Rohini Dey laments the state of her country’s cuisine in America
By ROHINI DEY Daily Splash columnist October 23, 2012 12:13AM
Rohini Dey enjoys a summer trip to the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Updated: November 24, 2012 6:12AM
I am a foodie (though I detest the word). I await new restaurant openings and showing up to experience a whole new evening. Every time. Anew. It’s my analogy to a mini-vacation. I love getting all critical and observant and relishing the details: crisp menu wording, the finesse-humor-knowledge of my server. And, of course, the food. Dining out is my form of entertainment, steeped in my childhood.
When people think of India, visuals of teeming masses and poverty abound; certainly not the depth of cuisine that fosters a “foodie” culture. Well, let me share memories of languid childhood summer vacations in Calcutta — my immersion in fine dining. Where meals were MEALS. Seriously planned, discussed, executed flawlessly, eaten together and savored … leisurely. At least three times a day. Usually four.
As kids, my cousins and I woke up to a freshly brewed cup of Darjeeling tea served in bed, with two frilly-edged Marie biscuits to dunk in the tea and eat. This was followed by a “Western” breakfast, as we gathered around a heavy dining table in a sunlit, hot, small dining room adjacent to the kitchen: toast, jams, eggs, Amul cheese, sausage or bacon (on occasion) and fresh-cut fruit. My aunt (Mamima), general and chief liaison between the kitchen help and us, dictated, stormed in and out and loudly urged us to eat, eat! It was very authoritarian and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lunch was a medley of Bengali courses, starting with lighter fare: rice, daal, alu-bhathe (mashed potato, mustard oil, onion and chili), fried eggplant. This segued into classic Bengali dishes (piled on mounds of rice), intricate vegetables and the highlight: the meat and fish preparations like doi maach (fish in yogurt sauce), shorshe maach (fish in mustard sauce) and the mangsho (goat curry). Regardless of which region of India you come from and how differently it’s made, goat dominates. We scrambled to grab large chunky mutton pieces (I loved hunting down and sucking the marrow bones). Afterward, a round of oozing, bursting fruit: ripe lychees popping out of their red-brown porcupine shells, dripping sweet chikoos and mangos. The meal culminated in a round of luscious sweets — desserts in Bengal are a religion, definitely.
The third meal was a late tea to usher in dusk — “snacks” such as luchi-subzi (fried puffed bread) and shingada (ajwain-flavored samosas) drowned by more cups of Darjeeling tea. Then, finally dinner … you get the picture.
How we found time to do anything else now mystifies me, as I sip a skim mocha latte, no cream please.
Interspersed with all the meals at home were rare exciting trips to “outside restaurants” — Kwality restaurant, chaat hawkers (Indian junk food), kathi roll stands and the ubiquitous Indian Chinese restaurants. I’m in awe of how spot-on the Chinese adapt their cuisine to the local palate, from India to the U.S. And how they straddle all strata, from takeout to upscale dining.
Which brings me to my point: I inwardly seethe when non-Indians tell me “Oh, I just love Indian food.” I’m embarrassed by what we pass off as our cuisine: the $8.99 all-you-can-eat buffets, the bulky chafing dishes with predictable items in a sea of oil surrounded by faded images of the Taj Mahal and camels in Rajasthan. I’m mortified by this pathetic repertoire, food coloring and mediocre flavors. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the dishes (I was a frequent diner at Pindi, a dive in Delhi). But some standards? Some freshness or subtlety? Some resemblance to what we eat at home? We’ve got so much we could flaunt.
Is it lack of entrepreneurial vision or just apathy? Isn’t the world a willing market ready to be captured by our cuisine? How about adapting or evolving? Sure it’s a sellout, but it may work. There are exceptions and this is an overtly judgmental indictment. But that being said ... Indian cuisine outside of India is mostly still a fringe story. Not many takers for “curry.”
Rohini Dey donated her fee for writing this column to MSEdG — Educate Girls Globally.