by Aditya Desai
After the Italians brought pizza, the Germans brought deli, and the Chinese brought kung pao chicken, it seems that Indian cuisine is poised next to integrate itself into the mainstream American menu.
I’ve been delighted to find some interesting Desi-inspired items on menus I didn’t expect. As a frequenter of coffeehouses across Washington DC, I was smiling when a popular one, Tryst, offered spicy Yellow Dhal Dip (of course, I ordered it with a chai latte).
The nationwide chain Cosi features a Tandoori Chicken Sandwich, as do many neighborhood bistros. Grocery chains Whole Foods and Wegman’s give Indian selections in their hot food bars.
The other day, I saw Food Network personality and perpetual sunglasses abuser Guy Fieri making lamb curry empanadas. As a fan of a decent classic Argentinean empanada, I was struck with the audacity Mr. Fieri had to leap oceans and cultures to bring flavors and dishes together.
But then I realized again, how different is an empanada from a samosa? Fieri was recognizing the basic culinary history of these cuisines—Silk Road, Magellan, East India Company, however it happened—food styles have always rubbed shoulders as people and cultures meet and mix. Latino food is now available across the country, whether by authentic cooking or Taco Bell’s fourth meal. So where does Indian food fall into that history?
Today, the result is a wide variety of Indian restaurants that specialize in regional cuisines—the rice laden South Indian, the Tandoors of Punjab, and everything in the middle; any overlap is really at the owner or chef’s whims and abilities. They stick to being true to the traditional dishes. For me, however, many times the result is sitting down to eat at one of these places and realizing it is the same, old, boring, stuff at each.
I’m more excited by the more adventurous chefs who are integrating and blending those traditions into other cuisines, experimenting to see what comes out. Hey, as long as it tastes good, who’s complaining?
Indian restaurateurs and chefs should look into new way to offer the same yummy flavors and spices in new ways. With the permeation of the classic paneer curries and tandoori meats into mainstream American kitchens, the time has come to step up a game a little.
One might cite the religious restrictions that bar certain foods, or even just the wide vegetarianism. Hardly an obstacle, I say. Today, Indian restaurants are seen as great options for non-Indian vegetarians. As a culture that has thrived on such diverse eating for centuries, surely it is time, and possible, to shake things up a little.
Dig into the country’s regions that haven’t seen as much exposure on the restaurant scene. Take a stab at a cross culture concoction? There’s already Indian-Chinese. Put fish inside idli rice cakes and make Desi sushi. Bake a huge piece of naan bread and top it with cheese and sauce for Indian pizza.
No patent pending on those ideas, chefs. Get ’em while they’re here. Then feed them to me for free.