New York’s glorious diversity creates a literal melting pot of cuisines, from Jewish-Japanese and Mexican-Korean to Malaysian-French and Slovakian-Brooklynian. Now, in a stroke-of-genius new twist, the city’s fusion scene welcomes Ghost & Grits, a Smorgasburg pop-up that seamlessly blends Northeastern Indian with Tennessee BBQ. The extraordinary results are startlingly novel yet addictively familiar.
The story of Ghost & Grits begins in India’s rural Assam State countryside where chef Sonar Saikia grew up on his family’s farm. Though rich with biodiversity and filled with verdant, picturesque tea estates, the region is something of a hidden gem. It’s cuisine, likewise, is little-known yet distinct from the rest of India: it’s heavy on fresh, fermented and dried herbs, vegetables and fruits, and light on spices that are ubiquitous in other parts of the country. The Assamese do not skimp on the heat, however. Their land is the birthplace of bhut jolokia—ghost peppers—one of the hottest chilies in the world.
Sonar got acquainted with cooking at a young age when his mom would instruct him to watch the pot while she took a shower or tended to other orders of business. She also taught him how to pickle ghost peppers—a skill that would be essential later. “My mom’s cooking is amazing,” Sonar says. “Even though I’m professionally trained now, everything I make, she still makes so much better.”
Sonar likely would have stuck close to home, but his story took an unexpected turn when he met Elizabeth, a South Carolinian volunteering at a local nonprofit. Sonar spoiled her with home-cooked meals, and she delighted in his family’s incredible hospitality. In 2008, the two decided to marry and move to Knoxville, where Elizabeth’s family lived.
It was in Tennessee that Sonar fell in love for the second time and this time with Southern food. His mother-in-law introduced him to grits and other Southern comfort foods, but it was the meat that most impressed. “I’d heard of American barbecue before, but I didn’t know much,” Sonar recalls. “When I tried it, I just loved it. It was so totally new and different.”
Sonar had moved to the U.S. at the height of the recession, however, and aside from eating, occupational opportunities were scarce. So when a mutual friend decided to open a hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint and asked if Sonar would like to work there, he enthusiastically agreed.
He thrived in the kitchen—to the point that the family decided to move to Manhattan in 2011 so Sonar could enroll at the French Culinary Institute. He earned multiple awards, graduated at the top of his class and then continued his training in various Michelin-starred kitchens. Yet he also longed to introduce New York City to Assamese flavors—but in a way that simultaneously paid homage to his adoptive Tennessee home.
The answer was Ghost & Grits, which Sonar debuted this summer along with the help of a couple of friends at Smorgasburg Williamsburg.
Their current trio of menu items starts with a riff on grits. The dish’s usual luscious mix of cream, butter and cheese (Pecorino, in this case) is elevated with slight additions, including wisps of feathery-fresh mustard greens. But the real clincher is a few dabs of ghost pepper jam, homemade with peppers plucked from the Saikia family farm, which his mom hand-delivers when she visits (like champagne not made in Champagne, Sonar does not accept that ghost peppers not grown in Assam are genuine).
The grits pair well with a pulled pork sandwich unparalleled in its uniqueness. Traditional 12-hour slow-smoked pork gets an Assam makeover with Sonar’s “secret spice.” He tops the mound of meat with ghost pepper mayonnaise, mint chutney, preserved lemon and raita (a sort of Indian coleslaw). As odd as that combination may sound, it works astoundingly well, especially when washed down with Sonar’s smoked ice tea.
Business has steadily risen over the past weeks—a mix of Southern food lovers, BBQ devotees, Indian-Americans and expats, plus those just looking for something delicious. As Sonar says, “I don’t have a big line yet, but every time someone comes and eats my food and says it’s the best thing they’ve eaten in a while—well, that’s my goal.”