Delicious because of its simplicity: rediscovering Indian food with Sujata Singh

She shares her recipe for Baingan ka Chokha and tells a startling truth about curry.

Delicious because of its simplicity: rediscovering Indian food with Sujata Singh
Spice Trail, Miller Plaza, Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • She shares her recipe for Baingan ka Chokha, an eggplant, tomato and potato dish.
  • She also tells a startling truth about curry.

"That’s what I want: to change people’s minds about Indian food."

Here's a thought exercise: travel anywhere in the US, walk into an Indian restaurant, any Indian restaurant, and odds are pretty good that wherever you go, the experience will be mostly the same.

A menu that's nine pages, maybe longer, offering the same types of dishes. Like Tikka Masala.

There's probably a buffet.

Most meals cost $9.99.

"People are so used to going to Indian restaurants that all feel the same," Sujata Singh begins. "That is what I don't want."

When we take certain food that originates elsewhere and box it into a predictable experience, we reduce the unspeakably vast, gorgeous culinary depth of entire countries and continents to a $9.99 all-you-can-eat experience.

What if all we thought we knew about Indian food was wrong?

"That’s what I want: to change people’s minds about Indian food," Singh said.

Sujata Singh, Spice Trail, Chattanooga, Tennessee

For the last four years, Sujata Singh has been offering southeast Tennessee a very different experience of Indian food. Her pop-up dinners and brick-and-mortar restaurant present Indian food not as a whitewashed, routine experience, but a very genuine taste of her India: its farmers, spices, even its waters.

"I cook here like I cook at home," she said.

Slowly, lovingly, simply – the food at Spice Trail mirrors Sujata.

"Indian food," she says once more, "does not mean a nine page menu with huge buffet."

So what does Indian food mean?

"Ahh," she said. "Good question."

The story goes something like this:

Sujata and her husband Amar were having drinks at Moxie, talking about a recent trip to ATL where chef Asha Gomez had hosted the most intimate, sparkling dinner: only 20 or so people, two or three hours.

I want to do something like this, Sujata told Amar. I can do something like that here in Chattanooga.

You should, he responded.

She sipped her wine. Amar, his Manhattan.

Excuse me, a man sitting at the bar says. I couldn't help but overhear. I'm from out of town, and I'm wondering: does Chattanooga have a decent Indian restaurant?

Without pausing, Sujata responds: Yes, in my kitchen.

Yes ... in my ... kitchen.

And the idea of Spice Trail was born.

Spice Trail, Miller Plaza, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Spice Trail is an Indian restaurant unlike Indian restaurants. Located in Miller Plaza – "this used to be a Subway," Sujata says – Spice Trail serves sit-down lunches and take-out dinners four days a week with a menu that is changing, often locally-sourced and deeply influenced by her childhood in northern India.

Look at her menu: lamb burger, rajmah thali, chicken vindaloo thali, potato and squash subzi, idl, daal, naan, rice pudding.

But no chicken tikka.

Spice Trail, Miller Plaza, Chattanooga, Tennessee

After her Moxie declaration, Sujata, 46, felt emboldened; Amar kept encouraging. In early 2019, she hosted her first pop-up dinner, which promptly sold out. More to follow – The Camp House,  Taqueria Jalisco, The Daily Ration – with resounding applause.

Then, on Nov. 2022 – one year ago – she opened Spice Trail as a restaurant; she has plans to begin serving dinner in early 2024.

"Quality food. You don't have heartburn. You feel clean," she said.

Oscar Cobon and Sujata Singh, Spice Trail, Miller Plaza, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Quiet, soft-spoken yet possessing a firm grounded-ness you find in people who know themselves, Sujata's own presence is made manifest in Spice Trail.

Ask her to choose: a boisterous costume party? Or quiet evening with friends?

"A costume party is exhausting," she said.

Last Thursday, she hosted a Diwali pop-up dinner. The six-course meal – tadka deviled eggs, murgh masala samosa, tandoori fish, laal maas – was simple, elegant, genuinely Indian.

Spice Trail takes off the disguise, letting Indian food be Indian food.

A perfect example: Sujata will sometimes serve a traditional Bihari dish called Gobhi Bhujia: sautéed cauliflower topped with some toasted whole spices.

Gobhi Bhujia, Spice Trail

"Most of Bihari food is very simple, yet delicious because of its simplicity," she said. "The deliciousness lies in the fresh ingredients and keeping the focus on the food and not over complicating or overwhelming the flavors of the main ingredients."

She grew up in Bihar, near Nepal, and also in Jharkhand, near West Bengal. In Jharkhand, her father worked at a steel mill and she was surrounded by people from all over India. Within a few miles of her home, the language, dialect and food can all varied dramatically, even down to the way rice is cooked.

"There's a saying in India," she begins, "Every so much distance, the water changes. Because of the water changing, the taste of food changes. And language changes."

She grew up in her mom's kitchen.

"I was her sous chef," she said.

Raita, Spice Trail, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Sujata sat and did multiplication tables while her mom prepared meals. A gas stove was fueled by outside tanks. Her mom chopped vegetables, all precisely the same size, yet never used a knife.

"She used a traditional cutting tool," she said. "Down on her knees. Someone would come around every other week asking if anyone needed it sharpened."

3 x 2 = 6.

3 x 3 = 9.

"There are 22 official languages recognized by the Indian government," she said, "and 121 languages, and 270 dialects are spoken."

3 x 5 = 15.

3 x 6 = 18.

"The majority of our meals were vegetarian," she said. "Chicken, eggs, fish, maybe once a month. Most mornings, we eat flattened rice with milk, yogurt and jaggery. Leftovers were repurposed. She was a phenomenal cook. Most moms were."

3 x 7 = 21.

3 x 8 = 24.

"Our staples came from our own farm, such as rice, wheat and seasonal things like mango, lychees," she said. "We did get dry goods from a local grocery store and my mom got fresh vegetables from local markets few times a week."

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Then, at 19, she got married. Moved to New York. Learned to drive, no Map Quest. Became a mother. Studied accounting at Syracuse University, but soon, things no longer added up.

1 + 1 = zero? Or 100? A whole new continent. A new life. New language. And everywhere, Indian food that isn't.

It is the common immigrant experience: Sujata – Hindu, Indian and now American – had to redefine herself here while also remembering who she was, balancing between new home and old.

It started with feeding her young children; baby food was expensive, so Sujata began to feed her small children mushed-and-mashed-up versions of what she and Amar ate.

"I would call my mom and ask: what did you do?" she said.

In those Syracuse kitchens, as she and her family moved to Chattanooga, she searched for ways to remain Indian inside America.

"I am Indian. I was born in India. But I teach my kids they are American. They are born here," she said. "But my daughter has been called all kinds of stuff and it confuses her to no end. 'I was told I was an American,' she says." 

Take curries.

I told her I was eating more curries. Dabbling with an Ayurvedic diet has brought cumin, coriander, turmeric into my life most nights.

She smiled. Then, laughed.

Apparently, curries are not what I thought.

"They are British. That word 'curry' is not Indian. It's not Vietnamese," she said. "It's a colonial word."

I had no idea.

"Yes, I know," she said, smiling.

Sujata, who sources all her spices from India, said that Kadhi soup (sounds like curry) and curry leaf trees exist. But curry as an all-encompassing dish?

"Masala is the term. That's what you think of when you say 'curry.' It means 'spice.' Either a single spice or mix or blend," she said.

Spices, Spice Trail, Miller Plaza, Chattanooga, Tennessee

So what does Indian food mean?

"We are all figuring it out," she said. "Home. Good food."

While she spoke, she'd been preparing for us lunch: chickpea salad with carrots, celery, bell peppers, cilantro, dijon mustard and another spice I can't place.

She holds the jar to my nose. Coriander?

She turns the label: roasted cumin.

It's all accompanied by raita – a yogurt, or dahl, dish with pomegranates and cucumbers – and coconut rice pudding for dessert.

Chickpea salad, cucumbers, raita, Spice Trail, Chattanooga, Tennessee

It was delicious, but in a different way. The spices take my stomach downhill, gently, like gravity towards the ground and soil.

There is lightness: the yogurt, cucumbers, chickpeas.

There is earthiness, spices that feel heavy yet also light.

I am full, but gracefully so. It feels ... clean, wholesome, rich without being heavy.

I would eat this everyday if I could.

Cucumbers, Raita, Chickpea salad, Spice Trail

Once, Sujata traveled to a Sikh temple whose size boggled the mind.

"I don't know how to describe the scale of it," she said. "Open fire. Pots as high as I am. All day, they serve lentil soup. It's communal food. They serve food and don't ask questions. Three meals a day to anyone who comes."

It is community.

It is Indian food: rich in spice, overflowing with simplicity and selfless care.

"If Chattanooga can support that," she said, "that's what I should want. That’s how I want to feed people."

It is Sujata Singh and Spice Trail.

Sujata Singh, Spice Trail, Miller Plaza, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Sujata shares her recipe for Baingan ka Chokha, a dish that translates to "mashed eggplant."

Background: In most Indian restaurants, it is served as "Baigan Bharta," essentially the same thing but a different name from an other part of the country. However, it is prepared very differently in Indian restaurants.

It is a very earthy preparation, with no spices except salt seasoning. I picked this recipe because I have gotten some amazing fresh eggplants at the market and have made this simple yet out-of-this-world dish lately quite a bit for myself.


2 medium-sized whole eggplants 

2 garlic cloves

1-2 medium tomatoes

2 red potatoes 

1 small red onion, diced 

1 green chili, such as serrano, optional

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro 

Salt to taste

Dash of good quality mustard oil (optional, since it is tough to come by, even in local Indian grocery stores)


Create some slits all over the eggplants using a paring knife. Stuff the two garlic cloves in two of those slits. Make some slits in the tomatoes as well. 

The eggplants and tomatoes can be roasted whole on an open fire, grill, or in an oven at 375 degrees till they are cooked. 

No matter which method is chosen, the tomatoes will be done sooner.  You will know that the eggplants are done when you push on them; they will kind of cave in. 

While these two vegetables roast, the potatoes can be boiled and peeled.  Peel the eggplants and tomatoes while they are still hot/ warm if you can.  Add the diced onions, chopped chilis, mustard oil and roughly mash everything.  Add salt to taste.  Top with cilantro. Serve with some roti or naan.

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit

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