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A Slice of Desi Heaven

Americans are lining up for the hot new trend in pizza—Indian! With tasty toppings like baingan bharta, butter chicken and paneer tikka, who can resist?


At first appearance, Pizza Pub is just another average-looking American pizza joint, tucked away in a nondescript strip mall between a martial arts studio and a small Indian grocery store in Silicon Valley’s Sunnyvale. But there’s more to this place than meets the eye, as the nose will soon reveal. One step inside, and the alluring scent of spices combined with baking crust hints at a match made in heaven: Indian pizza.

Pizza is a beloved American food, offering a quick meal that’s not too expensive, is sometimes healthy, often delivered, and perfect for feeding a crowd. According to PMQ’s Pizza Magazine, a trade publication covering the American pizza industry, pizza shops in the United States number over 65,000 and generate over $35 billion in annual sales. Combined with the fact that the Asian population in the country increased by 43 percent in the past decade, statistically speaking, Indian pizza had to happen!

While San Francisco residents have been enjoying Indian pizza for several decades, only in the past few years has the trend begun to spread to other locations in the region and across the country, including Seattle and Houston. In northern California, dozens of Indian pizza joints have sprung up in the Bay Area, drawing both Asian and non-Asian customers. They typically offer American Italian toppings alongside everything from paneer tikka to fresh coriander and okra in a yellow curry sauce. 

In some shops such as Tasty Subs and Pizza in Sunnyvale, the Indian pizza menu is printed separately, and only offered when customers ask for it. And it’s worth asking for. The entertaining menu features Bollywood-themed pizzas such as Veer Zaara (a vegetarian) and Three Idiots (a spicy, butter chicken pizza, of course!). To make sure the food comes extra spicy, the menu says to order it “Gabbar style.”

The combinations of creative and tasty toppings seem endless. A long-popular spot located in Fremont—Pizza and Curry—offers unique flavors like malai paneer, mango chaat and aloo gobi. As one Yelp reviewer of the place exclaims, “I thought it was strange when I first heard about Indian pizza, but after trying it I fell in love! It is absolutely delicious!”

Back at the Pizza Pub, the Gandhi family runs a true mom-and-pop establishment with a loyal following. “We opened two and half years ago,” says dad Mahesh. For 30 years, he operated a large Italian pizza place in nearby San Jose but wanted to open something smaller. Noticing that all kinds of people were enjoying Indian food in the area—not just South Asians—he and his wife, Renu, decided to try opening a small Indian pizza place. By combining their knowledge of traditional pizza-making with the cuisine of their homeland, they found their niche.

“All the toppings we use are fresh,” notes Renu with pride. And while many Americans have seen greens in the form of spinach or basil on a pizza, fresh coriander offers an unexpected twist. As do lemon wedges! Some of Pizza Pub’s more popular flavors are tandoori chicken and paneer tikka, but Renu’s personal favorite is kachori, a topping she developed herself.

Mahesh and Renu’s son, Sagar, who recently graduated from university, decided to join the business to spend time with family and explore his interest in culinary arts. “When people come in here,” he says, “they’re not expecting Indian food on a pizza, because it’s still a really unconventional way of pairing two things. But the way we look at it, pizza is the perfect vehicle to present almost anything. That’s why we have so many varieties, and that’s why we’re always working to create new ones.”

What’s next? “We’re working on a line of appetizer-style pizzas,” continues Sagar. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of bhel….” 

 

Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.