Of Empanadas And Samosas

23 Jul

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.


Posted by on July 23, 2010 in Food


4 responses to “Of Empanadas And Samosas

  1. QueenRaj

    July 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Now that was a spicy blog entry!
    Food is what gives us life. It starts conversations. Everybody needs it.
    Wasn’t it a few years ago, the most popular dish in England was lamb vindaloo? Or was it chicken curry?
    Don’t you love teaching your friends the proper way of scooping up rice and daal with your hand?

  2. M Raghavan

    July 24, 2010 at 11:23 am

    As a US raised Indian-American, I am fine with experimenting with foods, and have encouraged my spouse (who is a superb cook) to come up with a variety of fun things to try. We are vegetarian, but that hasn’t stopped us from coming up odd mixes of Mexican, Italian and Chinese food with a variety of Indian spices.

    I think the problem is that the restarurants are merely meeting the demands of their clientele. This includes Westerners interested in dabbling in “authentic” ethnic cuisine, and Western travellers and expatriate Indians nostalgic for Indian food.

    So, until we ask for something different, the restaurants are reluctant to try it.

  3. Aditya

    July 26, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    @ M Raghavan,

    Kudos to your spouse, I’m sure you must get quite the feast at home.

    I agree, there is a business factor here. After all, the base of most Indian food is butter/oil, garlic and onion. Add some customary spices and its not it hard to meet the lowest common denominator of “tasty”.

    Indian food is the way it is because of the country’s climate, lifestyle, etc. But I think in the U.S. we can afford to be a little more daring. The idea of cross-culture food is just an avenue that might offer some possibilities.

  4. M Raghavan

    July 26, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    South Indian food would be nice too, which uses more red chilli and pepper than garlic and onion. It is a wonder that the local ISKCON restaurants, which are a hit among Westerners for their “cross over” onion/garlic free delicacies haven’t picked up on idli, dosa, sambar, and vada.


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