Chef and baker Preeti Waas isn’t new to the Raleigh scene — but chances are many missed the first location of her store Cheeni, which was previously located in two YMCA locations in downtown Raleigh. Inspired by India’s corner shops, Cheeni offered snacks and teas, attracting a mix of locals looking for their favorite masala chai, cookies and chili cheese toast – and fitness junkies looking for a post-workout smoothie were looking for (an addition she added to the demographic menu).
While the YMCA locations were a success, they were not the full vision of Waas Cheeni. Luckily, the pandemic allowed her to find a bigger space in North Raleigh so she could make Cheeni Indian Food Emporium a reality — an all-day cafe with retail space selling books and spices and a demonstration kitchen where the Waas is will host interactive cooking classes and cooking classes dinners as well as guest chefs. “Cheeni is like a Swiss Army knife,” she explains – it has a lot of different moving parts and elements.
Calling Cheeni a restaurant would be inaccurate. It’s a portal into the world of Waas: a blend of her South Indian upbringing and American culture through food and drink – and a space for customers to explore at leisure, whether dropping in for a morning chai or lounging in a cozy one Lose a book at corners, fuel up for lunch, grab a quick snack or dinner already prepared, or enjoy dinner with friends.
Waas implements a Spice Boundary to allow the nuances of their food and culture to shine. “People want to control every part of the process,” says Waas, “they want it the way they want it to be,” she adds. Waas thinks many people have a misconception that Indian food is always hot and spicy — “either it’s spicy or it’s not,” she says. At Cheeni, Waas plans to change that with educational talks and classes teaching people how to use spices at home.
“I think there’s going to be some confusion with Cheeni because people see Indian and have their idea of what Indian food is,” says Waas. It’s not the Indian food that most Americans grew up eating chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken and aloo gobi – although most of these recipes, when presented at buffets, are simplified because the recipes are very complicated and lengthy are time.
What’s menu is neatly categorized into Drinks, Tiffin, Lunch, and Dinner, helping people navigate the menu with explanations of each dish or drink. Aloo Chaat transports Waas to a crowded bazaar in Delhi. “The seller carried his entire ‘shop’ upside down and set it up in the same corner in Karol Bagh,” she says. “He was an integral part of my earliest memories and my whole life in India.”
The whole hariyali fish, rubbed with ginger paste, herbs and green chilies, and then skewered and cooked in the tandoor, is a dish Waas loves to share with the community. “This dish combines my seafood obsession with bright, sour, and herbal flavors that take me to the edge of my hometown — to the beach at Fisherman’s Cove Resort,” she says, “for personal reasons, it’s the best fish I remember.” The chicken kabob roll is something like India’s version of a sandwich (think tandoor-cooked chicken served on freshly baked naan with achaari mayonnaise and pickled red onions), while the keema pav is like a sloppy joe Indian style.
Waas says she will take the time to explain chaat to customers — or why the question of a “chai tea” asks for “tee tea” and that it’s simply “chai.” FYI: Their masala chai, made with hand-ground spices and tea steeped in creamy milk, is so popular that customers occasionally stop by canteens to stock up. Waas hopes to help people see things differently and change the mindset that all Indian food is cheap – and help people seek their “independence from the fad”.
As for the space, Waas spent months rummaging through antiques and dawdling. “I haven’t bought a single thing new,” she adds. “The shutters and arches were trawled through five different thrift stores over several months – it was a labor of love and creates the portal effect I love.” Waas has reupholstered banquettes with vintage fabrics and vintage photos of Indian street markets and portraits procured that look like they always belonged in the room. “The 200-year-old mirror above the vintage sofa in the café area makes me think of how many people have been reflected in it,” she adds.
At the end of the day, Waas hopes to share a piece of her India and looks forward to bringing something new to the Triangle’s ever-growing food scene.
The Cheeni Indian Food Emporium is located at 1141 Falls River Avenue, Ste. 124 and is open from Monday to Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Visit Instagram for updates and events.