Meet Anamika Khanna, the executive chef, owner, and creative mind behind San Francisco’s Kasa Indian Eatery’s famous dish: the Chicken Tikka Masala Roti Kati Roll. British-born lawyer-turned-chef Anamika shares her passion for food, cultural heritage, and sourced ingredients.
What is the Roti Kati Roll and can you deconstruct it for me?
Anamika Khanna: The Roti Kati Roll is essentially an Indian wrap. They sell them as street food in India, especially in Calcutta. Our version is more of a home-style version. The roti bread is a home-style flatbread made with whole wheat, which is milled slightly differently from a tortilla. Then we spread it with chutneys; we typically use a cilantro coconut chutney with pickled onions. Then you choose your entree that goes inside, and we roll it up.
On the streets in India, you will typically only get ones with grilled meats and grilled cubes of Paneer cheese. But, we put many different fillings which are more home-style entrees. We use cauliflower and potatoes (gobi aloo), or even lamb curry or Saag Paneer, which is pureed spinach with cheese. The reason we do that is because these are the dishes we eat at home with the roti bread without rolling it up. So you would eat with your hands by shaping the roti bread into a scooper to scoop up the curry. Since that is actually quite difficult for non-Indians to do, we figured the format of rolling it was more accessible because people are already used to eating Burritos and other kinds of wraps.
AK: It is also easier to understand the different components of the dish. Sometimes people don’t know what goes with what. For example, do the chutney and onions both go with this, or are you supposed to put a single bite together with all the components? Rolling it makes it easier to get the components right: the chutneys, the onions, the hot sauce, and the raita, which is a cucumber yogurt dip we serve on the side.
That is the Kati Roll. They are quite small and are not meant to be a whole meal. We recommend two for a meal so you can try different fillings. Here at Kasa, we encourage you to try something vegetarian and then have something like Chicken Tikka Masala, which is our most popular dish. Similarly, our Thali plate, a combination plate, has two entrees you can choose from.
The Roti Kati Roll is super popular, so we decided to add a Naan Kati Roll, where we use Naan bread instead of the roti. This dish is a lot bigger, and the bread is much more luxurious, so you only need one for a meal. We targeted everyone at Kasa; if you want to be a light, small eater, you can have one Kati Roll, but if you like a more decadent dish, you can have a Naan Roll, or if you want a Burrito we also have that which we call a Super Kati. We had so many requests to add rice to our Roti Kati Roll that we made a burrito on a tortilla as well.
What was the inspiration behind the Roti Kati Roll? How does this dish represent your cuisine & yourself?
AK: The inspiration of the Kati Roll is “home food,” while the format is more “street food,” mainly for accessibility and portability. In India, the story goes that the Kati Roll was created because the street food vendor ran out of plates, so he used the bread to wrap up the meat. It’s a portable food that you can carry around.
In terms of the flavors of the dish, it is what we would eat at home. That’s what Kasa is all about: home-style eating. Our food is light, less greasy, less spicy, and more focussed on vegetables than other traditional Indian street foods. We have received some feedback that our flavors are not as robust or hard-hitting, but this is also why so many people love us: our flavors are more nuanced. Rather than wedding food, it is more day-to-day food that is lighter, brighter, healthier.
AK: We have noticed that many people, especially Indians, do not have enough time to cook at home. Especially the younger generations who are also losing traditional cooking skill sets. It takes a long time to put together an Indian meal. Whereas, previously, when Indians would eat out, it was only celebratory food: stuff they would not cook at home. Now, many Indian people tell us that our food tastes just like their mom’s or their grandma’s cooking.
Another reason [for making Indian food] is to express my heritage. I was born and raised in London, but I grew up around this kind of food from my grandparents. It’s really nice to bring that culture to England and here. I am bringing out an element of our culture more publicly.
How do you connect with your customers?
AK: We connect by sharing our story and heritage. We have been here 13 years, so word-of-mouth is very strong. However, we also use newsletters and marketing to our direct customers. Through these, we share stories about the food and the culture over the years. In fact, many of our customers are new which makes this a new cultural experience for them. For us, our favorite feedback is when someone tells us that they thought they didn’t like Indian food, but “I like yours.” This goes back to our food being lighter, brighter, and less spicy. In fact, if their experience with Indian food is from another restaurant, many tell us that “this is not what I thought Indian food was.”
There are also regional differences in Indian food. Our food is North Indian Punjabi home cooking. We have customers who eat South Indian food and get confused with what “Indian food” really is.
AK: For instance, something that is really interesting is the lentil. In the city [Punjabi], black lentils are very traditional. In fact, they are so traditional that the nickname for them is “mother’s lentil” because mothers always make them on Sundays. However, we have many customers telling us it should be a yellow lentil, not black. So then we have to explain that there are many different colors of lentils and we cook them all.
There is also a large cross-over with Mexican food. If someone enjoys Mexican food, they will probably enjoy Indian food. I believe that not liking Indian food is more of a mental thing–or maybe they watched Indiana Jones and think we eat monkey brains [laughter]. Otherwise, I think Indian food is a very accessible cuisine. There is nothing in there that is too exotic other than being too spicy for some.
What brought you into food? Into San Francisco?
AK: The answer to both is probably love. I trained as a lawyer — that is what I went to school for — and I did that for a couple of years. But, I soon realized a desk job just wasn’t for me: I liked some of the challenges, but overall it felt very bureaucratic with a lot of paperwork. I found myself counting the hours I was spending not enjoying my life, and I felt like life was too short to continue doing something I didn’t see myself wanting to do forever.
A love of food is what brought me to the world of food, and my husband brought me to San Francisco. I fell in love with him, so I moved here! If you follow love, you will end up in the right place. In my case, you may not make more money, but you will be happy.
Where do your ingredients come from and how do you pick them?
AK: These recipes are actually quite old. My Aunt is the person who taught me how to cook. She taught me to have restraint around the spices, to avoid making one sauce for all my dishes which would make everything taste the same, and do not use the same 10 spices in everything. For instance, cauliflower works really well with celery seeds. It not only works in terms of the flavor profile, but they [relatives and elders] say that cauliflower is a gassy vegetable so celery seeds have medicinal benefits to help with digestion.
Our recipes are so old. They have medical stuff behind them and flavor profiles that I don’t mess with too much. I go with how the original recipes were taught to me. The only thing I have added or changed is the hot sauce and the super hot sauce. For instance, we use Habanero and Chipotle [peppers] in the super hot sauce. These are not native to India, but they amp up the heat for those who want it.
It’s a combination of holding true to the original recipes and also responding to the environment and what your customers want — just like we did with the Super Koti, which is not traditionally Indian.
Are there any particular suppliers you go to for your India-specific ingredients?
AK: Yes, specifically for the spices and the Paneer cheese.
For example, paneer cheese is something I would make if I could. Traditionally it is made at home by splitting the milk with vinegar or lemon juice and then pressing it down to form the cheese. However, it doesn’t hold firm when cooking in huge quantities, we have a lack of space, and the costs are too high. This is a decision we had to make, so we would go to a reliable Indian supplier who sells something made here in San Francisco.
Similarly, we have things like Far Far munchies which are dried-out chips that puff up when fried. We wouldn’t be able to get that anywhere else, so we need an Indian supplier. Also, things like tamarind concentrate, celery seeds, and Thai birdseye chilies are difficult to get from regular suppliers.
What’s the weirdest modification you’ve had a diner request?
AK: We are quite militant here, so we don’t really let customers modify too much. There are some things we don’t like doing. For example, Saag Paneer in a roll should be illegal. It is actually so difficult to roll since it is pureed fresh spinach. When people insist on having it in a roll, we try to tell them to put it as a side on the plate. Unfortunately, the way our menu is formatted, it is hard to explain all of this, so we just end up rolling it, and it is messy [laughter]. It’s also a challenge to eat and to make. I have worked the line many times trying to dissuade “regulars” from requesting it, but they insist they got it and can handle it — so we just say “ok.”
If you could sit down and eat Roti with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
AK: I have two people in mind; I would probably put Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in the same room and have some food with them. Get both of them to eat with their hands. I am really curious about Putin and his thought process; he just seems like a master chess maneuver. But at the same time, we were taught that he has this evil side. I have friends from [Russia] who say he is an admirable politician but not someone you would really want to hang out with since he has people killed off. But then I have friends who would defend him because they adore him.
I am just so curious about this person who can elicit such reactions while putting Russia on the world stage. I would just like to put him with Obama just because he is an incredible politician who led our country so amazingly. So, I would just like to see the two different styles put together and hear them speak.
In your opinion, what is the relationship between tech and restaurants? How can tech help chefs?
AK: At this point, it is vital. When we first opened in 2008, if it rained, we would all cry because that’s it, the day is done: no customers will come in. We didn’t want to send anybody home early either because they [rely] on us to make their rent payments and stuff. So you all just sit there watching money getting thrown out the window. Whereas today when it rains, I’m really not worried. If anything, we are going to have an uptake in orders… it’s Indian food… it’s raining, you’re sitting at home, it travels well. So, it’s nice to have that.
Secondly, I love website ordering, where customers can just come to our website and place an order. They can even order catering, for instance. Some days, I will just wake up with a $500 order that I would have to have been on the phone and talk. [Technology] frees up my time. We use Google Suite here to organize ourselves: documents, the calendar to know what we are doing, and scheduling. And we use Cut+Dry for ordering. I am not a super-techy person, but if it is simple and easy to use and doesn’t cost too much, then I am a firm believer in tech and food for sure.
Do you feel like most tech that is geared towards restaurants is affordable to use?
AK: Actually, some of it is not. For instance, UberEats and DoorDash are really expensive, and they don’t work very well either. For example, if you get an order for $10 and there is an issue with it–like we forgot something or something went wrong–, then the customer will get refunded. However, it will still show up on the system as a sale when it is not a sale. It really just becomes a nightmare for us. Also, the pricing is often wrong on these sites. The amount of time it takes to figure all of this out, you are better off manually entering this into a POS rather than having something else do it [tech application]. If you are a POS system, aggregating sales should be a default. I don’t see why we need to have an add-on.
Do you feel like there are tech-related things where you are always having to put out any fires?
AK: Yes, Tablets are annoying; updates, passwords, Postmates merges with UberEats do the tablets app change… all of that is very annoying. Especially, as we see it, it really is just DoorDash and UberEats. If we could, we would have every order come through Toast.
The other thing that is really really really frustrating is DoorDash’s delivery options. If a customer places an order for delivery through our Toast website, I’ve heard that DoorDash incentivizes their drivers to pick a direct DoorDash order versus a Kasa website order. They literally push it that way, which means the direct order from Kasa sits there getting late, or if anything, it may not get picked up [in peak hours]. Having customers call during peak dinner hours asking where their order is very frustrating and hard to problem solve. Then everyone is upset, mostly because they are hungry.
Where do you see food and tech going in the future?
AK: Would I be interested in robots coming along and picking up the food and delivering it? Maybe… probably. I have seen those Dominos ads with robots delivering the food, and I feel like they are coming next. Plus, we would get more workers back in the restaurant, which we are currently fighting with delivery apps to employ. At the same time, I just want to say, 85% of the time, on-demand delivery works, and I hope that most people have had enough experience to know that you just have to accept some room for error. Not everything is within the control of the restaurant.
On technology, another thing that I love is the drift bot that we have on our website. Through the pandemic, I really liked it because people were stuck in their homes, but they could connect with me directly. I would get an alert that someone was trying to talk to me on the website, and I would respond. It helps take the pressure off my staff because we were staffed lighter and did not want too many people in the kitchen; plus, we were trying to keep the cost down. So I could answer questions in detail, and people felt connected to us despite the pandemic.
Through technology, people felt connected. A lot of people would ask us nutritional facts, which we do not have tested or listed. The chat option would let me explain what items to pick if they were watching their calories. You don’t often get that one-to-one connection, even inside the restaurant.
Kasa Indain Eatery Locations & Hours
Castro San Francisco
4001 18th St
11am – 9pm daily
Polk San Francisco
1356 Polk St,
11am – 9pm daily
2086 Broadway St
11am – 9pm daily
Read more on The Deconstructed Dish.