In late August I published the first of a threatened series of posts that nobody had asked for: a round-up of recent writing in mainstream American publications on South Asian food (which effectively, and unfortunately, continues to mean Indian food). If you haven’t already read that, you can find my explanation of the impetus for this series and a bit of my own background vis a vis this subject there. Here now is the second installment. This covers things that floated into my distracted field of vision in September and October. Those who worry that the first post may have misrepresented my normal relentless positivity will be glad to know that on this occasion I come almost entirely to praise. This despite the fact that two of the pieces I am covering today are on subjects whose coverage in American outlets can normally be counted on to raise my blood pressure (mangoes and Instant Pots). But, alas, even my positivity has limits and I will end on a more critical note than I begin on: and again it has to do with my reservations about the limits of the genre of the personal, familial narrative in discussing Indian food.
First the unalloyed good stuff:
1. Okay, so this is a podcast, not writing per se, and it’s not exactly a mainstream American outlet but I really, really liked this report on mangoes on Gastropod. All too often the American interest in/knowledge of Indian mangoes seems to begin and end with Alphonsoes, and it is true you get more than a hint of that even in this podcast from the American journalist, Myles Karp whose bits remain Alphonso-centric. However, the piece also includes contributions from the journalist Rhitu Chatterjee who grew up in India, and Sohail Hashmi who lives in Delhi; and both puncture the Alphonso marketing balloon, pointing out that there are many, many mango varieties in India that make claims on the crown, and more fully conveying the place of mangoes in Indian culture and history. And there’s a lot of interesting information on mango cultivation in the US as well. Well worth a listen.
2. I also, against all odds, enjoyed this piece on Indian cooking and Instant Pots in the New York Times. I say “against all odds” because people going on about Instant Pots and Indian cooking usually forget a) that pressure cooking has been the standard in Indian kitchens for half a century now and b) that the Instant Pot is hardly the first electric pressure cooker anyway. Such, for example, was this piece by Priya Krishna in the New Yorker earlier this year, which gives the uninformed reader the impression that it’s the Instant Pot alone that allows “for stewing meats, cooking lentils, beans, and rice, and even making yogurt” in a pressure cooker when in fact, with the exception of the last, the standard pressure cooker has always been the de facto tool for cooking all those things in the average Indian kitchen, in India and the diaspora. (You have to wonder about Krishna’s aunt Sangeeta who apparently only discovered that rajma and arhar dal could be pressure cooked after purchasing an Instant Pot—I mean, you’ll have to look very hard in India or the diaspora to find a home kitchen in which rajma and arhar dal have not been cooked in stove-top pressure cookers in as little time as the Instant Pot for decades now.)
Anyway, I enjoyed this piece spurred by Chandra Ram’s new Instant Pot Indian cookbook precisely because it eschews bogus statements. Interestingly, Urvashi Pitre, the first major Indian Instant Pot recipe author comes across somewhat differently in this piece than in Krishna’s in the New Yorker. In Krishna’s account, Pitre’s Indian fans are “hard-earned” but easy sells once they try her recipes. In the Times piece, however, we get this, which rings far truer to my ear:
“My audience is non-Indians who love Indian food, and second-generation Indians who want to cook Indian food but are intimidated,” she said, adding: “The Indian audience has been my hardest audience to crack. They look at the recipes and say, that’s not traditional.”
To note that it rings truer doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing the Indian view over the non-Indian or second-gen Indian view—there’s no reason Indian cooking shouldn’t cater to or adapt to non-Indian or second-gen diasporic kitchens/desires/palates; but it is good when articles can make distinctions. The piece also makes me think that the appeal of the Instant Pot to younger second-generation Indian Americans may (also) partly be that it allows them to maintain the cultural/familial tradition of pressure cooking while jettisoning the otherness associated with the old-school whistling, shaking pressure cooker. In other words, though not invented by Indian-Americans, the Instant Pot may be a viable allegory for a certain kind of Indian-American identity.
I must say though that biryani cooked in any sort of pressure cooker, leave alone shrimp biryani, is a bridge too far for me. I am old.
A piece I enjoyed with a couple of minor complaints:
3. This Mayukh Sen profile of Nik Sharma and his new cookbook Season. It also achieved the seeming impossible: it made me want to purchase an Indian cookbook published in the US. Sen is really a very good writer and the piece has a good shape. Sharma’s immigrant story, his identity, the tension between aspects of his difference and his desire to not be defined by them: all of these come alive without any resort to cliche of cloying sentiment or for that matter to cultural generalization.
So, what are my minor complaints? For one thing, Sen presents Sharma—if only by omission—as somewhat sui generis. But he’s not the first prominent person making Indian-American food or even the first gay Indian-American food figure with an Indian-American cookbook: Suvir Saran was there before him. I’m somewhat ambivalent about Suvir, who I knew earlier in my online food life, but his cookbook American Masala is more than a decade old now and I’m a little surprised Sen does not even mention it. Also, the piece has a bit of subtext running through it that implies that to break free of tradition in Indian cooking requires leaving India. Anyone who has eaten at Hemant Oberoi’s restaurants (Varq, for example) or at Indian Accent or Cafe Lota in Delhi knows that’s not true.
Now we get to the sticky stuff but first let’s accentuate the positive:
4. I enjoyed Priya Krishna’s piece in Bon Appetit on her family’s affection for Dunkin’ Donuts. The appeal of fast-food and chain restaurants to Indian immigrants —especially those who immigrated in eras when there was no formal fast food in India—is an interesting subject. However, I do wish Krishna could have done more with it. A common problem I see in most of her recent pieces is a kind of relentless focus on the immediately personal/familial. A piece like this one, I think, would be far more resonant with an opening out past the merely anecdotal and past the upper/middle class experience. Take your parents’ story and connect it to a broader immigrant experience, including those people working in the backs of restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts. Anecdotes about one upper/middle class family—however charming they may be—leave too much out. And in Krishna’s case this is, unfortunately not the only problem…
When personal/familial stories go wrong:
5. I’m sorry to pick on Krishna—I had critical things to say about her in the previous installment as well (though I also had positive things to say about her). I was looking forward to her upcoming cookbook as a potentially interesting articulation of a slice of Indian-American cooking; now, however, I’m beginning to worry that at worst it will be the death of me or at best, a contemporary version of Rani Kingman’s book that was such a source of comedy for desi foodies a decade and more ago.
In the previous installment I’d mentioned Krishna’s dubious recipe for rotis/chapatis in Bon Appetit—the one in which she calls for them to be blistered and crisped. Her recent piece on hing/asafoetida manages to both get mired in the personal to the detriment of the subject and to have factual errors. To get a sense of the former all you have to do is read this far, far superior piece on the same subject on NPR from more than two years ago. There you’ll get a fuller sense of the place of hing and its importance, particularly, as a substitute for garlic and onions for communities that do not eat them (such as Jains or Vaishnavs). You’ll also see in that piece the opposite of one of Krishna’s seemingly trademark “lol my family” anecdotes: she says in her piece that her father enjoyed cooking with hing because it “is great for producing farts”. In fact, as the NPR piece acknowledges, and as you can ascertain simply by googling “hing and gas“, apart from its flavour and aroma, hing is deployed in Indian cooking precisely to combat flatulence! If your charming anecdotes don’t hold up to basic scrutiny then please spare us your charming anecdotes. Or if you have some information that demonstrates that the common understanding is wrong then please first seem to be aware that you are going against the common understanding and then provide the evidence.
Alas, the piece on hing was not the only recent Krishna piece to give me pause. There was also one on “dahi toast”. There’s some hand waving in this piece at “other versions I’ve seen on food blogs” but the facts are 1) this is actually a commonplace dish that’s been dressed up to seem more exceptional than it is—unless you think that making it with sourdough bread is a paradigm shift; and 2) the dish is usually called “dahi sandwich”. Again, the easiest way to get the measure of this is to google the terms “dahi toast” and “dahi sandwich”: “dahi toast” will mostly lead recursively to Krishna’s recipe; “dahi sandwich” will take you further afield . More than the use of sourdough bread, what seems to separate Krishna’s recipe (or her mother’s recipe) from regulation recipes is how few vegetables she puts in hers—but she makes no note of this. I do get that she’s sharing her family recipe, but again, its a good thing to be able to tell your non-Indian readers/viewers all the ways in which your family’s recipe differs from the dish as it’s more commonly made. It’s fine that it’s a variation—most Indian dishes exist as variations—but please give people a fuller sense of the range of variations. Then again, I suppose what she’s most interested in is her book’s branding.
[As a bonus, in an earlier piece linked to from within this one she says that “[O]ne of the most popular street snacks/leftover meals in northern India is Bombay Toast”. Really? Where? I’ll be in Delhi again in December—I guess I can look.]
It would be nice if there were editors at Bon Appetit who could catch or at least try to check some of this stuff. It’s only one of the most influential food publications left. Kudos, by the way, to Krishna’s publicist/publisher who’ve really hit the jackpot on promoting her book.
I will now grind my axes to a halt. I’m sorry I couldn’t be positive all the way till the end. Maybe next time? As always, I hope to not have too much material to critique any time soon. Again, if you do come across pieces of interest on Indian food please continue to send the links my way. And, oh yes, please point out with great relish any errors I have made.