April 16, 2024


World's finest Food

At Nani’s, home cooking informs restaurant fare

Before most people open a restaurant, ample competitor research is conducted. Visits to restaurants of the same cuisine are usually considered square one in determining what food to offer, how to price it and how to make it different from similar dining spots.

But not for Nafeesa Koslik, who simply computed yields on her home recipe book to turn the family food she had made for decades into restaurant quantities before opening Nani’s Indian Kitchen last fall. The restaurant is located at 256 Milton Ave. in Ballston Spa.

Koslik arrived in the Capital Region from India during the blizzard of 1993 with her four younger siblings in tow. Her mother was already living locally, and her father would soon join the family. She recalled traveling to New Jersey every three months to purchase spices from Indian grocery stores so that she could continue making the food of her native Hyderabad, a city in southern India. Over time, she said, more Indian restaurants and markets appeared upstate — but the menus all became similar, catering to the naive and intimidated palates of American eaters. Such food was never something Koslik was interested in eating.

“I don’t eat Indian food outside because I make it at home. I don’t want to spend money on something I can make better at home,” she explained. Cooking has been a lifelong endeavor for Koslik, who began cooking as a young girl as a way of assisting her mother. When Koslik was 8 and her mother returned home from the hospital with the family’s youngest child, Koslik immediately took to the kitchen to ensure her family would be fed.

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“I would just start helping,” Koslik said. Her first dish was fried fish, cooked over a kerosene stove in her family’s small apartment. Her mother dictated the recipe as she cared for the other children.

The rich Mughlai cuisine of south Indian, so named for the influence of the Mughal rule over India that brought rich spices, nuts and dried fruits into common cooking practices, peppered the family’s home meals and was the basis of Koslik’s understanding of food. The family traveled throughout India thanks to her father’s advertising job, which prompted moves around the subcontinent every three to five years. Koslik gathered influences from other Indian regions to inform her recipe repertoire.

Those influences appear on the menu for Nani’s, a business endeavor sprung from the COVID-19 pandemic. Koslik lost her career as a quality assurance manager with Hilton Worldwide due to the pandemic, and the idea of a restaurant had been percolating in her mind for some time before.

“I’ve never not worked since I was 16 years old,” she said. She explored renting a commercial kitchen space for catering and to sell the recipes she makes for friends and family at farmers markets, but the Milton Avenue space that she currently rents begged to be a restaurant.

“I kind of fell into opening a restaurant,” Koslik said. The support of local municipal groups and neighbors bolstered her confidence. She opened Nani’s Indian Kitchen, for takeout only, on Black Friday last November.

“I think my food is different because I cook it like I’m cooking for the family. I want to make it feel like you are eating at your grandmother’s kitchen,” Koslik said, adding that “nani” means “grandmother” across Indian culture. Elements of a family kitchen nestle into every aspect of her menu and restaurant. Koslik’s family members help in the restaurant — her husband and their three children, whose ages range from 25 to 15, make regular appearances in the kitchen and takeout counter — and give advice regarding restaurant life. They should know: Koslik’s parents own Taj Mahal restaurant in Schenectady, and her younger sister, Aneesa Waheed, is the owner and chef for the three Tara Kitchen restaurants in the area.

“Nafeesa is the best cook in the family,” Waheed said. “She should have always been the one to open a restaurant.”

Biryani, a signature rice and meat dish for Nani’s Indian Kitchen, is a traditional one-pot meal that Koslik’s busy mother often made for the family. The Mughlai influence of biryani from southern India means a rich sauce with piquant spices elevates the recipe beyond a simple rice preparation. Her homeland influence also appears in the pan-toasted whole spices that are ground for vegetable korma and baigan bharta, a roasted eggplant dish that features tamarind, a tart fruit common in Mughlai cuisine but native to Africa. Malai kofta, a regional specialty of potato and cheese dumplings simmered in a tomato and cream curry, was recently added to the Nani’s menu.

The latter two items are frequent orders for Bridget McGivern of Troy, who said the dishes bring fond memories. McGivern attended an MBA program with Koslik, who often brought these dishes to study groups or social events to share a piece of her heritage and home life.

“Being invited to her house is a treat. Nani’s has that feeling that you’re bellied up to her kitchen table. She knows the folks that are coming in, and she has intentionally created a place that feels homey. Her goal was just to make people feel like they are at home,” McGivern said.

Koslik is known to sneak little snacks into takeout orders, including a free mango lassi for young customers, a move she said her husband frowns upon but one that embodies hospitality.

“I want people to leave with more food than they came to get. It’s not just a business transaction for me,” she said.

When she married her husband, in 1996, she also married his American food traditions. She was a quick study in the cuisine, as she and her siblings had been exposed to classic lunchroom food through a free school lunch program. While she has no plans to lose the Mughlai influence of her menu, she plans to contort common American food concepts to suit her Indian flavors.

“Indian food has never trended off like Chinese or Mexican food. People are still afraid to try it,” Koslik said. “Chicken tikka masala is so popular, but it’s not even an Indian dish.” She has designed a weekend brunch menu that incorporates East-meets-West items and is planning to offer her take on tacos and hamburgers, reimagined as Indian street foods.

Those items will appear this spring, as in-house dining opens on May 4 and weekend brunch begins the following weekend, for Mother’s Day. Koslik’s journey to the kitchen has bridged from home to restaurant, perhaps inevitably, but the soul of the food has not been muted by the transition to commercialized cooking.

“Food brings people together,” she said. In Nani’s Indian Kitchen, togetherness is the primary ingredient for everything served.

Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. www.foxonfood.com @DeannaNFox