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December 16, 2016

Lehja Holiday Traditions

LehjaBy: Piet E. Jones, Photography by Brooke Marsh

We all know the scene, little Ralphie and his family from A Christmas Story eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant to most everyone involved’s amusement. There’s even a bit of a real life tradition of going out to Chinese restaurants for Christmas dinner. Some restaurants, though, have a little difficulty making their cuisine relevant to the American holiday season.

One person who doesn’t is Sunny Baweja, executive chef and co-owner of critically acclaimed Indian restaurant, Lehja, in Richmond, VA. “Indians celebrate every event and food drives you together,” says Sunny who embraces the concept fully.

Sure, there is no tradition of Thanksgiving in India, but the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, is celebrated very close on the calendar and being a time to celebrate friends and cherish family, is an easy cultural translation. This year, as part of Richmond’s Fire, Flour and Fork food festival, Sunny hosted a Kiss My Indian Grits brunch leading up to Thanksgiving where he strives to “break habits” and show that Indian cuisine doesn’t have to be “static.” Traditionally Southern dishes, popular around the holidays, like biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits translate easily into Lamb Khari Bhaji (using lamb from a local farm) or Shrimp with Vegetable Umpa Cake - a semolina variation on grits.

“It’s not about making money, it’s about making friends and saying thank you,” Sunny says of the thought that goes into creating the dishes for his holiday specials. “Food should speak and be easy to understand.”

Getting the food to speak becomes even more evident when it comes time for Christmas. A huge celebration in India and one that Sunny pulls all the stops out for here. Utilizing different techniques his Christmas week menu is designed to “serve only the best.” Grilled lobster in a mild coconut and curry sauce. Grilled lamb chops Punjabi. Prix fixe dinners that are choreographed to celebrate the season and the ingredients all paired with the right wines - often Indian wines that simply aren’t available in this country to anyone else.

And it doesn’t just stop with the Christmas week menu. All month, daily specials are worked on and perfected to showcase the best that they have to offer. Their own special take on vada dai, spiced yogurt dumplings rolled in lentils that burst open as you bite, or apple jalebi, an Indian version of a funnel cake, sweet and sticky.

In today’s oversaturated media environment, traditional advertising isn’t always the way to go. To create the right buzz for his holiday feasts, Sunny has developed relationships with local food writers and editors. They’re always on the lookout for content to share, both in print and online, and jump at the chance to get the scoop on upcoming events and special menus. Pair that with building a strong following on Facebook to keep all his diners up to date and you’ve got maximum targeted exposure without dropping big bucks on an ad that may or may not reach the people you want.

The result is full tables and lots of buzz with people anticipating what he’ll roll out each holiday season. With a little forethought and planning, even if the cuisine you serve isn’t one normally associated with the holidays, you can join in the celebration and fill those tables. The holidays are a time to roll out the best and most indulgent food, to step outside the box. Special dinners can help diners experience dishes they might not normally choose while utilizing well know, locally sourced ingredients can help make more obscure preparations accessible. All these things can help, especially around the holidays, to blur the line between customer and family.

“Joyness through the food,” extolls Sunny, “to make you happy.”

Be like Sunny.

1. Samosa-Chai- Dark chocolate, toasted pecans, samosa, chai kulfi, salted caramel, and cinnamon dust.
2. Lamb Khari Bhaji- Indian take on biscuits and gravy. Homemade khari, fennel-pav bhaji spiced pulled lamb, and cilantro.
3. Punjabi Style Grilled Lamb Chops- Tandoor grilled, garam masala spiced sauteéd kale, and baby carrots.
4. Grilled Prawns and Saute' Scallop- Coconut, mustard, and curry leaf sauce.
5. Dahi Wada Kabab- Spiced yogurt dumplings rolled in lentils, mango, sanam chili chutney, and microgreens.


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