Sujata Singh blazes new path in international food with Spice Trail in downtown Chattanooga

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Sujata Singh at her home in Chattanooga on Monday, March 21, 2022.

Growing up in India, Sujata Singh was a young helper in her mother's kitchen. She studied the exacting way her mother went about cooking: chopping ingredients to uniform size so they cooked evenly, cleaning the kitchen as she went to save time at the end of the day and layering flavors in the traditional Indian way of cooking that favors feel over formula.

Cooking in India is more about indigenous ingredients than recipes, Singh said. "There's a quote in Hindi, translated, 'Every mile [in India] the taste of water changes and every four miles the food and dialect changes,'" Singh said. Remember, she said, India is only about a third the size of the United States by land mass but has almost four times as many people, so population density effects the diversity of the food culture.

An Indian family's diet is varied and dependent on what's farmed in the region, she said. The Chicken Makhani and Tikka Marsala dishes common in most Indian restaurants in the United States are not representative of the full richness of authentic Indian cooking, she said.

"India is so vast and the styles of food - flavors and preparations - are varied," she said. "We eat seasonally and use what is freshest and available."

Now, Singh wants to put all her learning about Indian home cooking to work as the owner/chef at Spice Trail, an innovative grab-and-go restaurant, gift boutique and modern Indian culture center taking shape at the former location of Subway sandwich shop in Miller Plaza in downtown Chattanooga. Singh said that her mother was a rare Indian cook who made dishes from many regions, and so her cooking style follows that formula.

Singh, whose children are transitioning to college and whose husband, Amar Singh, is an oncologist at Erlanger medical center, said she has been building her food service brand since 2019. That's the year she began serving pop-up Indian meals for 40 or so customers at industrial kitchens around the city to much acclaim. She has also offered a la carte, order-ahead meals for people on the go one day a week.

"She gets the food equivalent of standing ovations," said Amanda Nelson-Varnell, a food and beverage consultant who is helping Singh establish her downtown storefront scheduled to open by June.

Singh came to the United States at age 19 and studied accounting at Syracuse University in New York. When her husband, Amar, was hired to work at Erlanger here, she concentrated on rearing their two children.

Her pivot to a food career began in 2018 when she and her husband struck up a conversation with a man visiting Chattanooga who asked them to suggest the best Indian restaurant in town. The question caused Singh to wonder if there might be a market here for authentic Indian multi-course meals served pop-up style.

She didn't want to commit to running a full-time, full-service restaurant but relished the idea of occasionally cooking for small crowds using such spaces as the Camp House downtown, Taqueria Jalisco Ania on the Southside and an old fire hall in St. Elmo. The pop-up meals, which were publicized on Instagram, almost immediately began to sell out, but then the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on her growing business.

Coming out of the pandemic, Singh decided that a brick-and-mortar location operating four days a week and specializing in Indian take-out (and combined with a high-end Indian gift shop) would be the way to go. The Miller Plaza location also gives her the option of holding pop-up meals in the nearby Waterhouse Pavilion, she said.

A typical Spice Trail pop-up meal consists of six courses organized around a theme. For example, a recent Spice Trail pop-up dinner was linked to the Hindu Holi spring festival and featured tomato coconut soup, Dahi Bade (lentil dumplings with yogurt sauce and chili), Amritsari Fish (marinated and deep fried), Chhola (chickpeas in spicy cream sauce), Bihari Chicken (cooked in onions and ground spices) and Kala Jamun (a solidified milk dessert rolled in shredded coconut).

"Our food is not necessarily spicy, just very flavorful," Singh said. "I am finding that people in Chattanooga are ready for this kind of cooking."

The gig economy in Chattanooga has led to an influx of young professionals who don't mind spending on premium, authentic world food, Singh said. Too, she said, there are lots of world travelers here trying to replicate the authentic Indian food they have sampled in other places.

In addition to also offering a boutique featuring contemporary Indian fashion, Singh said she hopes Spice Trail serves as location for monthly meet-ups where people can gather to talk about Indian literature and culture.