Curry on desis, an Indian food revolution is long overdue in the US

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An American self-proclaimed humourist—the old fashioned among us may use the term ‘joker’—claimed last weekend in his column that India has “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice”. As he also mentioned in the same column that old bay seasoning “tastes like dandruff from corpses mixed with rust from around the toilet fixtures at a New Jersey rest stop”, his tastes clearly run to the unusual if not downright odd.

In 2019, a comment by an American academic that ‘Indian food is terrible even if we pretend it isn’t” got him over 15,300 responses—more than any of his professorial pronouncements. By June 2021 his statement had even garnered him a free meal from a rather famous Indian-origin New York attorney. That was when the proselytising flavours of a lamb biryani at that meal apparently converted the sceptic professor into an Indian cuisine-lover.

In October 2020, a British historian idly posted on Twitter that he found idlies to be the most boring food in the world. Predictably, Indians—including a parliamentarian with a predilection for pedantic prose—got all steamed up about it. Indeed, like mustard seeds, urad dal and curry leaves hitting hot oil, we Indians sputter and splutter every time foreigners deliberately add tadka to their bland existence by making derogatory references to our food.

Instead, Indians need to display a yogic calm and allow ourselves only the slightest of pitying smiles at the ignorance of the Smugly Americans. After all, their country gave the world spam (the mystery meat as well as unwanted mail), spray cheese, deep-fried candy bars and root beer. And only in the US is chop suey a bright red macaroni-and-meat-sauce dish rather than anything remotely Chinese, and biscuits are a kind of bread.

The British are less prone to ill-informed criticisms as their colonial exploits introduced them to Indian flavours and they also had the benefit—if it can be called that—of local ‘curry houses’ run by Muslim east Bengali migrants. These so-called Indian eateries dished out meats in orangey-red swill with varying degrees of chilli-heat, codenamed vindaloo, korma and madras that became a part of the weekly British dine-out or takeaway schedule.

By the late 20th century, Britain saw the evolution of local subcontinental Indian cuisine such as ‘balti’, which has as much to do with the cuisine of Baltistan as Gobi Manchurian has to the food of a region in north-eastern Chins. Local chefs even invented much-loved Britindian concoctions like chicken tikka masala, just as desi preferences led to the creation of Chindian staples such as Gobi Manchurian and Honey Chilli Paneer. America was a different story.

Thanks to distance and discriminatory early 20th century immigration laws that allowed only whites to settle, US exposure to Indian cuisine was stymied for several crucial decades—after an initial efflorescence at the end of the 19th century. In 1899 a smooth-talking Indian immigrant improbably named ‘Ranji Smile’ (the latter probably an anglicisation of Ismail!) was lured away from the Savoy in London to cook up a storm at Sherry’s in Manhattan.

His “Chicken Madras”, “Indian Bhagi Topur” and “Muskee Sind” reportedly enticed as many palates as his good looks won female hearts across the US. However, his reinvention as a bigamous Indian ‘prince’ put paid to any long-lasting culinary influence. A few years later, though, modest eateries dishing out ‘curry’ to homesick south Asian immigrant dockland and factory workers did appear in New York, the oldest being the Ceylon India Inn.

The west coast was another matter. In the early 20th century, some 2,000 Punjabi migrant agriculture workers (all male) lived in California, of which 30 percent married (or re-married) Hispanic women as miscegenation laws decreed people can only marry within their race: in this case, “brown”. And the Mexican wives soon learnt to cook ‘Punjabi’ food, based on descriptions from their husbands, and were also familiar with ‘Indian spices’ such as cumin and coriander.

Given the natural synergy between Mexican staples and Indian ones—parathas/quesadillas, rajma/chili, kachumber/salsa and corn tortillas/makki roti —it was a culinary match made in heaven. Perhaps those race laws were also why this unique combination cuisine did not spread the way Tex-Mex did in the later decades of the 20th century. Otherwise the robust flavours of Mexjabi or Punjican food would surely have made a name for itself in US.

In April 1921—exactly a century ago!—even a New York Times columnist mentioned an Indian eatery, probably the re-opened Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant. “Grave Indian gentlemen with American clothes but with great turbans on their heads used to come in for their curry and rice,” she wrote.  
Sadly, in 2021 another American columnist—albeit a joker— still thinks Indian cuisine is only curry and rice, and a single spice. But the fault also lies with India.

As India’s economy opened up in the 1990s, restaurateurs and chefs looked to expand abroad. But it was simply not enough to treat Americans to the exquisite creations of hugely talented Indian expat chefs in tony restaurants on the east and west coasts. How many Americans would want to spend $100 on a cuisine they had little idea of in the first place? Food trucks only began to take Indian food flavours to the average American relatively recently.

The fact is, had there been as many Udupi and tandoori outlets in the US today as there are burger and pizza joints in India, Americans would not have remained so obviously ignorant when it comes to desi khana. Of course, restaurants serving Indian—particularly vegetarian—dishes have been around for a while in big US cities, but they remained the preserve of homesick desis and their descendants for most of the middle decades of the 20th century.

But having exported thousands of techies to the US particularly over the past 40 years, there was no excuse to let US palates continue to stay untutored in classic Indian flavours. By now most Americans should have become as conversant with the many different kinds of dosai and vadas as they are with coffee permutations on a Starbucks menu and become as addicted to thayir-saadam and bisibele bhaat as to their hominy grits, meatloaf and macaroni-cheese.

A humorist with admittedly weird tastes—necrotic dandruff and toilet rust—is unlikely to appreciate any cuisine at all, let alone India’s diverse flavours. So we can safely leave him to sate his tastebuds with the esoteric flavours lurking in the nooks and crannies of his world rather than try to educate him on the finer points of cuisine. But for the benefit of the rest of America, it is time Indians get those Udupis and Kake da Dhabas up and running for a start.

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