Spotlight on Chefs: Meet Punjabi By Nature’s Rajiv Chopra

New Delhi native Rajiv Chopra opened Punjabi By Nature in Lansdowne Town Center three years ago with a goal of bringing authentic northern Indian cuisine to Loudoun. The Lansdowne location is Chopra’s second restaurant, after getting his start in Northern Virginia with a successful bakery and restaurant in the Lotte Plaza food court in Chantilly.

With a third Punjabi By Nature now open in Vienna, his latest venture, the upscale Bombay Velvet, is scheduled to open in Reston Town Center in November, Chopra is on a mission to give locals (and non-locals) of South Asian descent the authentic cuisine they’re looking for, while also introducing non-Indians to his notable signature dishes. Last fall, Punjabi By Nature was featured in USA Today’slist of top authentic Indian restaurants across the U.S. with a spotlight on Chopra’s breads, wraps and egg rolls.
Chopra sat down with Loudoun Now to talk about what makes north Indian cuisine unique, his love of Loudoun and having young adult children with career goals outside the restaurant industry.

Rajiv Chopra working on a fresh, from-scratch creation behind the grill at his Punjabi By Nature restaurant in Lansdowne Town Center.

Loudoun Now: What does authentic mean to you?

Rajiv Chopra: I’m from north India near the capital New Delhi. I had a restaurant there and worked 15 years in the restaurant industry there. … I have customers coming every week from Richmond and Baltimore—at least 15 or 20 families. We sell one product that is very famous called Choley Bhature. It’s a special chickpea [dish] with a deep fried puffed bread. … It’s a street food kind of thing in New Delhi. People come from New York and the West Coast for this dish.

LN: How is Punjabi cuisine different from other Indian food?

RC: The food is totally different from southern India. Southern Indian food is idli (steamed lentil rice cakes) and dosa (lentil and rice crepe) made with rice and lentils. Punjabi food is Mughlai food, with chicken, cream and heavier bases [influenced by] the Mughal people from Persia.

LN: You mentioned the Choley. What are some of your other signature dishes?

RC:Chicken dishes like Chaalbaaz Tange (marinated chicken legs) and Tava Chicken Taka Tak (chicken cooked in a traditional Indian frying pan with onions and tomatoes), Paneer Tikka Masala (cheese in curry sauce) and Chicken Tikka Masala.

LN: Tell me about your background.

RC:I come from the food industry. My family had a sweets store back in India, a 70-year-old family shop with a bakery and a restaurant. I’m a foodie guy. In every restaurant, I go inside the kitchen and talk with the chefs. … I learned a lot from my mom but also from some celebrity chefs in India.

LN: What brought you to Northern Virginia and what made you want to open your own restaurant?

RC:We had opened a bakery [in Chantilly] and one day I was craving a grilled chicken and I called my wife and asked where could I find it. She said, “You know you can’t find any good chicken like that.” The very next day, I opened a restaurant in our bakery. At first it was just for myself, but then we started selling, and we did very well. … My plan is to open 10 to 15 locations in this area. We’re going more toward branding Punjabi By Nature.

LN: The South Asian community in Loudoun is growing. What does that mean for your business?

RC:75 percent of our customers are Indian. You know if 70 to 80 percent of customers are from back home, it’s authentic. … But American people love Indian food. I want to bring in more Americans so they can know more about what real Indian food is. My new restaurant in Reston Town Center is Bombay Velvet. It’s very, very upscale. The chefs are American and the staff is American. I’m training them in Indian food as per my style.

LN: What made you choose Loudoun for your home?

RC:I was living in Fairfax for nine or 10 years. We’ve been in One Loudoun for the last four years. It’s the houses, the atmosphere. Loudoun is the top county in America.

LN: Are your children involved in the restaurants?

RC: My son is doing aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech. He had an internship with NASA last year and this year with SpaceX. … My daughter just graduated from William and Mary and is working in a law firm in DC and training for the LSAT. … I told my son one day, “Hey, I’m opening 15 restaurants for you.” He said, “I can do whatever you say, but my interest is aerospace engineering.” I said, “Do whatever you like—that’s more important in your life. … If you want to come back it’s all yours.”

LN: If someone wants to learn how to cook Indian food, where should they start?

RC: [Laughing] They can come into the restaurant and I’ll help them. There’s also a lot on YouTube now. … Indian food is not fast cooking. It has to be slow cooking. If you go to other restaurants, food comes in five or seven minutes. If you come to my restaurant, it comes in 15 or 20 minutes. Everything I make in my restaurant, I make fresh from scratch. …You have to be patient.

Punjabi By Nature is located at 19405 Promenade Drive in Lansdowne. Check out the menu at punjabibynature.us.

Rajiv Chopra’s signature Choley Bhature dish, featuring Delhi-style spiced chickpeas, pickled onions and puffed deep fried bread draws fans from around the region and beyond.
[Courtesy of Punjabi By Nature]

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