There’s an episode of the TV show Schitt’s Creek that includes a joke about curry and related intestinal distress. The joke stands out, not only because I, along with billions of Indians and others, eat curry without a problem, but also because it’s out of date, by decades at least.
“Indian food when I was a kid was ‘diarrhea food,’ and now it’s ‘turmeric will save your life and align your chakra,’” says Priya Krishna, the Dallas-raised author of Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family.
The embrace of Ayurvedic dietary principles by the Western mainstream is well-documented, from haldi doodh (turmeric milk) rebranded as turmeric lattes to kitchari (rice and lentils stewed together) as a cure-all. Non-Indians seeking plant-based or gluten-free recipe options are finding inspiration in the centuries-old cuisine. With this resultant awareness of Indian cooking beyond the ubiquitous North Indian naan, chicken tikka and palak (sag) paneer, more and more food writers of Indian descent are focusing on the daily, regional cooking of the subcontinent and its diaspora.
Nik Sharma’s Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food landed with fanfare last fall, and is now up for a James Beard Award. In it Sharma, Mumbai-born and living in San Francisco, populates the American kitchen with influence of his homeland, continuing the contemporary momentum of Asha Gomez (My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen) and Meera Sodha, among others.
London-based Mallika Basu wrote Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living as an integral move in the dismantling of tropes. “There is still a giant Western stereotype that hangs over Indian food and cooking, and much of it follows on from the postcolonial views of our culture,” she says via e-mail.
“We must roast and grind all spices, make rotis and papad from scratch, learn how to cook from our mom and grandmom. I wanted to write a cookbook that reflected the practical realities of cooking Indian food today.”
That reality is a creative, resourceful rendering of the cuisine adapted to the availability of ingredients and the limits of time. Krishna makes kheer (rice pudding) with quinoa, for example, while Basu uses a blender to quickly blitz the marinade for murgh hariyali (chicken in a sauce of coriander and mint).
Krishna says Indian-ish came out of a piece she wrote for the defunct Lucky Peach magazine with her mother, Ritu. “Her recipes were so well-received that the editor approached me. It tells a modern American story and normalizes the Indian-American narrative.”
At first her mother, co-author of the book, did not see the draw for readers, as it was simply her everyday cooking, as common as any other home cooking.
“She was like, ‘Why will people care?’ It was unremarkable to her.” Krishna says. “… Mom does very quotidian things like putting chaat masala on her almond toast.”
Krishna also makes her pav bhaji on potato rolls or hamburger buns, calling the potato-cauliflower stew Indian Sloppy Joes.
“The -ish [of the book’s title] speaks to my identity, the fact that we put caramelized onions on dal, listen to the Kabhi Khushi soundtrack with Top 40, wear kurtas with jeans. I see myself as American first and foremost.… I’m tired of people trivializing the experience as less American,” Krishna says. “At first I didn’t want the title Indian-ish. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was how my family is defined.”
Basu travelled across India for her book, with the aim of counteracting cliché. “The commodification of Indian identities is nothing new; it is a byproduct of a long love affair of a wide cross-section of people with our nation. With tourism alone, we’ve had the Golden Triangle, the Bombay Goa Irani café set and now Kerala for yoga and dosa,” she says. “In many ways, our cuisine is the biggest antidote to this commodification. I like to say there is no such thing as Indian food, it is the food of India.”
But she is aware of the work to be done: “I think the bigger opportunity is for people of colour to not be afraid to challenge those age-old stereotypes, if they are no longer relevant or accurate. I have a proudly different story to tell and my cooking and recipes reflect my past as much as my present.“
Pav Bhaji on Potato Rolls
Ingredients (Serves 4)
For the bhaji (vegetables)
- 3/4 cup frozen or fresh cauliflower florets
- 1/2 cup frozen peas
- 2 medium russet potatoes, boiled and cooled
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander (freshly ground is best)
- 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder
- 2 large roma tomatoes, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 (or 2, if you like it spicy!) small Indian green chili or serrano chili, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more if needed
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (stems and leaves)
For the pav
- 8 hamburger buns (preferably Martin’s Potato Rolls or other potato rolls)
- Salted butter, for bun-buttering
- 1/2 medium red onion, finely diced
- Lime juice, plus wedges for serving
Make the bhaji (vegetables). In a small pot, combine the cauliflower, peas and 3 cups water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-high, cover and cook until the cauliflower is soft and fork-tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Thoroughly drain, then return the vegetables to the pot and use a potato masher or fork to lightly mash them (they should still be chunky, just more incorporated). Set aside.
Peel the potatoes, put them in a bowl and use the potato masher or a fork to mash them (don’t worry if there are still a few small lumps). Set aside.
In a medium pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, swirl in the turmeric. Add the coriander, red chili powder and tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes have started to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add 2 tablespoons water and the green chili, and simmer for about 4 minutes, using a spoon or spatula to mash the tomatoes into a chunky sauce as they cook.
Add the mashed potatoes, the cauliflower-pea mixture, the salt and 1/4 cup water. Increase the heat to medium-low and cook until the mixture starts to resemble a thick stew, 5 to 7 minutes. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if it’s looking too dry. Taste and adjust the salt if needed. Stir in the cilantro, turn off the heat and transfer the bhaji to a bowl. Wipe out the pan.
Make the pav. Split each bun in half and butter each side. Warm the pan you used for the bhaji over high heat and toast the buns in the pan, buttered-side down, until golden brown, about 1 minute.
Assemble the pav bhaji. Evenly portion the bhaji on each bun half (like an open-faced sandwich) and top each with a tablespoon of diced onion plus a generous squeeze of lime juice. Serve with the remaining onion and lime wedges alongside.
Recipe excerpted from Indian-ish © 2019 by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.