Hailing from Swanville, Minnesota, and of Scandinavian and Polish stock, Janene Holig is not anybody’s initial idea of an Indian chef. In fact, in 2013 when she tried out for the position of head chef for the soon-to-be-launched Hot Indian Foods, the cuisine of India was an almost-complete blank for her.
“I’d never worked with it,” she recalls. “The most Indian I had eaten was balti food when I lived in England.”
So before her tryout with Hot Indian Foods owner Amol Dixit, she did what any culinary self-starter would do: she embarked on a crash course.
“I went to the library and started reading and reading and reading about Indian food and getting the basics,” she says. I knew the depth of flavors, but I also knew there were things I wouldn’t know how to procure. I’m very stubborn and I do like the work.”
For most people, this work would be overwhelming. The phrase “Indian food” includes so many cultures, traditions, and places that the harmless-sounding words conceal a kaleidoscope of complexity. The tandoori chicken of the Punjab is as different from the dosas of southern India as a Maine lobster boil is from the adovada tacos of the desert Southwest. Perhaps even more so—throw in language and religious differences, and a Maine lobster boil compared to Indonesian fried noodles might be a better analogy.
Holig didn’t let the size of the job stop her.
Wilderness Hunts and Bacon Dispensers
Holig may not have come into Hot Indian Foods with a rich database of southeast Asian culinary knowledge, but she did have something nearly as useful: an ability to build recipes and dishes up from scratch ingredients. She got her start in her teens, cooking up burgers and pizza at her parents’ bar but quickly graduated to cheffing at Autumn Antlers, a Long Prairie–based hunting resort that serves up hunts for animals including elk, whitetail deer, and bison.
“The hospitality thing was always core. I would step behind the bar when they got back from the hunt and make all their meals and snacks,” Holig says. “My creativity—what I could do—was endless because of the high cost they were paying for all-inclusive.”
“When the hunters were out, I’d lay out big strips of bacon from Thielen [Meats], because we’re right next door to them,” she recalls. “I’d flavor it differently, cook it, and cool it, and then those little straw holders that popped up, I’d fill those up with bacon. So the hunters would come in and go to the bar and pull out their favorite bottle of Scotch and then they’d have their bacon.”
The unusual set-up at the lodge put Holig in close proximity with her customers, a relationship she’s tried to maintain throughout her career. “I became really connected to cooking and being with the consumer, face-to-face,” she says. “I really enjoyed that connection, seeing people enjoy the food and how it made them feel.”
A food-intensive trip to China (“I’m an extrovert so I have no problem weaseling my way into people’s kitchens—‘I’m a cook! Can I look, can I look?’” ) and an academic culinary trip to Orvieto, Italy, helped Holig find her voice as a chef.
And a stint at the farm-to-table mainstay Wise Acre Eatery gave her experience sorting and breaking down produce and meat straight from a farm; it was while at Wise Acre that Holig’s mentor Beth Fisher got the fateful email from Amol Dixit seeking a chef for what would become Hot Indian Foods.
The Spice at the Heart of It All
Two books prepared Holig for her tryout with Dixit: “India: A Journey for Food Lovers,” and “The Food & Cooking of India.”
“I found Little India on Central Avenue, and Pooja [Grocers] and just walked around and just looked at stuff,” she recalls. “Then I started buying stuff—fenugreek leaves, curry leaves, different flours, different rices. I came home and it was a matter of understanding the flavors and how they went together.”
“I would take black cardamom and boil some in water and taste the water. Then I’d take black cardamom and green cardamom and boil it and taste it. Then I would toast them, and add them to a new pot of water. I remember the first time I used a fresh curry leaf—it really blew things open for me. It was the smell and the taste of so many things I’ve tried but I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s such a unique green smell.”
The spices, Holig recalls, sent her on a journey to marry those foundational flavors with the needs of Hot Indian Foods’ future customers—people who were eating in a hurry, who might be rushing to or from a meeting, who wanted deep flavors in accessible formats.
A Miniature Empire of Flavor
Many Hot Indian Foods fans think of visiting the chain’s Midtown Global Market location for a roti bread–wrapped Indurrito, or grabbing an order of Indi Frites at the group’s vividly painted food truck. What many don’t realize is that Hot Indian Foods is a local group with six different outlets: Midtown, the truck, the Minneapolis Skyway, the Mall of America, Target Field, and Allianz Field. All of the outlets have one thing in common: they’re selling deeply spiced and sometimes hot foods and chutneys to a general population famous for its dislike of anything strong or spicy. “We are stationed in Minnesota and we’re educating one of the hardest subsets,” says Holig. “But if we can do this in Minnesota, we may have a lot more success as we move elsewhere in Middle America. It’s about targeting the people who want it.”
Cultivating that skill in turn, she says, may pave the way for Hot Indian Foods to move beyond the state’s borders and take the chain’s accessible Indian dishes out to the greater Midwest, a goal that’s on the company’s medium-term radar.
‘I Want It So Bad’
Dixit launched the Hot Indian Foods brand with a passion for popularizing Indian flavors without diluting them and a background in marketing for General Mills, but no real hands-on food experience. So when doing her initial culinary tryout for Dixit and his wife in their home in 2013, Holig remembers that her goals were twofold: presenting adaptations of Indian classics that could be embraced by the general public, but also preserving the flavors at the heart of those recipes.
“I remember on the way over listening to the song, The Gourds’ ‘I Want it So Bad,’” recalls Holig. “It’s pretty upbeat and as loud as it could go in my car, it was my little pep talk to myself. And when it comes on I still think about that day, driving over. That day was really The Day.”
“When I went over to his house, I was in my whites. I’d made everything at home, so I was bringing over a steam table with a couple items, and I was reheating a couple items while we spoke. I believe I brought some yogurt rice with mustard seeds in it, and what is now our frites I brought in the form of half-moon potatoes. […] I brought three different curry styles. There was a nut-paste lamb, I had done a drier chicken, and a veggie dish which might have been the spinach paneer.
“We ate and had a great time and discussed a bunch of things. His wife at the end had said, ‘I don’t think we need to interview these other chefs. I think you’re the one.’ And he was like: ‘You can’t say that!’ It was super casual with us, but we got along right away.”
Holig was offered the job from Dixit by email just after arriving in Manila for a three-week trip to the Philippines with her mother: “We were walking off the plane and I was verklempt, and I was saying, ‘This is amazing! I’ve got three weeks, nothing’s expected of me, and when I get back I get to jump into this.’”
A Bold Dish in a Beautiful Package
Beyond what Holig does at Hot Indian Foods’ many outlets (plus the occasional State Fair appearance), she manages to do the odd special event and teaches occasional classes at Kitchen in the Market. Holig’s stuffed trout recipe (see below) is one that she taught last month at Chef Camp, a camping and live fire cooking event that I co-host alongside attorney (and gourmand) Dave Friedman.
“We talked about all the things you can do in banana leaves. This pack of banana leaves, I told them, is a dollar seven,” she says. “It’s fun and it adds this earthy grassiness. It’s used a bunch in Indian weddings, you put a hunk of whitefish in there, but why not use trout?”
“We used onions and unripe green mango, so it was a little sour,” she says. “We used mint, cilantro, garlic—a lot of aromatics in there, a lot of herbs, lime juice, and grated coconut to mellow it out and make it a little more delicate. Serranos for a little heat.”
It’s a recipe, Holig says, that is tolerant of tinkering and personalization. “When [campers] were mixing up the paste for the inside of the fish, they’d ask: ‘Is this done?’ I don’t know, is it done? Does it look good, do the flavors meld? It doesn’t have to be meticulous. What do you think? Do you want it in a paste, or a little chunky so you can pick it off like a topping? When they lined up the fish, everybody’s packet was tied differently and I love that.”
“We tied it up with a little pepper on the outside, and with the trout it takes up so much of its surroundings that it’s beautiful on the banana leaf. You can cook it at home—you kind of get it as is and it’s an impressive dish with very little work.”
Recipe for Patra Ni Macchi (Fish in Banana Leaf)
4 whole cleaned trout
Young banana leaves (frozen)
1 yellow onion, small, diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon sugar
3 ounces grated coconut
1 jalapeño or serrano chili, seeded and chopped (more or less for heat preference)
¼ cup of cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon mint leaves
2 garlic cloves, chopped
½ green unripe mango, diced
2 tablespoons lime juice, or juice from one lime
- Wash fish fillets, pat dry, lay open and salt and pepper insides. Cut banana leaves into rectangles for each fish, big enough to cover completely (as with wrapping paper). Soften banana leaves by dipping them into very hot water or quickly passing them over an open flame on the stove.
- Put cumin, sugar, coconut, onion, chili, cilantro, mint, garlic, and green mango into a food processor and blend until combined. The mixture should hold together; stop grinding before it’s a fine paste.
- Place banana leaf rectangle on work surface. Lay trout open center of banana leaf. Spread filling liberally inside of trout. Squeeze some lime juice over the filling and fish, close fish. Place the stuffed trout in the center of banana leaf and wrap like a parcel to close all ends, tie firmly with kitchen string.
- Place parcels directly on a medium heat grill or fire for 5 minutes, turn over and cook another 5 minutes. Leaves will darken as they cook but the inside will be safe and steamy. Place parcels on a plate, snip string to open. Use a fork to pull the fish from the bones and skin, eat with the filling!
Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.