1% of the US population is Indian and yet there is no Indian restaurant that serves authentic Indian food. Why? Some of you already callme the Samosa Nazi, because I refuse to eat a Samosa at a restaurant, simply because I know it’s not going to be as it should be. I very rarely order Chole Batura, for I do not like this iconic dish altered so it can “fit” into the western palette. Why does Indian food feel such a strong need to “fit” into? Why can’t Indian food recognize that it is brilliant as it is?
The most common answer to this Why is; well the vegetables don’t taste the same. You know the potatoes taste different, so how can the samosa taste the same? Really? And so started this blogpost, and the different ideas on why? Here’s what I think is happening, feel free to chime in and correct me.
Still local: Indian food is still very localized. Yes, there are Indian restaurants every where, but unless, the Indians become ubiquitous across the entire country, it’s going to be hard for the food to go mainstream.
Ethnic Cheap: Indian food is typically considered an “ethnic” food, but the prices are comparable to a foreign food restaurant. Foreign food to me is something that very few people would be willing to try, and again that will depend on the demographics. For instance, when Sushi entered Midwest it was foreign, but it has been mainstream in CA for a very long time. As foodies, we may pay a premium for something we consider foreign, but ethnic is typically a step below. Even as Indians ourselves, we scrunge at the thought of paying $20 for an Indian buffet. Why won’t others?
Penny wise pound foolish: Indian restaurants need to stop pinching pennies and do a better job with explaining the ingredients. Maybe spend some money of decor and serving ware too. Even the high end restaurants will charge you for pickles. Come on guys.. it’s time you started counting the dollars and stopped worrying about the pennies and let the pickles flow. In fact have a pickle bar, let your customers try out the mild and spicy tangy flavors. If they get hooked to these flavors it is more business in the long run.
It’s Hot n Spicy: Indian food is misunderstood. Yes, the mention of Indian food brings up images of the burn your mouth curries and sadly we Indians are to be blamed for that. The truth is India started using chilli peppers only after the Portuguese landed in Goa. Until then the Indians used black pepper and Pippali (now only used in pickles.) The truth is Indian food is infused with flavors and on individual preferences can include burn your mouth spiciness.
More than a curry: Curry is a generic term. Curry is essentially a gravy. Americanization of Indian food has resulted in a sad standardization. The truth is Chicken tikka masala and paneer masala do not have the same curry base, and if they do, please walk out of that restaurant. IMHO Chicken tikka masala is a much richer base, where as paneer masala can be made with a basic onion – tomato paste, ginger, a pinch of turmeric, a touch of garam masala and maybe some yogurt for the creaminess. Serve a home cooked paneer masala with hot off the press roti’s, a side of pickle and cucumber raita, you have a health low calorie meal fit to please the pickiest palette.
It’s rich and heavy: Again a sad translation to fit in. Indian home cooked meals are probably one of the lowest calorie intensive meals you can have. The rich, cream based gravies are a sign of desperation by the Indian restaurant owners to lure in the customers.This again stems from the myth that if one takes “chilli pepper” out, the flavors will go away, and so pour in the creams and clarified butter. Try replacing the chilli pepper with ginger, garlic, clove, cinnamon and cilantro. You won’t miss the chilli pepper guaranteed.
Did you see the movie, “The 100 foot journey” if yes, what was your take on it?
The movie does not do justice to its producers (Steven Spielberg or Oprah Winfrey,) it however does bring forth the point of “staying true to your roots.” Most people enjoyed it because it glorified Indian food, but I think it glorified the idea of staying honest with the spices It was not about Indian food or how spicy it is. Yes Indian food is hot, but it is sexy hot and not chilli pepper hot. That was my take on the movie. The movie very aptly showed how Hassan Kadam a home trained culinary genius became a sensation in the food world. Hassan was enjoying the glory and fame only to realize very quickly that commercialization and fusion was killing his creativity. He soon realized that the Michelin stars will come only when he stays true to his roots, so he comes back and opens his rackety old spice box to create magic.
Unlike many other cuisines where flavors are shared, Indian cuisine does not share flavors but rather each spice tantalizes the palette unlike any other cuisine. The effortlessly blending in all in while maintaining the distinct flavors is what makes the Indian cuisine unique.
Will Indian food become main stream? Yes, it can ONLY and ONLY if, the true authentic flavors of home cooked meals from the kitchens of Indian can be served in the restaurants. Just like human beings, honesty and authenticity is important in food too.
As Indians we often complaint about how India was dominated and enslaved for centuries. This slavery gave us the rich cuisine today. The Mughals brought in the tandoors and naans, the Europeans brought the the chills, potatoes and tea We embraced it all and made it our own. It’s time to embrace it again and stop customizing it to fit the western palette.