American Masala: 125 new classics from my home kitchen
by Suvir Saran with Raquel Pelzel
Clarkson Potter, 2007
As with many doctors, my maternal grandfather neglected his own health and died young, not long into his posting as a doctor to the new Indian high commission in London. Sita Pasricha, my resourceful grandmother, resolutely decided to stay on. She used her basement flat to house ‘paying guests’, mainly young Indian women who had come to study or work in London. She teamed up with her friend Attia Hosain, the novelist, and wrote a cookbook titled Cooking the Indian Way, published in 1962. Recently re-reading the preface, I could almost hear her no-nonsense voice: “There is no substitute for the sense of taste.” The book was written for “housewives abroad” who wanted to cook Indian food but did not have access to the markets of Southasia. The recipes are simple and straightforward: from gobi aloo to spiced brain with spinach.
I used to have a photocopy of the book, since it has been out of print after Lalvani Publishing House let it lapse in 1970. A few years ago, however, my sister found a few copies on the Internet. I treasure the one that I received. It sits on my shelf next to Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973) and a host of newer books. The most recent entrant to that shelf is Suvir Saran’s American Masala. Both my granny’s book and the Madhur Jaffrey are now dog-eared, worn out from my consultations. I expect the same to happen to Saran’s book, though it is one of those modern-day coffee-table cookbooks – so lushly produced that it is hard to see someone splattering them with haldi (turmeric) or letting them smell of hing (asafoetida).
Britain has a revered tradition of Indian restaurants, with perhaps the first opened by Din Muhammad in 1811 (the Hindostanee Coffee House in Portman Square). An explosion of restaurants occurred during London’s swinging 1960s, as a considerable number of Sylhetis set up restaurants to attract the newly adventurous palate of Londoners. (Sylhet is an area famous for its restaurateurs and restaurant workers, a history that goes back to the Lascar era, when Sylhet sent its men to work the galleys on merchant ships). These ‘Indian’ restaurants bore such names as Bengal, Moti Mahal and Calcutta. Across the Atlantic, the first restaurants opened on Manhattan’s Sixth Street in New York during the late 1960s by the Ahmed family, also from Sylhet. Their restaurants were called Shah Bagh, Kismoth and Romna.
Madhur Jaffrey bristled against these restaurants, which she felt had homogenised Southasian food and underestimated “both the curiosity and the palate of contemporary Americans”. She pointed out that these restaurants did not slowly cook their meats in spices, but rather treated them to a spoonful of sauce, once cooked. My grandmother and Attia Hosain likewise wrinkled their noses at the widespread association of the use of “curry powder” in Indian cookbooks designed for the English home. This abysmal state of affairs is what propelled Jaffrey to write her 1973 book “as a gradual maneuver in self-defense”. She intended to draw the reader-cook into the complexity of Indian cooking, and to bring something of its diversity to the kitchens of England and America.
The gastro-politics of the 1960s and 1970s seem quaint when compared to the seismic shift during the neo-liberal 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic. Confident and upwardly mobile Southasian professionals put forward a ‘fusion’ cultural face before their Gatsbyesque colleagues. These newbies were neither too Southasian nor too uprooted, but somehow a perfect mélange of the two. A little bit of spice in their own cultural worlds gave them the patina of authenticity, and yet only so much as to allow them to be similar to the boys and girls who ran the financial, insurance and real-estate circuits.
It was to them that the new wave of Indian restaurants and Indian cookbooks mostly pandered. Floyd Cardoz, led the pack in New York City with his restaurant Tabla and his cookbook, One Spice, Two Spices: American food, Indian flavors (Marrow and Co, 2006) written with Jane Daniels Lear. His London counterpart Atul Kochhar, who owns the high-end restaurants Tamarind and Benares, divulged his own kitchen’s secrets in Indian Essence: The fresh taste of India’s new cuisine (Whitecap Books, 2004). The emergence of this hybrid cuisine as “nuanced, thoughtful and complex”, wrote the scholar Anita Mannur, allows the food and its barra saab Southasian clients “a politics of assimilation which would deem that foreign excess must be translated into easily digestible and overtly domesticated signs of difference for it to be palatable to sensitive palates.” In other words, difference is good – as long as it is not too different.
Accommodation and beyond
Saran is the master chef at Devi, another posh Indian restaurant in Manhattan. But whereas Cardoz and Kochhar, among others, render their India into haute cuisine, Saran is more partial to the diner, the dhaba, reminiscent of roadside eateries in India frequented by truck-drivers and travellers. His first book, Indian Home Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 2004), gave us a down-home introduction to a desi kitchen. His new American Masala is written in a different register, however, incorporating the decades of experimentation by Southasian-American parents who have valiantly tried to create cultural forms that appeal both to their children and to their sense of legacy.
Tandoori turkey on Thanksgiving, for example, is the staple response to the cultural undertow of Americanism. A South Indian friend tells me that when he was young in upstate New York, his mother would grudgingly take them to McDonald’s, where she would order a hamburger without the meat. This was gentle accommodation to the desires produced in our children by their peers and the media. Saran also treats us to some suggestions on how to spice up quintessentially American dishes. Here we get macaroni and cheese with a twist with pepper; or, even better, fried chicken with masala and a buttermilk marinade. For his meatloaf, Saran turns to a recipe from his Armenian-American friend Richard Arakelian, whose use of peppers, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, garam masala and tamarind (as a glaze) give the dish an undeniable desi robustness. Saran recommends that you serve this dish to your family with his roasted baby potatoes with South Indian spices, doused with garlic; an equally good side dish is his tangy sweet-potato chaat.
Fusion is a misnomer in Saran’s universe. Such a term assumes a stable Indian and American cuisine that is melded together, often thoughtlessly. Saran is voracious, liberally borrowing recipes from his mother’s Nagpur donuts and his polycultural friends. There is no anxiety about ‘authenticity’, nothing to hold him back from even offering his version of rum raisin ice cream, which evokes for me Delhi’s Nirula’s, although Saran uses real rum.
Once upon a time, the American tomato, chili and corn arrived on the shores of western India. They eventually ascended onto dinner tables throughout India, just as imported tea would become the Indian staple beverage by the early 20th century. Such is the way of food and culture. Saran’s mingling approach is wonderfully refreshing, returning us to the planetary conversations about food that predate the iron cage of ‘culture’, when my granny and her peers had to defend their food against impostors and hacks. There is no impostor in Saran’s kitchen – only the sense of taste.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
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