Indian (-ish) and the Question of Indian American Identity

It has been almost eight months since the publication of Priya Krishna’s cookbook Indian (-ish) and almost as long since I first threatened to review it (though I did get around to reviewing some of its marketing in the summer). Is there any point in reviewing a cookbook half a year after its release? Frankly, the reason I didn’t get around to reviewing it earlier—after work and family obligations got in the way in May, June and July—is that with each passing month it felt less relevant to do so. However, as the end of the year approached and it began to show up on many lists of the best cookbooks of the year it seemed worth it again to go back and look at it closely. It is, as at least one Indian reviewer has noted, somewhat lightweight in its approach, but a large part of the American food media seems to still be ascribing it a fair bit of importance. I should say before I get started that I am less interested in the book as a cookbook than I am in it as a cultural text. This is not to say that I have nothing to say about any of the recipes or other bits of food information that it contains; I do and will get to some of that below. But I’m more interested in how the book tacitly represents the categories of Indian and Indian American food, and relatedly how it models a particular form of Indian American cultural identity. Okay, let’s get to it.

Let’s begin with the book as cookbook. First, a few things I like. In terms of the larger ethos of the book I really appreciate how it steers away from the class of familiar restaurant dishes that have come to be over-identified with Indian food in the US. There’s no butter chicken or chicken tikka masala here, no dal makhni; and the saag paneer recipe comes with what will seem like a very original twist to American readers (more on this below). Krishna’s recipes skew instead towards simple home-style preparations, dishes that can be thrown together without too much fuss. Krishna’s breezy style too, I think, is well-suited for the cook explicitly addressed by the book: the nervous, not-very adept cook who needs to be told how to make rice (18) or boil potatoes (20).

Krishna does a good job too of demystifying the cooking of Indian food—which because it is Indian is usually subject to greater mystification than most other food. She encourages the reader to do what most home cooks do: use recipes as general guides but if you’re missing an ingredient or two, don’t sweat it. I am also a very big fan of “Ritu’s Overly Generalized Guide to Making the Indian Food in This Book” (36), which is pretty much all the instruction a nervous cook trying to come to grips with cooking homestyle Indian food needs. Some of those combinations will, I think, lead to less fortunate results than others but it’s a good roadmap to start with and even the unfortunate results may result in the kind of experimentation that makes nervous cooks into adept ones.

Elsewhere there are problems and odd discrepancies. Among the latter is the strong proscription of canned tomatoes (11) while the use of canned kidney beans and chickpeas is encouraged. Errors are more numerous. Just to take some at random: dried chillies are not substitutable in the way Krishna imagines: Kashmiri chillies are mild and used mostly for colour—chiles de arbol are much hotter (26-27); lime leaves are absolutely not substitutes for curry leaves and will completely change the flavour of whatever you’re putting them in from the intended result (26-27); ground cardamom in place of cardamom pods will also alter a dish dramatically, and probably not pleasantly (26-27); it’s hard to imagine how a stove-top preparation of any dal could take almost exactly the same amount of time as in a pressure cooker of any kind (151-152); I could go on.

Other errors are more ironic. In the introduction to her recipe for khichdi (158) Krishna mocks the adoption of the dish by “white people in wellness circles” and their pronounciation of the word as “kitch-are-ee”. She then proceeds to provide the pronunciation “kitch-ree”. But this is wrong as well. While there is certainly regional variation in the pronunciation of the word, when spelled with a “kh” the k is always aspirated as a “khh” sound (as in “khaleesi”). This wouldn’t be worth pointing out if she wasn’t making such a khichdi of it in the first place. Then there’s her description of kadhi (157) as a soup—she calls it “turmeric-yogurt soup”, the kind of cultural translation/simplification that you might expect would make someone like Krishna cringe if a white writer made it. Certainly, kadhi can be eaten as a soup—I’ve even served it as such at dinner parties—but the by far more common ways of eating it are over rice or with rotis, in much the way that curries are eaten (and yes, the book repeats the stupid “curry does not exist” thing).

The more telling aspect of the recipe though is that Krishna’s only frames of reference for kadhi are “my mom’s recipe” and the “versions I’ve been served at restaurants”. The latter is denigrated as “liquidy, mild” compared to her mother’s “thick, rich and spice-forward” version. In reality, of course, kadhi is made in different ways in different parts of India and the distinction between thin and thick versions or mild and spicy versions per se is not a right/wrong, good/bad distinction. The latter issue—the over-reliance on the frame of reference of “my mom’s recipe”—in fact looms large over the aspect of the book that is one of the things that seems to have lead to its enthusiastic reception in American food media: the implicit—and sometimes explicit—notion that much of the kind of cooking presented in this book is a result of adjustments made by an Indian cook to cope with the limitations of American stores/pantries and the demands of Indian American children; in other words, the possibility that what is being articulated here is some kind of Indian American cuisine or at least an Indian American approach to cooking.

Now in many cases in the book this seems to amount to not much more than throwing chillies or chaat masala or dhania into things that don’t usually feature them but that’s not really the point I want to make. That point is that what Krishna seems to be completely oblivious to and characteristically incurious about (see her “Shahi Toast” video) is that this genre of cooking is very much an Indian Indian thing. Women’s magazines like Eve’s Weekly and Femina had been publishing recipes for “modern” dishes of these kinds—aimed at westernized upper/middle class women who simply did not have much time to cook—long before Krishna’s parents came to the US. That is to say, hybridization of this nature happens in kitchens in India as well and has been happening for a long time. But as Krishna never seems to look very far beyond her mother’s kitchen she doesn’t seem to have any awareness of this. Being aware of it would not, of course, invalidate the premise of the book, but it would add useful context to a book that is otherwise presenting itself as correcting American misconceptions about Indian food.

And it might also guard against ascribing too much originality to things like “roti pizza” (130), “roti roli poli” (135) or even saag paneer with feta (83). Krishna may well have not encountered these dishes anywhere except in her mother’s kitchen but these kinds of things are cliches. Indians have been making roti pizza ever since we encountered pizza—you can even find recipes on Indian food blogs from well before it occurred to Krishna to write this book—but Krishna seems to think this is something her mother invented. As for saag paneer with non-Indian cheese, you won’t have to look very hard among Indian cooks in the US in the 1980s or 1990s to find people who were subbing mozzarella or feta or tofu for paneer without finding it very exceptional or sophisticated to do so. (This was, of course, in a time when paneer was not easily available in every desi grocery as it has been for a while now.)

In sum, while some of the specific recipes may well be good, I don’t find very much interesting happening here in terms of articulating Indian American food. For that you should look to books like Nik Sharma’s Season, published just the year before Krishna’s, or even Suvir Saran’s American Masala, published more than a decade ago but somehow not referenced in any of the reviews of more recent books. And what Indian (-ish) seems also completely unaware of is that as a representation of Indian American kitchens it is describing something that is more or less obsolete. What I mean is that it has been more than a decade now since the availability of even esoteric vegetables and other ingredients in desi groceries in the US exploded. It’s been a long time since newly arriving Indian cooks in the US would have needed to make these kinds of adaptations out of necessity. Again, this does not in any way invalidate the project of writing about the development of her mother’s repertoire but fuller context is always good (or at least the sense that the writer is aware of a fuller context).

What is interesting though is the implicit narrative of Indian American identity that emerges both through the framing of some of the recipes and in the non-food content of the book. It will not be a surprise to anyone who followed the marketing to discover that the book is insistent in its description of Krishna’s mother as a chic and sophisticated woman. This is presented to us primarily through clothing (“pairing her kurtas from New Delhi with gold pants from Zara”, 5); her love of wine (every other page of the book); and accounts of travel (again too many references to list). Krishna is out to combat stereotypical images of Indians in the US; she is, however, completely oblivious to how her project is tied up—as the above examples illustrate—with class. Indian (-ish)‘s implicit address is to white bourgeois readers and the cultural subtext is that the Krishnas are worldly, sophisticated people who lead the same kind of lifestyle: don’t mistake them for those kinds of Indians. Indeed, there’s even a moment in the book when the spectre of the smell of Indian food is raised: her mother we are told fried puris over an outdoor stove, “to prevent the oil stench from permeating the kitchen” (116).

Now certainly there are worldly Indians who lead lifestyles that would be extremely familiar to white bourgeois Americans and it is also possible that there may be some value in pointing this out. But the insistence on the family’s membership in this globetrotting bourgeoisie both belies a kind of classed assimilationist anxiety (we’re just like you except with a sprinkle of chaat masala) and suggests that there’s something unsophisticated about other forms of Indianness—as though the only way to be worldly or sophisticated is to drink wine, shop at Whole Foods and take vacations in Tuscan farmhouses. This kind of thing is doubtless flattering to a subset of Indian Americans and also to some people who live in South Delhi but it is, broadly speaking, claptrap.

Nowhere in this book is there present any sort of recognition of, let alone identification with a broader range of Indian/South Asian-American identities. The book is so eager to leave what it sees as stereotypes and cliches behind, to present a form of contemporary Indian/American identity that will be palatable to the white bourgeois reader, that it does not consider that there are other ways of being Indian American that are also contemporary. To put it another way, many of us not only accept the pungency of Indian food smells, we enjoy it. In the meantime, the success of Indian (-ish)‘s  address to the white bourgeois reader can perhaps be measured by the acclaim it has received in American food media—a well-known white bourgeois preserve. As noted above, the book is on several year-end “Best Cookbooks” lists and will almost certainly be nominated for a James Beard award—and I will not be shocked either if it wins.

In closing, a few words (ha!) about the very first thing I noticed about the book when I received it: its subtitle. That subtitle is “Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family”. As it turns out, the book is almost entirely antics-free. Yes, there are a lot of photographs of the author’s family having a good time, a lot of nice pictures of people laughing and so forth but antics described are there none. I don’t bring this up to bemoan the lack of antics. But I am interested in the fact that they should be promised at all (even when the promise is not kept). Why “antics”? Is this merely a signal of the general sitcommy nature of Krishna’s proffer (see her Bon Appétit videos, for example) or is there also a tacit acknowledgment here of what is one of the tasks of “ethnic” groups in dominant American culture: to provide novelty and entertainment? It may suggest something about the larger discourse of immigrant food writing in the US. Namely, the question of who it is for. What would immigrant American food writing (or culture writing more broadly) look like if it centered not white bourgeois readers and their needs (Indian/Vietnamese/whatever food can be simple!) but members of those immigrant communities? Indian (-ish) does not answer this question, but it—and its success—requires that it be asked.

5 thoughts on “Indian (-ish) and the Question of Indian American Identity

  1. Less whisky, more of this. This nicely encapsulates what can be so irritating about the liberalism that structures works like Krishna’s: “we’re just like you except with a sprinkle of chaat masala.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article and I find your mix of whisky and food reviews interesting
    Speaking as someone who came to this site for the whisky reviews I have learnt loads from your other topics and find the mix to be fairly unique in the whisky review world.

    I for one would miss your whisky reviews if you were to do as the previous poster suggested.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great stuff! Just read this after stumbling across your article on the book’s marketing. I’ve always been a bit put off by Priya’s bourgeois pandering and, as you put it, seeming lack of awareness of larger culinary contexts (foibles she isn’t alone in exhibiting in the BA tk). Looking forward to checking out the back catalogue!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this annoying opinion piece when I had glanced at the book at the local library, put it away and went back and checked it out. I just could not understand what the fuss was all about. The recipes are nothing to write home about and no way was I inspired to try anything. I then watched a couple of her videos, one in which she tried to explain the difference between north and south indian cuisine and it was a total laugh. I wondered why a woman who had published two cook books would not bother to educate herself on the differences between the cuisines and offered completely erroneous, apple to orange comparisons. My overall impression, she knows some indian cooking, by no means an expert and claims authority by way of social media popularity. This appears to be the case with a few from Bon Appetit and NYT Cooking. Her careless attitude, lack of preparation and the need to call her parents like a well helicoptered child made me move quickly away.

    Liked by 1 person

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