Chef and baker Preeti Waas is not new to the Raleigh scene — but chances are, many may have missed out on the first location of her shop Cheeni, previously situated inside two YMCA locations in downtown Raleigh. Inspired by India’s corner shops, Cheeni offered snacks and teas, drawing in a mix of locals in the know, seeking her popular masala chai, cookies, and chili cheese toast — and fitness junkies looking for a post-workout smoothie (an addition she added to the menu to cater to the demographic).
While a success, the YMCA locations weren’t Waas’ full vision Cheeni. Luckily the pandemic allowed her to find a bigger space in North Raleigh, allowing her to turn Cheeni Indian Food Emporium into a reality — an all-day cafe with retail space selling books and spices and a demonstration kitchen where Waas will host interactive cooking classes and dinners, as well as guest chefs. “Cheeni is like a Swiss Army knife,” she explains — it has many different moving parts and elements.
To call Cheeni a restaurant would be inaccurate. It is a portal into Waas’ world: a mix of her upbringing in South India and American culture via food and drink — and a space allowing customers to explore at leisure, whether popping in for a morning chai, getting lost in a cozy corner with a book, fueling up for lunch, grabbing a quick snack or already-prepared dinner, or enjoying dinner out with friends.
Waas is implementing a spice boundary to allow the nuances of her food and culture to shine. “People want to control every part of the process,” Waas says, “They want it the way they think it should be,” she adds. Waas thinks many people have a misconception about Indian food always being spicy and hot — “it’s either spicy or it isn’t,” she says. At Cheeni, Waas plans to change this with educational conversations and classes teaching people how to use spices at home.
“I do believe there’s going to be some confusion at Cheeni because people see Indian and they have their perception of what Indian food is,” Waas says. It isn’t the Indian food most Americans grew up eating a la buffet-style with chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, and aloo gobi — noting most of these recipes, when presented at buffets, are simplified because the recipes are very intricate and take time.
Waas’ menu is neatly categorized into beverages, tiffin, lunch, and dinner, helping people navigate the menu with explanations of each dish or drink. Aloo chaat transports Waas to a crowded bazaar in Delhi, “The vendor would carry his entire ‘shop’ on his head and set up in the same corner in Karol Bagh,” she says, “He was a staple from my earliest memories and my entire life in India.”
The hariyali whole fish, rubbed with ginger paste, herbs, and green chilies, and then skewered and cooked in the tandoor, is a dish Waas is most excited to share with the community. “This dish combines my obsession with seafood with bright, acidic, and herb-heavy flavors that put me on the outskirts of my hometown — on the beach at the Fisherman’s Cove resort,” she says, “For personal reasons, it is the best fish in my memory.” The chicken kabob roll is kind of like India’s version of a sandwich (think tandoor-cooked chicken served on freshly baked naan with achaari mayo and pickled red onions) while the keema pav is like an Indian-style sloppy joe.
Waas says she will take the time to explain chaat to customers — or why asking for a “chai tea” is asking for “tea tea” and that it’s simply “chai.” FYI: her masala chai, made with hand-ground spices and tea, steeped in creamy milk, is so popular that on occasion, customers bring in canteens to stock up. Waas hopes to help people see things differently and to change the mindset that all Indian food is cheap — and help people seek their “independence from blandness.”
As for the space, Waas spent months scouring antiques and thrifting. “I didn’t buy a single thing new,” she adds. “The shutters and arches were scoured from five different thrift shops, over several months — those were a true labor of love, and create the portal effect, which I love.” Waas re-covered banquets with vintage fabrics and sourced vintage photos of Indian street markets and portraits, which look as if they have always belonged in the space. “The 200-year-old mirror above the vintage sofa in the cafe area makes me think of how many people may have peered at their reflection in it,” she adds.
At the end of the day, Waas hopes to share a slice of her India and is excited to bring something new to the Triangle’s ever-growing food scene.
Cheeni Indian Food Emporium is located at 1141 Falls River Avenue, Ste. 124, and is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Check out Instagram for updates and events.