PAVING THE WAY FOR VEGETARIAN STREET FOOD IN THE SOUTHEAST
Words by Grace Cope
Photos by Rupa Kapoor
Usha Modi, fondly known as “Mrs. Modi” by her customers, is the charming, high-spirited owner of the first vegetarian Indian restaurant in the Southeast: Indian Delights. Her family refers to her as “a disruptor to the industry.” Usha has all the beautiful, powerful qualities that make her an original badass—she is a first generation Indian and a female entrepreneur with a spark like no other. This is not only visible through her cooking, but also because of who she is—strong, sassy and steadfast. She created a brand that went beyond the food, and she did it naturally.
Indian Delights opened its doors in 1989, and it became one of the most sought after vegetarian restaurants in the Southeast. Usha introduced Indian ‘street food’ to Atlanta at a time when finding good vegetarian restaurants of any kind was a challenge. The menu included classic Indian dishes like Masala Dosa, Samosa Chaat, Pani Puri, Spinach Pakora, Mango Lassi, and so much more. Some of these dishes were on the few traditional, white table cloth Indian restaurant appetizer menus at the time, but with their veg-friendly street-food style and casual atmosphere, Indian Delights stood out from the rest.
In the Southeast, especially in the 1980s, vegetarian food tended to be bland and basic. Usha added spice and love and care to everything she did, and people took notice. Creative Loafing, a local weekly newspaper, published a raving review only weeks after the opening, closing the article by urging their readers to “Run, don’t walk.” And that they did—there was a line out the door for an hour that entire weekend!
Though Usha decided to close the restaurant in 2002, many locals even today remember the taste of her unique, mouth-watering dishes. Her granddaughter tells a story of working at a local Atlanta art gallery years ago and overhearing a conversation about an Indian restaurant they missed and how the owner was this amazing, kind woman. She turned and asked them who they were talking about. They replied, “Her name was Mrs. Modi, she owned Indian Delights.” This was over 10 years after the restaurant had closed—Indian Delights had clearly left an impression on the local scene.
Before Usha was running a successful business serving delicious, homemade Indian food, she lived in Ankleshwar, Gujarat, India. Growing up as a tomboy, Usha never expected to own her own restaurant one day. Further, she wasn’t even allowed to spend time in the kitchen because it was such a small space. Instead, her childhood was filled with climbing trees and playing with her five siblings. Cooking was not even something that crossed her mind.
When she grew older, she began considering college. Traditionally, families would first pay for the boys to attend college and then the girls. As the second youngest daughter, Usha began tutoring students to make money for school, and after an extensive amount of hard work and dedication, she was able to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Language Studies and became a school teacher. She spoke a variety of Indian languages—Hindi, Marathi and Punjabi just to include a few—and she also learned English throughout her schooling.
She and her husband, Harshad Modi, were neighbors growing up, and they met each other through mutual friendships. Most people their age were having arranged marriages; very few married for love. They, however, were an exception. Harshad recounts that they used to see each other all the time and a good friendship developed, but both knew it was more. Years later, as the strong, steadfast woman she is, Usha took the reins and asked him to marry her! Not the traditional thing to do, especially at the time, but clearly, she is not a traditional woman. Harshad told us laughingly that he didn’t think it was love because she asked him if he was going to be an engineer with a “real” job, and if so, she’d be interested. She knew her value, and evidently he did, too, because 56 years later, they are still happily married.
It was not until after she was married that she began thinking about cooking. Usha did not know how to cook in the slightest. She could not even make chai––the Indian equivalent of a boiled egg.
To begin learning, Usha asked her friends how they made certain dishes. She would ask even if she already knew the recipe, just to create new and unique versions that were better. When she came up with a recipe that was her own, she would have Harshad test it. “Some worked great, but some did not,” said Harshad. Undeterred, Usha would get back to it and make a few more versions. She was determined.
This trial and error steered Usha into becoming an excellent chef.
Harshad and Usha’s life in India came to a close when the couple decided to make a huge change: they moved to the United States in 1970 and settled in Baltimore, Maryland while Usha raised their two girls, learned how to drive, and learned “American” English. Harshad worked as a Civil Engineer and attended University of Maryland where he received his second Master’s degree. After a couple of busy years—moving around, having their third daughter, and finding a job amidst the recession—in 1980 they ended up settling in Atlanta, Georgia.
There, it was Usha’s homemade samosas that became the catalyst for her career. For two years, she ran a small, side-hustle business that supplied Indian grocery stores with homemade samosas. Every Friday, after coming home after working a full time job, she would immediately begin making samosas.
This business grew to where they were delivering hundreds of samosas to local stores and catering events. Before she was able to hire employees, her eldest daughter, Rupa, helped her deliver the food. “I used to drive trays and trays of the samosas to local stores all weekend long, all through high school, and my car and me would [reek] of fried samosas for days,” writes Rupa in her blog, “Woman Redefined.” All the while, Usha saved her money with the intent of opening her own restaurant.
With Usha’s talent and dedication, along with their mutual decision to refinance their home for this dream, the couple opened Indian Delights in August of 1989.
While the restaurant was opening, Harshad was still a full-time manager of an engineering firm. For a while, he was doubling as an advisor to Usha while continuing his work as an engineer. Eventually, due to the success of Indian Delights, he decided to leave his full-time job to help Usha with financial and legal matters. He likes to joke that he was “forced” into participating in the restaurant.
Indian Delights began to grow in popularity as the first vegetarian Indian restaurant in the Southeast. The restaurant was the first known concept of Indian street food in the Southeast, and it prompted others to take notice. Within a few years, dupes began opening, but it wasn’t just the food that made Indian Delights such a success. Usha, with her energetic and compassionate personality, was the heart of the restaurant. The customers, particularly regulars, grew to love Usha just as much as her food.
Usha’s favorite part of the restaurant was pleasing people. She memorized certain customers’ schedules and orders, making sure to have their food ready before they even set foot inside. She was often seen on the floor of the restaurant offering samples of new dishes for customers to taste. This personable interaction between Usha and her customers made her restaurant unlike any other––she treated her customers like family. Many of them lovingly referred to her as a tiny force to be reckoned with, and she owned that title proudly.
“She was her business, and everyone was drawn to it like a magnet!” Rupa wrote in her blog.
In 1998, Usha’s health declined due to a major heart surgery followed by a stroke. Though they tried to push on for a few years, it became apparent Indian Delights would not be the same without the fearless, spirited, and charming Usha Modi.
Four years later the restaurant closed, but Usha’s legacy lives on as the brave and talented woman who made history in not only Atlanta, but in food culture across the Southeast.