Fledgling food truck rolls out authentic Indian street cuisine

Roll OK Please founder Shama Joshi (center) flanked by helpers Seema Pai and Mani Singh. (Photo by Ana Sofia Knauf)

Love Indian food, but gotta eat on the run? Shama Joshi has you covered.

The software engineer turned food truck entrepreneur opened her truck, Roll OK Please, just last month and began slinging Kathi rolls, a grilled flatbread wrap that she fills with either marinated meat or grilled paneer, mint chutney and pickled onions.

Joshi ate the rolls growing up in the Mumbai-Pune region of Western India, but the street snack supposedly originated in Kolkata in Eastern India way back in the 1930s.

“It depends where in India you are from,” she said, explaining that the rolls are a regional food. “Some people haven’t even heard of a Kathi roll.”

Joshi made her debut as a food truck chef just last month after cold-calling a number of local businesses looking for a place to set up. Eventually, the owner of Ballard’s Shelter Lounge agreed to have Roll OK Please set up for three hours outside of the establishment. Packed into her food truck with a handful of friends and her 68-year-old mother who was visiting from India, Joshi served about 300 customers on her first day.

“The response came before we even opened — the response was immediate,” said Seema Pai, Joshi’s best friend who helps run the truck.

The idea to open a food truck came after Joshi, an avid cook and self-proclaimed foodie, made Kathi rolls for a dinner party at her home. Her friends gushed about how good her food tasted and not-so-subtly suggested that she turned her home cooking in a business.

After an outpouring of support from friends and family, who helped her slog through an assortment of licensing and permitting paperwork, Joshi decided to leave her 14 year job at Microsoft behind, and Roll OK Please was born.

She proudly explains how the truck’s odd name comes from the legacy of Indian food trucks during the World War II era. Back then, food vendors’ trucks ran partly on kerosene, making them extremely dangerous. In attempt to prevent explosive collisions, operators painted “Horn OK Please” onto their fenders to encourage honking by overtaking vehicles (the “OK” actually stood for “on kerosene”). The phrase stuck, even after the trucks became less flammable, and the decals are still popular with the street food community in India today.

Joshi says she wants to pay homage to that proud Indian food truck tradition by providing with flavorful, healthy street food options.

A chicken nanga bowl from Roll OK Please. (Photo by Chi Shen)
A chicken nanga bowl from Roll OK Please. (Photo by Chi Shen)

“Street food is so much a part of our culture that we don’t think of it as fast food. We think of it as even more flavorful… than what you can get in any restaurant,” said Pai. “Everything here starts from whole vegetables, whole milk, whole bags of wheat flour — everything!”

Pai isn’t joking when she says everything in their kitchen starts whole. Joshi and her team, which includes Pai and two summer student employees, prepare everything from scratch, right down to hand curdling and straining their paneer.

They hand-squeeze whole limes and roast whole cumin pods, which are later ground down to powder to be used in her rice pilaf for the Nanga bowls, which are akin to an Indian-style bibimbap. The flavor of the homemade spice mixes is much deeper and more distinct than anything that comes from a bottle, Joshi said.

She also hand rolls roti flatbread at the start of the day and freezes it to be taken on the truck. The rotis are later coated in an egg emulsion and cooked inside the food truck on a flat top grill.

“I think [feeding people] is an integral part of our culture as Indians,” said Joshi. “If people are going to be eating my food every day, I want it to be healthy.”

The truck, which rotates between spots in Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, often has lines running around the block. One key could be the pricing. A grilled paneer or marinated chicken Kathi roll runs about $6 or two for $10.

Exactly one month after launching, Joshi, a small woman bursting with energy, is still excited about her new business. Yes, she admits she struggles to carry 40-pound pots of paneer and yes, the traffic to South Lake Union can be awful — but she clearly loves what she is doing.

In fact, she already has plans to start bottling and selling her homemade chutneys and green chile Thecha sauce as part of the business.

“I’m a risk-taker and athlete, so maybe that has helped me with the physical and mental challenge,” Joshi said. “It’s not daunting for me.”

Roll OK Please typically operates from 11:30-2 p.m, rotating between South Lake Union, the Redmond Microsoft campus and Bellevue. For more scheduling details, check out their Facebook pageP.S. Joshi says they’re looking for cooks to work the lunch rush and to help in its kitchen in Renton. For more info, email her at honk@rollokplease.com

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