In Virginia countryside, a Hindu takes on role of barbecue guru
By Emily Wax,
You’re out for a summer drive on a rolling stretch of rural highway in Loudoun County. You pass the gourmet grocery store selling strawberry salsa and pickled peaches, the roadside workshop with five styles of Amish porch swings and an endless selection of birdhouses out front.
You suddenly smell the rich zing of barbecued ribs and chicken.
And then you spot the Aldie Country Store, a rickety, paint-chipped, two-story house built in 1897. It has a giant smoker and beat-up picnic benches outside. A scrawny guy emerges from a stream of billowing barbecue smoke. Meet Varun Parti, barbecue guru extraordinaire.
“Roll down the windows of the car, and the smoke is enough to intoxicate and tempt you,” Parti, 36, says to nearly every customer who pulls up. “Parsley, oregano, thyme, olive oil — these herbs have to penetrate the ribs for 10 to 12 hours of marinating and three to four hours of steady cooking,” he sings out. “Batch by batch, we cook everything from scratch: riblets, chicken, pulled pork, beef brisket, homemade sides,” he continues. “You need only to taste it, and it will seal the deal.” Not that Parti has: He’s a Hindu vegetarian who has never sampled the barbecue he’s famous for.
What could be more American than barbecue, you ask? Buying it from a Hindu in the Virginia countryside.
“I was really surprised to see him cooking this kind of food,” says Aldie regular Brandon Liealzi, 25, a former Marine who’s now a beer deliveryman with an American flag on his starched blue-shorts-and-shirt uniform. “I said to my buddy, ‘You gotta try this.’ He ate some pulled pork and said, ‘I would marry him if I could, cooking like that.’ ”
On a recent Friday evening, Parti races between the cash register and the smoker, explaining that he learned the art of “slow and steady cookery” back home in India, where he graduated in 1998 from culinary school at the Shri Balasaheb Tirpude College of Hotel Management and Catering Technology in the central city of Nagpur. He took classes in making gravy and curries with “cumin, cilantro, coriander, ginger, crushed cashew and pumpkin,” which he says ended up “having the same essence” as American barbecue.
What is that essence? It’s one of the culinary world’s more divisive topics: a Memphis dry rub or a wet and tangy North Carolina vinegar-based barbecue sauce or a mustard-heavy South Carolina sauce? Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: In this increasingly diverse nation, even quintessentially American dishes have an international spin.
“Only in America,” chuckles Steven Raichlen, a Baltimore native and the author of 28 cookbooks including “The Barbecue! Bible.” “Then again, Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony while he was deaf. So if they’re instinctive cooks and have an idea of how spices play off one another in, say, paneer, then the flavor part can work. It’s conceivable.”
After Parti completed his training, he packed his bags and headed to Mumbai, the teeming seaside city where many ambitious young Indians go in hopes of making it big. Royal Caribbean Cruise lines recruited him as a line cook shortly thereafter, and he met Sue and Viresh Desai aboard ship. (They were searching for vegetarian options on the boat’s buffet table.) The Desai family — under the company name Sunshine Enterprises — manages six convenience stores in rural Virginia, including the one in Aldie, which in addition to barbecue sells everything from cowboy hats to bait to mouthwash.
“I see this small little guy running around and asking my husband if we can bring him to America,” recalls Sue Desai. “Because he had a culinary degree, we were able to eventually secure him a work permit.”
When Sue Desai was 14, she came to the United States from the Indian state of Gujarat, where Hindus are known to be more observant — and therefore devout vegetarians. The “very first time I saw someone eat pork ribs with two hands in America, my mouth dropped,” she says. “I had no idea people ate that.” But when her family took over the Aldie Country Store in 2006, she learned the craft of barbecue from books she checked out of the library. (She tastes the sauces and dry rubs, sans the meat, she says.) She also tested her cooking on customers, and she trained Parti.
Raichlen, who hosts “Primal Grill” on PBS, sees the Indian duo as another chapter in America’s ever-expanding food narrative. “The curious twist here is that you have an immigrant team that’s not only adding their flavors to our melting pot, but then taking an iconic American dish like barbecue and making it their own,” Raichlen says.
Maybe, he surmises, “it has something to do with the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and a young one at that, built on hundreds of different nationalities and cultures.”
The Aldie Country Store has weathered many iterations. Murrel Partlow, 83, was born in the apartment over the store in 1928. He still owns the house and leases it to the Desais’ Sunshine Enterprises. Back in the 1950s, it was an “old country grocery store and butcher shop,” where Partlow cut beef and pork.
Partlow, whose ancestor fought in the Civil War, sees the store’s evolution as a natural outcome of the surge of development in this historic patch of Virginia, where the Metro’s new Silver Line was recently approved and the population just keeps growing. How does he feel about Indians running it? “I reckon they’re all right,” he says. “Sue can cook some ribs.”
These days, Parti lives above the store with his wife, Jonia Suri, 30, who’s also from India and has a master’s degree in literature. They met after her mother spotted Parti’s matrimonial advertisements in the Hindustan Times:
“Fair and handsome chef with hospitality degree. Green card in process.” (Parti has an H-1B temporary work visa, but the Desais’ company has applied for a green card and Parti hopes to become an American citizen.)
“I didn’t know about any of this barbecue stuff,” Suri says, cradling Varjun, their 2-week-old son, in an apartment that is lined with quotes from people such as Alabama-born motivational speaker Zig Ziglar and best-selling Indian author Chetan Bhagat. “I just thought he has amazing energy and is kind.”
So when Varjun is old enough, will he chow down on ribs with a dry rub?
“Probably not,” Parti says. “But maybe he will own, with your blessing, a small chain of barbecue stores.”