The Sizzler: The California origin story behind one of India’s flashiest dishes

It’s a lot to take in. And as I take my first bite, I know I need to find out everything there is to know about this dish, its origins and how it finally found its way to this humble South Bay mall. The answer, I have discovered, is not so simple.

Each sizzler has a pasta or noodle base that’s topped with an assortment of grilled vegetables, shredded cabbage, and, sometimes, cheese. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A complicated origin story

Turns out sizzlers have been a staple in Mumbai for over 50 years. No one is quite sure how the dish was invented, but the most common origin story goes like this:

In the 1950s, a Californian icecream seller named Del Johnson traveled to New York and saw a steak served on a sizzling hot platter, according to Forbes Collins, Sizzler’s vice president of operations and informal in-house historian. Johnson was fascinated by the dish, and in 1958 he decided to open his own restaurant called the Sizzler Family Steak House in Culver City, California, where sizzling steak dishes were one of the signature dishes. “It’s back in a very small dining room,” Collins says. “There was sawdust on the floors and everything. I mean, it was a very small company.

In 1967, as the restaurant began to expand, Johnson sold it to a man named Jim Collins (no relation), who eventually turned Sizzler into the chain many Americans still know and love today. ‘hui – a casual, family-run restaurant known for its inexpensive steak, shrimp and all-you-can-eat salad bar.

Collins, the head of Sizzler, believes it was around this time that the company stopped selling its steaks on a sizzling platter. But before that, in the early 1960s, Indian businessman Firoz Irani ate at a Sizzler steakhouse in California and, like Johnson, was mesmerized by the sight of a sizzling hot dish crackling and smoking a coin. . As the story goes, Irani brought this concept back to Mumbai and invented his own over-the-top version, one that combined cosmopolitan ingredients like pasta and Mexican cheese with Indian paneer, samosas and spices like garam masala. or fenugreek. Thus was born the Indian sizzler.

That’s the schedule most sizzling restaurants in India seem to give, anyway. On the other hand, some Indian food writers claim that Irani Japanese wife played a role in the sizzler’s origin storyinspiring him to model the dish after teppanyaki. It is also true that the idea of ​​serving steaks and other ingredients on a hot cast iron plate has been popular with Western-style Steakhouses in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia from the 1960s.

Whatever his original inspiration, what is certain is that in the 1960s, Irani opened a restaurant called The Sizzler in Mumbai’s upscale Churchgate area, near the famous, now demolished, Excelsior Theatre. This restaurant is widely recognized as the birthplace of the sizzler.

An employee brings a sizzle of samosa to a table at the Milan Sweet Center.
Sizzlers are meant to be a ‘demonstration dish’, engaging all the senses with their loud crackling and billowing smoke. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The sizzle closed after a few years, but Irani’s son Sharookh soon opened two follow-up restaurants: Touche in Mumbai in 1967 and The Place, Touche the Sizzler in Pune in 1971. Both specialized in the sizzlers his father had invented. Soon after, restaurants all over India started including sizzlers in their menus. Two of the most famous sizzler chains, Yoko Sizzlers and Kobe Sizzlers, emerged in the late 1980s. With locations across India, Dubai, Qatar and Oman, they helped turn sizzle into an international sensation.

Even as the dish became more popular, it was considered a luxury food in its early days.

“This [was] not the kind of food you [would] have if you are normal middle class-it [was] very high end,” says my husband Shaishav, who ate his first sizzler in Mumbai as a pre-teen in the early 2000s.[My friend] had a birthday party and they had sectioned off part of the restaurant. His father had this DSLR camera. So for that time, he was obviously well off.

Since sizzlers were impossible to make at home without a cast iron tray, Indians had to eat them exclusively in high-end restaurants that could afford the proper cooking utensils. But when India’s middle class has begun to grow steadily in the 1990s and 2000s and more people could afford to eat in restaurants, the dish’s popularity really took off. These days, a typical sizzler costs around 300 to 500 rupeeswhich isn’t cheap, but is what you would pay for a good restaurant meal.

A Mumbai-style sizzler is as much an experience as a meal. In some ways, it’s more like several meals combined into one. A typical version consists of grilled vegetables or meat, finely chopped cabbage, and a variety of spicy sauces, all steamed on a hot cast iron tray. While the sizzlers I’ve tried at Milpitas incorporate Americanized ingredient combinations, the Indian sizzlers tend to lean towards Indochinese flavors, with lots of red chili peppers, soy sauce and ginger. Everything is done to melt into a harmonious bite, like a good plate of nachos or loaded fries.

Customers watch in delight as they prepare to eat their sizzle of samosa.
Swati Satija and her sister Hema Kumar watch the steam rise from a sizzle they ordered from the Milan Sweet Center. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Indrajit Lahiri, a food blogger based in Kolkata, remembers first seeing a sizzle in a restaurant and the “shosha”, or burst of the dish. “My dad used to take me to all these fancy places,” he says. “I’m sure it was commissioned by other people, and with all that shosha and visual appeal, I asked my dad, ‘What is this? I want one of those.'”

Lahiri says that a sizzler is “essentially a demonstration meal”: “It can engage multiple senses. The taste buds, the visual medium, the sensory medium, the sound – it’s all engaged, and that’s why we That is why it has become popular in India.

At the height of their popularity in the 90s and 2000s, sizzlers were the dish you ordered to impress your guests, a one-on-one dinner for when you wanted to show off. And even now, they remain a staple of Mumbai’s varied food scene. Today, sizzlers are sold all over India with varying flavors ranging from Mexican sizzlers (like a bowl of burrito served on a fajita platter) to samosa sizzlers to momo sizzlers (topped with Indo-Nepalese dumplings ).

The dish also lends itself well to the digital age of TikTok and Instagram, with its loud hissing, feverish smoke and colorful and sometimes confusing toppings. Search #sizzlers on Instagram and over 100,000 photos and videos appear.

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