As Indian cuisine continues to hover at the edge of the mainstream ethnic food arena, it still remains a long way from getting fully integrated into the landscape of American food and eating habits as Japanese or Chinese cuisine have. That said, as the Indian diaspora increases in size and visibility, a large array of ethnic food- be that ingredients or ready to eat meals, are making their way onto shelves of mainstream supermarkets. Along with the growing South Asian population, American consumers too have played a big role in the growing popularity of Indian food. A survey by the National Restaurant Association in early 2000 revealed that the consumer awareness of Indian food had increased by 75% since the early 90’s. I am sure it would be safe to guess that the number has increased manifolds by now. Once familiarity with the cuisine sets in, consumers tend to show more willingness to explore and experiment with the flavors and spices which is great news for chefs and entrepreneurs like me!
As culinary artists, we remain in constant endeavor to create and recreate new dishes to offer our growing clientele who are always ‘hungry’for something new and exciting. The process I adopt is simple. I get inspired by what is available locally, whether it is a new ingredient I find in the farmers market or some new dish I have chanced upon during my travels. Once I am back in my familiar playground, I spend my time creating, trying, experimenting and bringing together fusions of flavors which surprise yet delight the senses. The chance to innovate and that eureka moment when everything blends together to create that perfect burst of flavor is to me the most exciting part about my job!
Fusion or the dreaded “F”word as we call it in our world, is still not received well by the kitchen purists and chefs who swear by their cuisine. I, however, have no problem with it at all- though I do agree that some dishes are best left unaltered and enjoyed in its purest form. A good example of that would be the Biryani, one of the most loved preparations by Indians the world over and one of my own favorite dishes. This royal and ancient dish is known to be brought by the Mughals from Persia to India in the early 16th century. The recipe has been passed down through generations and each part of India has its own unique style of preparing this. While I prefer to pay my homage to it in its Awadhi avatar, one does wonder if this can be classified as an authentic Indian dish or a fusion of flavors it imbibed as it traversed through the Hindukush and crossed many a gurgling river to reach India.
I often ask myself what makes a dish ‘authentic’–a word that to me is over used in recipe books, brand labels and ingredients. By labeling it authentic, does it really taste better? If a dish is qualified by its place of origin, would it lose its authenticity when the locally grown ingredients cause a distinct difference in flavor? The word also makes me want to question dishes born without a sense of place like chicken tikka masala, general tso or pasta primavera. Can they be termed as authentic? Here’s a little trivia while we are on this subject- India was introduced to its main staple ingredients like chilies and potatoes by the Portuguese only in the 16th century. Makes you want to look at your spicy Alu Jeera in a new light, doesn’t it?
Similarly in this age where a large number of people are migrating to different parts of the world in search of opportunities as I left India to come to America, how does one control the authenticity of regional dishes?Needless to say, it is bound to be modified by local palate and ingredients. Can a dish be acclaimed as authentic only by capturing the essence of its origin and paying tribute to its source? So the question remains if I were to sell an authentic napoleon style butter chicken pizza in the streets of Mumbai, India, would an Italian passerby look at me with horror or with delight?
I am not alone. Indian chefs like me around the world are using new cooking styles, throwing in local ingredients and mixing cultural influences to reinvent our rich cuisine. What I cook today is Indian with an American twist. America- the land itself defines the biggest melting pot of numerous different cuisines and cultures. Does that make Authentic American cuisine an oxymoron?
The dreaded F word, however, is my Favorite Friend. When I cook, my dishes are a punch of flavors from different ingredients and spices from India and around the world. They are Indian by nature but a combination of global tastes and flavors that are made to work effortlessly together.Through my food, I work to evoke old memories for our tastebuds while creating a childlike sense of curiosity for what is new and unfamiliar. I strive to create a style through passion, not by ancestry. I thrive on inspiration, ingredients and adventure. And so can anyone who is willing to give Indian cooking a try.
My suggestion to all cooks out there who want to explore and try Indian cooking are:
• Do not get intimidated that is often associated with the cuisine and spices
• Be brave to experiment and substitute ingredients if needed, keeping the essence and balance of flavors.
• Visit your local Indian grocery store, look through the shelves and ask questions if something catches your fancy
• Taste the spices, savor them, understand the flavor
• Use produce that is locally available and try cooking and seasoning with Indian spices
• And most of all,have fun and enjoy the process!
Chana, Mango and Coconut Salad
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoon split black gram (urad dal)
5 to 6 fresh minced curry leaves
1 fresh green chili pepper, minced
½teaspoon red chili flakes
One 15 ½oz (439g) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons shredded coconut, fresh or frozen
1 green mango (½lb/ 200g) peeled and cut into thin strips
1 Asian pear, peeled, cored and cut into thin strips (optional)
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves, plus sprigs to garnish
Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and black gram and sautéfor 30 seconds until the mixture splutters, and then add the curry leaves, green chilies, and red chili flakes, and sautéfor another minute.
Add the cooked chickpeas and salt and sautéfor another minute or 2, and then remove from the heat. Let it cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the coconut, mango, Asian pear if using, lemon zest and juice. Toss to mix all the salad ingredients together and check the seasoning. Add the chopped coriander and mix well. Serve cold, garnished with coriander sprigs.
More recipes available at www.harinayak.com