And then you spot the Aldie Country Store, a rickety, paint-chipped, two-story house built in 1897. It has a giant smoker and beat-up picnic benches outside. A scrawny guy emerges from a stream of billowing barbecue smoke. Meet Varun Parti, barbecue guru extraordinaire.
“Roll down the windows of the car, and the smoke is enough to intoxicate and tempt you,” Parti, 36, says to nearly every customer who pulls up. “Parsley, oregano, thyme, olive oil — these herbs have to penetrate the ribs for 10 to 12 hours of marinating and three to four hours of steady cooking,” he sings out. “Batch by batch, we cook everything from scratch: riblets, chicken, pulled pork, beef brisket, homemade sides,” he continues. “You need only to taste it, and it will seal the deal.” Not that Parti has: He’s a Hindu vegetarian who has never sampled the barbecue he’s famous for.
What could be more American than barbecue, you ask? Buying it from a Hindu in the Virginia countryside.
“I was really surprised to see him cooking this kind of food,” says Aldie regular Brandon Liealzi, 25, a former Marine who’s now a beer deliveryman with an American flag on his starched blue-shorts-and-shirt uniform. “I said to my buddy, ‘You gotta try this.’ He ate some pulled pork and said, ‘I would marry him if I could, cooking like that.’ ”
On a recent Friday evening, Parti races between the cash register and the smoker, explaining that he learned the art of “slow and steady cookery” back home in India, where he graduated in 1998 from culinary school at the Shri Balasaheb Tirpude College of Hotel Management and Catering Technology in the central city of Nagpur. He took classes in making gravy and curries with “cumin, cilantro, coriander, ginger, crushed cashew and pumpkin,” which he says ended up “having the same essence” as American barbecue.
What is that essence? It’s one of the culinary world’s more divisive topics: a Memphis dry rub or a wet and tangy North Carolina vinegar-based barbecue sauce or a mustard-heavy South Carolina sauce? Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: In this increasingly diverse nation, even quintessentially American dishes have an international spin.
“Only in America,” chuckles Steven Raichlen, a Baltimore native and the author of 28 cookbooks including “The Barbecue! Bible.” “Then again, Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony while he was deaf. So if they’re instinctive cooks and have an idea of how spices play off one another in, say, paneer, then the flavor part can work. It’s conceivable.”
After Parti completed his training, he packed his bags and headed to Mumbai, the teeming seaside city where many ambitious young Indians go in hopes of making it big. Royal Caribbean Cruise lines recruited him as a line cook shortly thereafter, and he met Sue and Viresh Desai aboard ship. (They were searching for vegetarian options on the boat’s buffet table.) The Desai family — under the company name Sunshine Enterprises — manages six convenience stores in rural Virginia, including the one in Aldie, which in addition to barbecue sells everything from cowboy hats to bait to mouthwash.