Raised in India, Sujata Singh was a young helper in her mother’s kitchen. She studied the sophisticated way her mother cooks: slicing ingredients to a uniform size so they cook evenly, cleaning the kitchen when she saves time at the end of the day, and layering flavors in the traditional Indian way of cooking layers that favors the feeling of fade away formula.
Cooking in India is more about local ingredients than recipes, Singh said. “There’s a quote in Hindi that translates: ‘Every mile [in India] the taste of the water changes and every four miles the food and dialect change,” said Singh. Keep in mind, she said, that India has only about a third the landmass of the United States, but has nearly four times the population density impacting the diversity of food culture.
An Indian family’s diet is diverse and depends on what is grown in the region, she said. The chicken makhani and tikka marsala dishes that are common in most Indian restaurants in the United States are not representative of the full richness of authentic Indian cuisine, she said.
“India is so vast and the food styles — flavors and preparations — are diverse,” she said. “We eat seasonally and use what’s fresh and available.”
Now Singh wants to use all her knowledge of Indian home cooking as the owner-chef at Spice Trail, an innovative grab-and-go restaurant, gift boutique and modern Indian cultural center taking shape on the former location of the Subway sandwich shop at Miller Plaza in downtown Chattanooga. Singh said her mother was a rare Indian cook who prepared dishes from many regions and so her cooking style follows this formula.
Singh, whose children are going to college and whose husband Amar Singh is an oncologist at Erlangen Medical Center, said she has been building her food service brand since 2019. That year, she began serving Indian pop-up meals to about 40 customers in commercial kitchens across the city to critical acclaim. She has also offered a la carte pre-order meals for travelers one day a week.
“She gets the food equivalent of a standing ovation,” said Amanda Nelson-Varnell, a food and beverage consultant who is helping Singh set up her downtown store, which is scheduled to open by June.
Singh came to the United States at the age of 19 and studied accounting at Syracuse University in New York. When her husband Amar was employed here at Erlanger, she concentrated on raising their two children.
Her transition to a food career began in 2018 when she and her husband struck up a conversation with a man who was visiting Chattanooga and asked her to suggest the best Indian restaurant in town. The question prompted Singh to wonder if there might be a market here for authentic Indian multi-course meals served pop-up style.
Not wanting to commit to running a full-time, full-service restaurant, she reveled in the idea of occasionally cooking for small crowds, using places like the Camp House downtown, Taqueria Jalisco Ania on the Southside, and an old Fire Hall in St Elmo. Posted on Instagram, the pop-up meals sold out almost immediately, but then the COVID-19 pandemic slowed their growing business.
In the wake of the pandemic, Singh decided that a brick-and-mortar location, open four days a week and specializing in Indian takeaway (and combined with a high-end Indian gift shop) would be the way to go. The Miller Plaza location also gives her the opportunity to hold pop-up meals at the nearby Waterhouse Pavilion, she said.
A typical Spice Trail pop-up menu consists of six courses organized around a theme. For example, a recent pop-up dinner on the Spice Trail was associated with the Hindu Holi spring festival and included tomato and coconut soup, dahi bade (lentil dumplings with yogurt sauce and chili), amritsari fish (marinated and fried), chhola ( chickpeas in a spicy cream sauce), Bihari chicken (simmered in onions and ground spices) and kala jamun (a solidified milk dessert rolled in grated coconut).
“Our food isn’t necessarily spicy, just very tasty,” Singh said. “I think the people of Chattanooga are ready for this kind of cooking.”
Chattanooga’s gig economy has created an influx of young professionals who don’t mind spending on premium, authentic world cuisine, Singh said. Also, she said, there are many world travelers here trying to replicate the authentic Indian food they’ve tried in other places.
In addition to offering a contemporary Indian fashion boutique, Singh hopes Spice Trail will serve as a monthly gathering place where people can meet to talk about Indian literature and culture.