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The Sizzler: The California Origin Story Behind One of India’s Flashiest Dishes

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An employee holds out a samosa sizzler, billowing with smoke, on a pink tray.
An employee holds out a samosa sizzler at Milan Sweet Center. The Milpitas restaurant is one of a handful of places in the Bay Area that specializes in the Mumbai-style dish. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

O

n a random Sunday afternoon in February, my husband announced we would be going to the South Bay to eat Indian sizzlers for dinner. 

I was puzzled as to what that could mean. Was a “sizzler” some kind of fajita—maybe one made with Indian masalas and spices? Was it somehow related to the Sizzler steakhouse chain? 

I should clarify that my husband Shaishav and I are both Indian, but while he recently immigrated from Mumbai, I was born and raised here in the United States. I knew there would be gaps between our shared cultural understanding, but I never thought Indian food would be unfamiliar territory, especially from a dish with a Western-sounding name. And Shaishav wouldn’t give me a straight answer. “You’ll have to just wait and see what it is,” he kept telling me.

We made our way down 101 toward the Santa Clara County suburb of Milpitas. In the heart of that city, nestled in a strip mall of traditional Indian clothing stores and threading salons sits Milan Sweet Center. Much more than just a sweets shop, the humble restaurant has a loyal following for its jalebis and wide selection of Jain vegetarian dishes. It’s also one of the few places in the Bay Area where you can get a wide variety of Indian sizzlers. 

A father and daughter hold hands as they browse the display of sweets at Milan Sweet Center in Milpitas.
In addition to its sizzlers, Milan Sweet Center has a large following for its jalebis and other Indian sweets. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

About ten minutes after we put in our order, I hear a loud hiss and crackle, and there’s so much smoke coming off the dish coming out from the kitchen that I can barely see what it is. The sizzler looks like a plate of loaded french fries, except much more complicated. At its base, I see rotini and penne pasta mixed in a bright red sauce, like penne alla vodka, but mixed with grilled onions, bell peppers and paneer. On top of that sits two large samosas, green chutney, thinly sliced cabbage and carrots and shredded cheese. It’s all served on a sizzling hot platter in the shape of Nandi, a Hindu sacred cow. 

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It’s a lot to take in. And as I take my first bite, I know I need to find out everything there is to know about this dish—about its origins and how it eventually found a home in this unassuming South Bay strip mall. The answer, I discovered, is not so simple.

Steam rises from the Hawaiian crispy sizzler, which features Chinese-style noodles, onions and other assorted vegetables.s
Each sizzler has a base of pasta or noodles that gets topped with assorted grilled vegetables, shredded cabbage and, sometimes, cheese. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A Complicated Origin Story

As it turns out, sizzlers have been a staple in Mumbai for more than 50 years. No one is quite sure how the dish was invented, but the most common origin story goes something like this: 

In the 1950s, a Californian ice cream salesman named Del Johnson visited New York City and saw steak served on a sizzling hot platter, according to Forbes Collins, Sizzler’s vice president of operations and informal in-house historian. Johnson was fascinated by the dish, and in 1958 he decided to open up his own restaurant called Sizzler Family Steak House in Culver City, California, where sizzling steak platters were one of the signature items. “This is back in a very small dining room,” Collins says. “There was sawdust on the floors and everything. I mean, it was a really small business.” 

In 1967, as the restaurant started to expand, Johnson sold it to a man named Jim Collins (no relation), who eventually turned Sizzler into the chain that many Americans still know and love today—a casual, family-friendly restaurant known for its inexpensive steak, shrimp and all-you-can-eat salad bar. 

Collins, the Sizzler executive, believes it was around this time that the business stopped selling its steaks on a sizzling platter. But before that, in the early 1960s, Indian businessman Firoz Irani ate at a Sizzler steakhouse in California and, like Johnson, became entranced by the showiness of a sizzling hot platter sputtering and smoking up a room. As the story goes, Irani took that concept back to Mumbai and invented his own over-the-top version—one that combined cosmopolitan ingredients like pasta and Mexican cheese with Indian paneer, samosas and spices like garam masala or fenugreek. Thus was born the Indian sizzler. 

That’s the timeline that most sizzler restaurants in India seem to give, anyway. On the other hand, some Indian food writers claim that Irani’s Japanese wife played a part in the sizzler’s origin story, inspiring him to model the dish after teppanyaki. It’s also true that the idea of serving steaks and other ingredients on a sizzling-hot cast iron plate has been popular at Western-style steakhouses in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia since as early as the 1960s. 

Whatever his original inspiration was, what’s certain is that sometime in the ’60s, Irani opened a restaurant called The Sizzler in the fancy neighborhood of Churchgate in Mumbai, near the famous but now demolished Excelsior Theater. That restaurant is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of the sizzler.

An employee brings a samosa sizzler out to a table at Milan Sweet Center.
Sizzlers are meant to be a “show-off dish,” engaging all of the senses with their loud crackling and billowing smoke. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Sizzler closed after a few years, but Irani’s son Sharookh soon opened two follow-up restaurants: Touche in Mumbai in 1967 and The Place, Touche the Sizzler in Pune in 1971. Both specialized in the sizzlers his father had invented. Before long, restaurants throughout India started including sizzlers on their menus. Two of the most famous sizzler chains, Yoko Sizzlers and Kobe Sizzlers, emerged in the late 1980s. With locations across India, Dubai, Qatar and Oman, they’ve helped turn the sizzler into an international sensation.

Even as the dish became more popular, it was considered a luxury food item in its early days. 

“It [was] not the kind of food you [would] have if you’re normal middle class—it [was] very upscale,” explains my husband Shaishav, who ate his first sizzler in Mumbai as a preteen in the early 2000s. “[My friend] had a birthday party and they had sectioned off part of the restaurant. His dad had this DSLR camera. So for that time, he was obviously well off.”

Since sizzlers were impossible to make at home without a cast-iron platter, Indians had to eat them exclusively in upscale restaurants that could afford the proper cookware. But when India’s middle class started growing steadily in the 1990s and 2000s and more people could afford to eat in restaurants, the dish’s popularity really took off. These days, a typical sizzler costs about 300 to 500 rupees, which isn’t inexpensive, but is in line with what you’d pay for any nice restaurant meal. 

A Mumbai-style sizzler is as much an experience as it is a meal. In some ways, it’s more like multiple meals combined into one. A typical version consists of grilled vegetables or meat, finely chopped cabbage and a variety of spicy sauces—all steaming on top of a hot cast iron platter. While the sizzlers I tried in Milpitas incorporate Americanized ingredient combinations, sizzlers in India tend to lean toward Indo-Chinese flavors, with lots of red chilies, soy sauce and ginger. Everything is meant to melt together into one harmonious bite, in the same way as a good plate of nachos or loaded fries. 

Customers look on with delight as they prepare to eat their samosa sizzler.
Swati Satija and her sister Hema Kumar watch as steam rises from a sizzler that they ordered at Milan Sweet Center. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Indrajit Lahiri, a food blogger based in Kolkata, remembers first seeing a sizzler at a restaurant and the “shosha,” or showiness of the dish. “My father used to take me to all these fancy joints,” he says. “I’m sure it was ordered by other people, and with all that shosha and visual appeal, I asked my father, ‘What is this? I want one of those.’” 

Lahiri says a sizzler is “basically a show-off” meal: “It can engage multiple senses. The taste buds, the visual medium, the sensory medium, the sound—all of these are engaged, and that’s why we like it. That’s why it’s been popular in India.”

At the peak of their popularity, in the ‘90s and 2000s, sizzlers were the dish you would order to impress guests, a date night dinner for when you wanted to show off. And even now they remain a vital part of Mumbai’s varied food scene. Today, sizzlers are sold across India with wide-ranging flavors from Mexican sizzlers (like a burrito bowl served on a fajita platter) to samosa sizzlers to momo sizzlers (topped with Indian-Nepalese dumplings). 

The dish also lends itself well to the digital age of TikTok and Instagram, with its loud hissing, feverish smoke and colorful and sometimes confusing toppings. Search #sizzlers on Instagram and more than 100,000 photos and videos pop up.

 

The Sizzler Comes Back to California

In piecing together the sizzler’s history, I started to understand why I had never heard of it. Indian immigrants who settled in the United States in the ’80s and ’90s, like my parents, uncles and aunts did, wouldn’t have known about the sizzler because it was just becoming popular when they left India. But now, sizzler restaurants have also begun to open in parts of the U.S. where many recent Indian immigrants live, like in New Jersey, Dallas and the Bay Area

Sanjay Patel, the owner of Milan Sweet Center, grew up in the restaurant industry. His father, Mukund Patel, had run a restaurant in Leicester, England, where Sanjay was born and raised. Patel grew up in the family restaurant, munching on the fresh, hot samosas, gulab jamuns and assorted nashta (snack foods). Eventually, he went to culinary school, and in the mid-1990s, saw an opportunity in the burgeoning Silicon Valley. He opened his restaurant in Milpitas in 1996, choosing an apt location between a few Hindu temples. 

Colorful sweets fill the counter at Milan Sweet Center.
On weekends, many customers come to Milan Sweet Center for a dessert or a vegetarian meal after attending one of the nearby Hindu temples. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We all get together on the weekends at the temple, and there was a golden opportunity that from the temple, people would come here,” says Patel. “This location is purely vegetarian.” 

Named after the Hindi word for “gathering,” Milan originally served traditional Gujarati food, like daal, chole and freshly made rotis, to cater to the recent immigrants missing home-cooked food. But by the late 1990s, Indians had already been immigrating to the United States, opening businesses and restaurants, and raising their families in cities like Milpitas for well over a decade. Patel wanted to create something different for this next generation of customers. 

“When we were kids and we used to go to India, my mum and dad would make a point of ordering us a sizzler, and it was an awesome thing,” he recalls. 

Why not create a version of that dish here in the South Bay? He decided to use the ingredients already available in the kitchen, fusing those flavors with American ideas of fancy eating. 

“Indian people love ketchup on everything that they eat, but you can definitely use those same flavor profiles and put them in a different way into a sauce that works,” Patel says. “I kind of broke down what a ketchup is and started finding different ways of creating a ketchup without it being a ketchup.”

What Patel eventually came up with was a tangy cream sauce that he likens to a vodka sauce or a creamy marinara—though Indian customers will probably find it also reminds them of butter chicken or the makhani sauce that’s often served with paneer. The sauce is specific to the sizzlers at Milan Sweet Center; other sizzler restaurants have their own special sauces. Patel likes mixing it with pasta, grilled bell peppers and onions, with thinly sliced cabbage to provide an element of crunch and shredded cheese to tie the whole thing together. 

A smiling Indian family waits for a smoke-billowing sizzler to cool down before they can eat it.
Swati Satija (left), her sister Hema Kumar and son Aarit, 6, wait for the sizzler they ordered to cool down. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For his samosa sizzler (my favorite), Patel found that cilantro chutney provided a nice, eye-catching color. For his Manchurian sizzler, he pairs Indo-Chinese vegetarian cutlets with Chinese noodles instead of Italian pasta. He kept experimenting until the flavor profiles were just right. 

Now, Patel says he’s still waiting for the restaurant to return to how busy it was before the pandemic hit, when packed lines trailed outside the small restaurant and he had multiple corporate catering accounts throughout the South Bay. His father, Mukund, died during the first wave of COVID. Patel says the restaurant has been different ever since, but he still wants to continue the family business. 

A generation of the family that will oversee it. They may not directly make the sizzler or be hands on with it, but they’ll still be part of it,” he says. “Every corner of Milan is my father. They were the ones—my mom, my dad, my grandmother—that built it from the one unit to what Milan is today.”

Back in February when I ate my first sizzler, I was overwhelmed by the experience. It was jarring to see so many familiar ingredients combined together in such an unexpected way—elements of my Indian heritage, like paneer and samosas, mixed in with Western foods, like pasta and shredded cheese, that I ate while assimilating to American culture. In that way, the sizzler is the story of the Indian diaspora. It’s not so different from the creative fusion foods that my immigrant family invented in our own kitchen: macaroni and cheese seasoned with the spice blend from the Maggi noodles packet, or grilled paneer tacos, or gulab jamun cheesecake for Thanksgiving.

We were trying to carve our own shape into the American dream and ended up creating something new—something between the two cultures that made adopting our new home a little more familiar, sweeter even. 

I’ll admit it took me a few moments just to figure out how to strategically get all of the seemingly disparate components of the sizzler onto one forkful. But once I tasted the way the tangy tomato cream sauce mixed with the chewiness of the pasta, the crunch of the samosa and the deep charred flavor that anything cooked on burning-hot cast iron gets, I was content. Somehow, it all tasted just right. 

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Milan Sweet Center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 8pm at 296 S Abel Street in Milpitas.

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