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

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.

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 storyinspiring 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 last 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 across locations 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 rupeeswhich 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” meaning: “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.

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