25 September, 2022, 23:48

Jimmy Aujla’s culinary experience, care & style shine at Indian Twist

"I watched by learning and doing."

In Sikhism, the term “seva” is used to describe the highest act of faith. It means doing work without the expectation of reward. This is where Jimmy Aujla’s story with food begins.

His culinary training can be traced back to his days volunteering at a Sikh temple in the Odisha city of Bhubaneswar when he was 12 years old.

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

“I watched by learning and doing,” said Aujla as he made his way through his restaurant Indian Twist, checking in first with his bartender, interacting with a few customers, and finally stepping up to the line alongside his kitchen staff.

In its plainest form, social prejudice throughout Indian culture is displayed in the taboo of sharing a meal with those outside of one’s caste group.

To rebuke this act of class separation, the Sikhs hold a gathering, called “langar,” which presents opposite ideals. During langar, everyone -— no matter their religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, or financial status — is welcomed inside to enjoy a large meal prepared by volunteers.

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

Upon stepping through temple doors and into a gurdwara, you will find a mass of people sitting on the floor and feasting from the same pots of food. It is a place where a beggar will sit side-by-side with a doctor, and perform the most basic of human activities: eating.

All dishes served during langar must be vegetarian, too. Foods commonly served are daal (lentil soup), roti (bread), sabji (curried vegetables), and rice.

By observing and mirroring elders of the temple, Aujla’s life philosophy was molded as his culinary skills were sharpened.

“The thing with Indian food is it’s not something that just anybody can cook,” said Aujla. “The flavor changes with different hands.”

Jimmy’s Restaurant Tour of America

With a solid foundation of kitchen basics from his time as a volunteer, Aujla headed to Seattle where his brother owned a restaurant. By 1996, he was navigating his way through the 300-seat establishment of the former Maharaja, a longtime Seattle Indian favorite, which he now describes as having been “way too big.”

He later took up residency in Beaverton, Oregon to help operate Taj Palace before heading to Palm Springs, California to operate more food establishments.

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

“The key to running any restaurant, anywhere, is to be mindful of the experience of every person that walks through the door,” said Aujla. “Some people won’t even care about how good the food is if the experience is bad.”

Finally, with his wife, Kim, and two children in tow, he left Palm Springs and made his way to the Old Pueblo in 2014.

“It was just time for a change,” said Aujla. “I had a feeling that Tucson was going to get big, and fast.”

Indian Twist Takes Over

The Aujla family didn’t immediately jump into owning a restaurant when they stepped into the Tucson scene. It took four years and pestering from his kids before Aujla finally took the dive and began discussions with Joshua and Arik Mussman of JAM Culinary Concepts, and Suzanne Kaiser.

“I came to Tucson in 2014 and I tried all sorts of Indian restaurants,” said Aujla. “Their food wasn’t even close to my food. I started my search and I actually came here to eat when it was Twisted Tandoor.”

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

Recognizing his passion for food, the restaurant group took — as Aujla describes — a “mentorship” role in creating the concept for Indian Twist. Their experience in operating Tucson restaurants, including Vero Amore and Noble Hops, gave them the knowledge to share and advise on the marketing strategy of Aujla’s new venture.

With the Camp Lowell and Swan Road location of Twisted Tandoor heading into closure, the fates aligned and a space became available.

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

Moving into a facility that previously served Indian food certainly had its benefits. Its interior, which boasts an impressive display of varying light fixtures overhead, gives an air of eastern mystery and glamour, fitting for its new owner. The seating nearest to the bar mimics the experience of communal eating with wide-set benches and cylindrical pillows used for separation.

Most importantly, the kitchen came equipped with features that would ensure authentic Indian cooking, including a tandoor oven.

On The Menu

Jokingly asking a member of his kitchen staff to step aside because the photographer had taken “enough pictures” of her, Aujla rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He first took a rolling pin and rolled out the dough made of flour, milk, salt, and oil seasoned with caraway and onion seeds. Once the dough reached its desired thickness and can be pulled without ripping, it was ready for the tandoor oven.

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

With its constant 700-degree temperature, the tandoor oven is the ideal environment for high-temperature cooking. The prepared dough is slapped against the wall of the cylindrical oven until it begins bubbling into blisters and visibly charring.

Once ready, the bread is pulled away from the wall with the use of long metal skewers and lifted to a flat surface to be buttered. It is then seasoned and/or stuffed with a filling in accordance with the customer’s order.

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

Savory filling choices include paneer, chicken, lamb, or onion (aloo). For those with a sweet tooth, a naan with nuts, cherries, and shredded coconut is also available. The pillowy flatbread is finally piled into a wire basket and brought to the table to be eaten by itself or as an accompaniment to Twist’s selection of entrees.

Most popular on the list are Chicken Tikka Masala, Mango Chicken, and Butter Chicken. Each dish’s level of heat can be adjusted between mild, medium, and spicy to cater to different palates.

The dish he describes as being the most flavorful is the Achari Lamb, or Pickle Lamb. Using a wide variety of spices including coriander, tikka mirchi, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, caraway seeds, and ajwain seeds, this popular main course does not shy away from the flavor.

Indian Twist

Photo by Isaac Stockton

The key to getting the most flavor? Pan roast the spices and ground them up, of course.

“The first thing I ask a guest,” said Aujla, “is ‘what is your favorite food?’ It gives me an idea of what I have to offer from my menu. We don’t have any dishes pre-made and everything’s made to order. That is why they come.”

Sevas Continued

On the night of our first encounter, Aujla was having a conversation with a woman and her teenage son. They were putting together plans for a small 16th birthday dinner at Indian Twist. As typical, he was fashioned in a burgundy suit paired with a crisp white button-up and brown loafers.

“I know he really likes the lamb. I’ll make him the lamb,” Aujla said to her. “Just tell me what time you’ll be there and it’ll be ready for you.”

Hundreds of thousands of miles away from his home in India, Aujla continues to maintain his commitment to sevas by welcoming all types of people to enjoy Indian cuisine.

With a smile on his face and neverending humorous quips to share, his customer-turned-friends continually return to not only enjoy a meal, but also the company of the chef. And if you’re not quite sure how to spot Aujla when you first enter Indian Twist, just look for the best-dressed man in the room with a Bluetooth piece in his ear — that’s Jimmy.

Indian Twist is located on the corner of Camp Lowell and Swan Road at 4660 E. Camp Lowell Dr. For more menu information and hours of operation, visit indiantwistaz.com.

Kim Johnston is an Arizona-raised lover of food and the great indoors.