OLD SAVANNAH may not have been described as a melting pot for cuisine. Yet, our city attracts visitors far and wide, along with a large amount of locals, including myself, identifying as transplants.
This may be the controlling variable in the evolution of Savannah’s food scene over the last few years. A chef once told me that Savannah is on a trajectory to be one of the best culinary scenes in the country.
This statement may be truer than we all realize. Savannah’s ever-expanding palate is charming more than just the tourists or locals, but also restaurateurs who are begging to invest in our city’s culinary culture.
A few years ago, first generation Indians, married couple Sharth Gudla and Swetha Gudla as well as their friends Atith Kotcherlakota and Seshu Kotcherlakota, moved to Savannah for career opportunities. To their dismay, they recognized that Savannah was lacking authentic Indian fare.
“When we moved to Savannah we found that there was no real Indian food and we genuinely missed having an authentic eating joint. Our friends were always impressed with the flavors we prepared during all our gatherings-so we were inspired to share our recipes and culture with the city,” Sharth Gudla explains.
Gudla continues, “Food is an integral part of family and traditions in India. We always ate together and our mothers, aunts and grandmothers prepared all our meals...The care and love put into the food made the flavors everlasting...”
In April 2015, Gudla and his wife opened NaaN Appetit in Pooler with the Kotcherlakotas, as a way to contribute to Savannah’s food scene and bring a taste of India to the Deep South. Pooler is home to many Indian families, all of whom contributed to the success of NaaN Appetit.
Gudla and his partners not only use traditional methods when preparing their recipes, but they cook with the ingredient that has been passed down from generation to generation: love.
“Our recipes are inspired by our mothers and grandmothers...that’s what we try to bring to NaaN’s recipes. We keep them close to homemade recipes and use the best blend of aromatic spices. More than all this, we listen to our customers and take their feedback, so we can serve the best quality dishes.”
Then in December 2017, NaaN on Broughton came to the Historic District in Savannah. Catering to tourists, SCAD students, and locals, Gudla explains that the main differences between the locations is the menu, which is “simple yet trendy,” there is no buffet and the downtown location has a full bar.
Those who pass by can peer inside, to see an army of tables, benches along a wood paneled wall, an oversized chalk board that states, “People who love to eat are always the best people” and a five=stooled bar lit up by blue neon lights.
But it’s the hand-painted phrase on the back wall that says “Namaste Y’all” that embodies the playful modern atmosphere, which fits right in with the downtown Savannah vibe.
NaaN on Broughton serves an amalgamation of authentic northern and southern Indian dishes, with a dash of Indo-Chinese recipes.
“Northern regions predominantly have bread –naan and parathas originate from this region. The meats and sauces are very rich. We see a great use of dry fruits and cream being incorporated into their marinades and curries,” Gudla enlightens.
“Southern regions predominantly are rice eaters – white rice, biryanis, and idli vada originate from this region. Southern food has a lot of gravy and brunch items. We see the influence of coconut and tamarind in food preparation.”
NaaN on Broughton is as authentic as it gets for Gudla and his partners.
“Our preparation methods take no short cuts. We use regional whole spices and herbs, as well as blend our masalas and pastes. We don’t use any preservatives in any of our blends,” states Gudla.
All of the spices are imported from India and sourced from Atlanta. Signature spice blends are ground by hand and distinctly made for each dish.
Gudla goes on to say, “Indian food uses a host of spices and spice blends- the trick is to understand the right blend. The trick lies in the use of these spice blends.”
In the Indian culture food is meant to be shared, family style. Large bowls of curries, masalas and biryanis alongside saucers of raita (yogurt mixed with vegetables) and platters of samosas, are strewn across the table. Plates are studded with plops of basmati rice, splashed with the rich hues of red, green and yellow gravies.
Among all of this, the most important part of the meal is naan, flat bread that is traditionally used for scooping up food. Culturally, Indians opt for naan instead of silverware, which makes this fluffy blistered bread a staple in Indian households.
At NaaN on Broughton, this bread is made from an old family recipe that was passed down from Gudla’s grandparents. It is simply made with all-purpose flour, sugar, salt and milk, eliminating yeast. The dough is kneaded by hand, oiled and covered with a muslin cloth. Once proofed, the naan is molded into its signature teardrop shape and baked in a clay oven.
The clay oven is very common in Indian cooking because it lends a smoky flavor to breads and meats. It is a slow cooking method that retains moisture.
A variety of freshly baked naan can be found at the Broughton location. For a customary taste of naan, try garlic, butter or plain flavors. If you’re an adventurer, order the Stuffed Kulcha, which is packed with potato and cheese or Peshwari, which is sweet dessert-like bread, crammed with cherries, pistachios and coconut. All are served hot, blistered and charred, ready for shoveling food into your mouth.
While indulging, Gudla recommended a myriad of dishes, ranging in flavor and spiciness. He explained that all spice levels could be altered with adding more or less spices, including red chili powder. Additionally, any dishes can be made nut-free.
For an appetizer, the vegetable samosas are a must. This hand-made flaky pastry pocket is stuffed with green peas and potatoes, the perfect starter for the newbie Indian eater. The pastry dough is made from flour, oil and milk with ajwain seed added to assist with digestion. These pouches are served house made and vibrantly refreshing mint chutney, with mint, cilantro, garlic, lemon and yogurt, as well as a sweet tamarind sauce.
The Chicken Lollipop was not only a looker but delivered a punch. This Indo-Chinese dish is comprised of frenched chicken winglets marinated in garlic paste and ginger. Once fried to a golden crisp, they are dredged in an onion/garlic sauce and scratch made red chili sauce.
For dinner, the House Special Chicken Curry is a crowd pleaser. Juicy chicken thighs are tossed in a homemade masala spice blend of cumin, coriander and cloves. The foundation of this gravy is onion, ginger and garlic mixed with curry leaves, mustard seeds, coconut milk, yogurt, cashews and cardamom. The creamy mixture is served with a side of basmati rice.
A special dish made for the locals is Salmon Tikka with a Butter Chicken sauce. The salmon is marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic and coriander. Then the fish is cooked in a clay oven, where the skin is charred but the flesh remains juicy. The fish is served with yellow turmeric rice studded with corn, peas and carrots. The rich and tangy tomato butter sauce can be splashed on for a flavorful finish. While this is not a traditional Indian dish, Gudla assembled it to have a meat, sauce and side for those wanting a complete meal.
The pièce de résistance is Biryani, a slow cooked rice dish that is served in a classic deep silver basin. This meal is part of the local cuisine in Hyderabad, where Gudla is from. The rice is first boiled with whole spices of cardamom, cumin, bay leaves and cinnamon. It is layered on top of lamb, chicken or goat, and steamed until tender.
The dish is filled with yogurt, peanut chutney, ginger, garlic, mint leaves, green chilies, saffron and fried onions. It is served with rice brimming out of the bowl, but poke to the bottom where the meat, golden onions and savory sauce lies as a hidden surprise.