts of concoctions in the middle of the night—a true witches brew if I ever saw one. The subsequent mess would bring down my sister’s wrath in the morning, but who cared, at least we went to bed with a full stomach.
Life carried on and my skills remained mostly dormant. It was not till I got to the States that I began to blossom as a cook. I soon became the toast of the Indian community in New Orleans. I cooked at picnics, I cooked at the festivities, I cooked at gatherings. Were these my friends? Or did they just like my cooking. Since everybody was having such a good time I figured I might as well make some money at it and so my entry into the realm of commercial cooking.
Running a restaurant was an art in itself but what was even more fun was the repartee with the guests. One of the real joys of being in the restaurant business is to introduce a person to the wonders of Indian cuisine for the very first time. So please, when you go to any restaurant, feel free to ask any questions that you may have.
I soon learned that the perception of most people was that Indian food was:
Very very very hot
Made from curry powder
Starting with the last one first, exotic—exotic, as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder. Here I was in New Orleans, where people were scoffing down these squishy little things live, I believe they are called oysters, or gorging on these things called mud bugs, pulling tail and sucking head, as the saying goes, or going out in the middle of the night to shine a light to mesmerize frogs. Now this is exotic.
The other misconception is that Indian food is made from Curry Powder. Through the centuries, there have been people who, no matter what their profession is, have taken the time to do it with love, with patience and with care. Then there are the others who have endeavored to find shortcuts for everything. Well, curry powder is such an animal. Make a stew, add curry powder, you now have Indian food. The very thought makes me sick. With the varied tastes of over 900 million people, there is a lot more to Indian cooking than curry.
Now about the hot food. If you notice you will see that people living near the equator tend to eat spicier food than those living at the poles. This was God’s way of making people perspire, natural air conditioning, and to prevent heat strokes. I guess with the advent of air conditioning we should all give up on spices. Happily not all spices are hot and neither are all Indian dishes. There are cream gravies, there are the barbequed tandoori foods, all mild, very mild. Being a country of varied tastes, a good Indian cook will be able to satisfy anyone’s palate.