Varli Food Festival, Hosted by Padma Lakshmi, is Sheer Epicurean Ecstasy

Second annual Varli Food Festival in New York is sheer epicurean ecstasy. (Photo: Varli Food Festival)

Second annual Varli Food Festival in New York is sheer epicurean ecstasy. (Photo: Varli Food Festival)

Sheer epicurean ecstasy. That’s the only way I can describe the state of bliss I transcended into during the second annual Varli Food Festival in New York this week.

More than 60 restaurants and chefs from around the world turned a massive event space into a moveable feast, serving up Indian food that went far beyond the watery saag paneer standards many are accustomed to ordering from the local takeout joint.

Hosted by Top Chef beauty Padma Lakshmi and Indian TV star chef Sanjeev Kapoor (founder of India’s new FoodFood network), the festival sought to spotlight the efforts of a global range of Indian culinary elite. Present were Vikas Khanna of New York’s Michelin-starred Junoon, Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti and Mehtaphor, Vikram Vij of Vancouver’s legendary Vij’s, Vermillion’s Maneet Chauhan of Iron Chef fame, Ajay Chopra of the Westin Mumbai, and scores of others, serving up signature dishes and inventive new experiments alike.

I was just at Junoon a few weeks ago and was thoroughly impressed by everything from the food to the presentation to the décor, so it came as no surprise that Khanna’s teams offerings—including a rhubarb lassi that won me over, despite my long-standing lassi aversion—were among my favorites. Junoon’s culinary creative director Aliya LeeKong, a gorgeous chef of Pakistani and East African descent with classical French training, found guests to be incredibly receptive to their innovative riffs on Indian cuisine: “People are finding the flavors so true for Indian food, with such a modern presentation, they’re surprised,” she said, as her station served up bite-size lotus-root appetizers served three ways. “It’s amazing to be part of anything that promotes Indian cuisine.”

The cuisine at hand ran the gamut from traditional—Hyderabadi biryani from Thali; chicken tikka rolls from Brick Lane—to fusion—malai tikka ravioli from Chand Palace; cardamom cheesecake bites from AMR Catering. DJ Sharad played a mix of American and desi tunes, and the proceedings were jazzed up with cooking demos by various chefs every hour. One of the highlights of the evening was the Varli Spice Market, where visitors were able to “shop” to their hearts content, scoring free rice, masalas, juices, and even fresh vegetables.

Celebrity chef Jehangir Mehta hosted the festival last year, and I found him navigating the warren of dessert stands, scoping the array of mango meringue tarts and masala spice cupcakes. “I’m happy it’s getting larger and larger,” he told me of this year’s turnout. “It’s great getting everyone under one bracket.”

When hostess Padma Lakshmi graced the stage, she talked about how thrilled she was to look out and see the “sea of brown faces.” But the faces were far more colorful than that—the evening showcased not only the diversity of Indian cuisine, but the diversity of its fans as well.

Sarah Khan is an editor at Travel + Leisure. Read more of her essays at