Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Silly notions about Indian food

Below, I'm excerpting a book review by Veena Parrikar, which recently appeared on my favorite food blog. Her discussion of Indian food in the US struck a chord. I have no idea why so many Indian restaurants in that country feature pink decor, hideous black sequinned tapestries that no restaurant would dare display in India, and most especially, food in which the chef has evidently lost all interest. If they just served the same roti-sabzi-dal-chaawal that the owners and chefs probably eat at home, their fare would probably be far superior to the indistinguishable slop they generally serve up under the banner of Punjabi. Anyhow, I'll let Veena Parrikar do the rest of the talking, since she does it so much better than I:

There are perhaps as many misconceptions about Indian cuisine as there are restaurants named “Bombay Garden”.

• Indian food is tandoori chicken, aloo-matar, saag-paneer, and naan.
• It is hot and spicy.
• Vegetables are cooked to death.
• It starts with frying onions and tomatoes to pulp and ends with a garnish of coriander leaves

One can hardly blame the Western and even some of the Eastern world for harboring these notions. Most Indian restaurants outside India serve the same tired old fare under various guises. The exceptions to these are the upscale “fusion-Indian” restaurants; after all, Indian food cannot be admitted into the Michelin club without a French or “contemporary” accent (pun intended). Over the past few years, South Indian restaurants have slowly gained ground and it is not uncommon to see a Chinese eating masala dosa with her bare hands or a middle-aged white guy slurping rasam at the neighborhood Madras Café or Udupi Palace in the USA. The silly notions about Indian food, however, are far from being a thing of the past. For example, the threat of homogenization, albeit of a different kind, hangs heavy like the odor of yesterday’s takeout. The complexity and variation among and within the cuisines of the four states of Southern India (Karnataka, Kerala, Tamilnadu, and Andhra Pradesh) could never be guessed if one were to go by the menus of these “South Indian” restaurants. Most of them do not stray far from the familiar idli, vada, masala dosa, uttappam, sambar and rasam, with an indifferent nod to some “rice varieties” such as curd rice, lemon rice and tamarind rice. Desserts are still “balls in sugar syrup” (gulab jamun), “ricotta cheese in evaporated milk” (rasmalai), or the occasional rava kesari, leaving in the cold a rich repertoire of jaggery-based sweets that is one of the hallmarks of the cuisines of Southern (and some other states of) India.

To be sure, even within India, availability of the authentic, traditional fare is limited to small niche restaurants, special “festivals” at star hotels, or if you are lucky, at the homes of neighbors and friends from other communities. Your best bet then, is to recreate many of these dishes in your kitchen...

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