Lo, the Poor Indian

A food critic views the Americanization of subcontinental cuisine with some regret.

As someone who has cooked his way through four of Madhur Jaffrey’s superlative cookbooks and who devotes about a third of his vegetable plot to seeds from the Indian subcontinent, it is with a proprietary twinge that I observe that Indian food, for so long a cuisine apart, is being absorbed into mainstream cooking.

At Jean Georges, New York’s high-end restaurant of the moment, Jean-Georges Vongerichten cooks lobster in a pumpkinseed broth that is subtly laced with the bitterness of fenugreek seeds. For more than a year, executive chef Michael Romano has been serving an Indian vegetable plate at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. Next summer, he and Meyer plan to go much further, opening a restaurant that will feature Indian food served and priced like French cuisine. At Biba in Boston, chef and owner Lydia Shire uses a tandoor, the traditional clay oven of Punjab, to roast lamb or scallops or lobster tails; she also makes naan, the Indian flat bread, which she serves with a very un-Indian anchovy butter. Thinking that what I was sniffing might be a trend, I called Raji Jallepalli, whose restaurant Raji in Memphis, Tenn., pioneered Indian-French fusion cooking, and asked if she had noticed something going on. She had.

There is a new wave of cooking that is being born that benefits from Indian flavors but is not bound by Indian traditions or philosophy,” Jallepalli said. As to whether this is a good thing, she wasn’t sure. “I think most of the people in this country who use Indian ingredients use them mostly for the trend value or the shock value,” she said. Jaffrey, too, views the new popularity of Indian ingredients with a skeptical eye. “A lot of the chefs are picking up the spices, but in a slightly undigested way,” she said. As examples of incorrect applications, she mentioned mustard seeds “sprinkled over the top of something, when they need to be ground or toasted or put in hot oil–otherwise, crunchy stale is what you get.” She has also seen “turmeric used raw, which it should never be, to color things like a salad dressing.”

What has kept Indian ingredients out of the American mainstream for so long is their relative unassimilability. Many of the spices have strong, unfamiliar flavors and, as Jaffrey says, must be used in specific ways that don’t obviously adapt to Western cooking procedures. But it is just that quality of otherness that is attractive to chefs today. In food–as in fashion, literature, painting, photography, and just about everything that we consider a creative endeavor–if you don’t stand out, you might as well not show up. The novelty of such Indian tastes as fenugreek seeds, asafetida (a tree resin), curry leaves, or mustard oil is reason enough for chefs to discover them.

For many American home cooks, the only Indian ingredient in the spice cabinet is “curry powder,” a commercial blend of ground seeds (particularly cumin and coriander) and turmeric root. Curry powder, however, isn’t found in a true Indian kitchen. Rather, the cooking of the subcontinent relies on a panoply of spices combined differently for different dishes. A single spice can be played like a violin, producing glissando or pizzicato notes as the maestro wishes. In An Invitation to Indian Cooking, Jaffrey lists the radically different ways one can cook with cumin, the seed of a Mediterranean herb whose smell of old socks (in a good way) is perhaps the most familiar feature of the typical Northern food served in Indian restaurants in the United States. “If it is roasted whole and crushed, its coffee color will darken the looks of any food and its strong aroma will fill not just your kitchen but your entire house,” she writes. “This way it has a sharp, nutty taste. Whole cumin, when it is ‘popped’ in very hot fat, has a mild aroma and a gentle, licoricelike taste. Ground unroasted cumin provides a third flavor and has perhaps the mildest taste of the three.” (It’s that third flavor that strikes me as most like old socks.)

The cuisines of the regions of India are as structured and elaborate as its languages. Consider merely that most basic ingredient, the frying medium. In the Southern state of Kerala, coconut oil is the primary cooking fat; in Bengal, the pungent mustard oil takes first place; while in much of the North, and especially in Punjab, the nutty taste of ghee (clarified butter) is ubiquitous. For an amateur chef, the prospect of improvising with foreign ingredients can be daunting. A newcomer to Indian cookery might start by infusing a neutral corn, peanut, or canola oil in a hot skillet with the flavor of whole spices. A standard preparation of pan-fried potatoes becomes exotically delicious if, before adding the diced potatoes to almost smoking oil, you throw in a pinch of crushed asafetida, some cumin and fennel seeds, a dozen fenugreek seeds, and a couple of dried red chilies, and allow them to sizzle for a few seconds. Chicken assumes a new character when sautéed in fat that has been infused with brown mustard seeds, the white lentil known as urad dal, fennel seeds, and chili pepper.

The recurring use of chili pepper in Indian cooking is a reminder that there is nothing novel about assimilating foreign ingredients into a native cuisine. Chili peppers come from the Americas, as do tomatoes and potatoes; all are now to be found in every Indian market. By supplying us with mustard and fenugreek seeds, Indians are simply returning the favor. For that matter, India has been spicing Western cuisine for centuries. America was discovered by Europeans who, addicted to spices since the time of Rome, were seeking quicker access to the black pepper, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg of the Indies. All those spices are old hat; so now we are seeing the more pungent, bitter, musty flavors that foreigners once left to the Indians.

For diners whose only notion of Indian food comes from the dismal curry houses to be found in every American and British city, the first experience of fenugreek seeds may come in the lobster broth at Jean Georges. That’s what, finally, strikes me as odd and a bit disappointing about the fashionability of Indian ingredients. You keep hearing that India is “in.” Salman Rushdie occupies the same literary place today that Gabriel García Márquez did 20 years ago; the sorts of people who then found reason to hope for the revival of literature in Latin America are looking to the subcontinent now. Our museums are full of exhibits of Indian art, most of it centuries old but, to our eyes, quite new. Fifty years after India won her independence from Britain, everyone is talking about India. So why are there so few, if any, first-rate Indian restaurants in New York or Los Angeles or any major U.S. city?

It’s for the same reason that only Chicago, with Rick Bayless’ Topolabampo, has been able to sustain an excellent Mexican restaurant in this country. Most Westerners are unwilling to pay high prices for Mexican, Indian, or other colonized cuisines that they have sampled in adulterated form at cheap prices. As a result, the fenugreek seed doesn’t enter America’s cuisine the way the tomato permeated India’s. It is known only to chefs who are voraciously curious and have taken the time to visit India and study Indian cuisine. It is introduced in highly original–read “deracinated”–ways to people who have never experienced the traditional forms. It is an allusion made without a context. It is not modern but postmodern. Like all postmodern forms, it offers in the hands of a master (like Vongerichten) considerable delights; but it leaves one hungry for, say, a real Chettiar or Keralite or Punjabi restaurant, for something–dare one use such an old-fashioned word?–authentic.