For centuries America, too, has been assimilating immigrants and their culture; and the multi-rooted cohesiveness of settled Americans has in turn, continually asserted its own stamp. Several different cultural legacies can be traced by just browsing through a menu at any American diner. Consider the quintessential hamburger: it’s origins can be traced to the popularity enjoyed by a patty made of minced meat in Europe in the 18th century. New York City harbor eateries featured this dish in an attempt to attract German sailors. In time it was widely adopted by Americans, who added the bun and the onions.
This is why it is interesting to see the emergence of desi food culture in the United States. What will happen when the cuisines of these two diverse societies meet at the corner of Main and Union? When will a desi-influenced dish become an American holiday tradition like the English pie?
One can say that a beginning has been made; Chef Vikas Khanna has been invited to the White House, and has been voted hottest chef in New York City, the gourmet capital of the United States.
Here are some of the classic spices used in Indian cooking. The spices are used for flavorings, of course, but Karuna also noted that much of Indian cooking is built around Ayurvedic principles, so they are also being used to help maintain good health. Once you get into Indian Cooking, these larger packages might be a good value, especially when you compare them to grocery store prices, without requiring the same cleaning that you might need to do with the bulk. Karuna thought these brands were some good ones to look for. For all of these, check the packages closely to be sure the seeds seem plump and not shriveled or wrinkled. Coriander=Dhania. Seed of the cilantro plant, it shares some of that leaves’ lemony brightness. Bladholm notes “It is a major component of many ground spice mixtures, curry powders, and curries…It also aids digestion, reduces flatulence, and eases headaches.” Cumin=Jeera. Along with coriander, one of the most widely-used flavors. Peppery, savory. Believed to help with digestion, and is used as a sort of tea for colds and fevers. Mustard seeds=Rai. Also a major essential spice. One of my favorite parts of cooking Indian food is toasting the little seeds in hot oil and listening to them sputter and pop. Indian cooking tends to use this darker brown seed, but the lighter tan kind can be substituted if that’s what you have on hand. Tumeric=Haldi. You can find fresh whole tumeric at some of our local Asian markets (it looks like a big ginger) but in Indian cooking you will likely mainly find it dried and ground. Tumeric is used extensively, both for its flavor/color, but also for food preservation and its antiseptic qualities. It’s also thought to be a blood purifier. Bladholm describes it as having a “pungent, acrid, scorched-earth aroma and a musky, butter taste.” Also be careful! Tumeric can stain. (Random note: here is a picture of a mustard seed close up. This will not aid you in your cooking, I just thought it was cool.
Diplomatic circles aside, things seem to be spicing up in America’s homes too—desi chefs are now gaining celebrity status, by winning over food critics and peers on televised contests and shows. More importantly, their use of accepted culinary and gourmet practices and ingredients makes for an easier crossover. Viewers and chef-peers alike can understand what desi cooking is all about, instead of having an isolated experience of mysterious delicacies at niche gourmet Indian restaurants. To be mainstream, a cuisine must seem doable to a regular Joe or Jane. Weekly appearances on TV by these desi chefs endears the Indian cuisine by peer and critical acclaim and demystifies it by letting regular Americans look over their chef-tunic-adorned shoulders. Where does one find turmeric? And how much do you use in the boiled lentils? These celebrity chefs answer these very questions. With style, charm, grit, integrity, and creativity, they are slowly taking the flavors of India to American homes.
Chief among the celebrities is Floyd Cardoz, who battled it out week after week with other chefs on the televised Bravo Channel show, Top Chef. His final competitors came from mainstreamed cuisines—one had a modern Mexican culinary background, the other French-Californian. Each chef has an impressive culinary resume. Chef Cardoz himself was executive chef at New York’s famous Tabla restaurant, which was known for its “American Food With An Indian Soul.” In spite of the race against time in every round, Cardoz personified style and quality by his dogged attention to flavor. He almost missed prepping for the menu in his final round because he refused to give up on seeking out the right ingredients. It underscores his approach to cooking: “I believe some of the blame for the un-gourmet-like perception of Indian cooking is with us Indians. Restaurant owners try and keep the food cheap, by using the cheapest ingredients. I have never understood why that is so, since everybody in India has memories of their mum or dad haggling with the neighborhood vendor to provide the best quality produce or meat. Why, then, do something different when you open a restaurant?”
Cardoz also doesn’t understand why a menu must be fabricated, when the locals want to just get a taste of India. One of the first tasks he undertook at his first job in a desi restaurant in the United States was to strike down one such incredible dish, Chicken Marango, a dish made with chicken and ripe alphonso mangoes. “Who tries that in India?” he asks. For him, staying true to the ingredients is foremost in creating a recipe. His flair for Indian techniques and spices works the rest of the magic. For example, a Cardoz recipe suggests marinating a hanger steak (a smaller piece of flesh that hangs from the diaphragm of the cow) in a blended mix of coriander and mustard seeds among others, to retain the rich flavor of the meat while adding an Indian twist. His recipes enable Americans anywhere to spice up their everyday dishes using supermarket items.
Aarti Sequeira, one-time contestant and now Food Network Star, hosts her own show, Aarti Party, on the network. A focus group participant during the contest owned up to feeling as if Sequeira was a friend showing how to cook Indian, such was her charm. Chef Sequeira’s secret does indeed seem to be the warmth she exudes on camera, and into the potential yumminess of her recipes. She breaks through the diehard will-not-give-up-my-American-comfort-food barrier by simply adopting American or gourmet dishes and making them Asian, such as fried green tomatoes and the raw vegetable soup, gazpacho. For the former, she recommends a cumin tadka, excuse me, “finishing oil;” and uses lychee fruit in the latter. With a typical girly flourish she says, “Lychees taste like the color pink.” And in those simple words, she has gently demystified unknown, daunting flavors.
Roshni Mansukhani-Gurnani, champion of Food Network’s show Chopped, showed, during the contest, that a menu can be desified in 30 minutes or less.Chopped is famous for its mystery and unlikely ingredients. In one round, Mansukhani-Gurnani combined mandatory ingredients duck breast, persimmon, and polenta into a Curry Duck Breast With Ginger Polenta Salad.
The trick seems to be in understanding the ingredients and developing an instinct for pairing them up, like the patty in a bun that became the hamburger.Making a successful marriage of Indian cuisine and American ingredients seems to be the key to achieving red, white and blue success. This is brought home also by contestant on Food Network’s Top Chef and judge on their Iron Chef series, Suvir Saran. Chef Saran is co-founder of American Masala, the name for his culinary philosophy, book, and farm, all representing the best in Indian and American cooking. A testament to this is a cocktail served at Devi, the NY restaurant where Saran is executive chef—Cilantro Tonic is a combination of vodka or gin, tonic, and cilantro (coriander leaves). He also boldly experiments with strictly desi ingredients; a lunch item on the menu is kathal (jackfruit) biryani.
Saran’s contribution to change in America’s neighborhood culinary scene is not just via TV. In 2008, he was one among the panel of gourmet chefs chosen by UC Berkeley to get the students eating in their cafeteria. In a piece in the SF Chronicle, student Christopher Hogue, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering from Ohio said, “I was a meat-and-potatoes Midwest kind of guy. Now naan and dal is my comfort food. It’s the California equivalent of mashed potatoes and gravy.”
The Chronicle went on to claim that “…the improved food at Cal Dining … is broadening the palates and perspectives of the country’s future leaders.”
What kind of training makes a gourmet chef? What enabled these desis to change perspectives? Interestingly, most got a solid start in India. Says Chef Maneet Chauhan, executive chef at Vermillion (Chicago and New York), Food Network’s Iron Chef contestant, and Chopped judge, “When it was time for me to choose a path to being chef, the institute in Manipal came up tops in Hotel Management, so I trained there first. The training in India is rigorous, and we follow the same textbooks based on the French Gastronomique as other countries. Working in five-star hotels in India also provided me great exposure to international ingredients and recipes; you get to work with the finest international ingredients. I was astonished to see fresh [vegetable and fruit] purees from New Zealand!”
She was hired on campus by the Taj Group, but wanted to study some more. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) beckoned, and she landed at her sister’s place in Chicago in 2000. She remembers, “When I got here, my sister was incredulous that I would only ask to visit produce markets, when all other visitors from India would make a beeline for the malls … At the CIA, the emphasis on knowing your ingredients is all-consuming—a class on product identification taught us the look, taste, smell, and ways of treating 15 different apples.”
White House guest chef and Amritsar-born Vikas Khanna graduated out of the WelcomGroup Institute in India, and continued on to study at the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University, New York University, and the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, Paris.
In addition, he has worked with some of the most honored chefs in America, and now is executive chef at Junoon in New York. He has appeared on shows on NBC, ABC, and Fox.
Martha Stewart considers his cooking “exquisite and unusual.” Khanna considers his time in his grandmother’s kitchen as part of the foundational training. Being born with misaligned legs, he could not join his peers outdoors, so he spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his grandmother. In a blog he writes, “Before preparing every meal my grandmother had a cup of tea and thought through everything she would be making before she started. I later came to understand that this technique is called visualization. When it gets hectic at Junoon, I try to remember her technique.”
Mansukhani-Gurnani was born and raised on Sindhi food in Canada. She developed a flair for presenting early on, watching the Urban Peasant cooking show in Canada. She says, “Watching this show I would find myself in my kitchen at home cooking and talking to the walls pretending that they are my audience.” Cardoz credits his European education with rounding off his culinary skills, in addition to his degree in Hotel Management. “After graduation in Mumbai, social life was difficult, my hours weren’t conducive to partying, besides, nobody wanted to hang out with a cook!” Switzerland was where he was accorded respect, where he could settle into his profession. He started cooking in his apartment, rolling out dough with a wine bottle to makechapatis (the flat unleavened bread that is the staple of the Indian home cook). Soon word spread, and “I had a decent clientele!” he says. His journey to the United States was not to earn further experience; it was to be at his brother’s wedding while he waited for his Australian paperwork. As fate would have it, the paperwork got delayed, and he decided to give the United States a try. After some time at an Indian restaurant, he caught a break at the St. Regis, where he manned every station in the kitchen, starting with three months at the salad station, followed by stations dealing with hot appetizers, vegetables, protein (fish and meat), roasting, and sauces before moving on to becoming chef de cuisine. “I don’t have an ego, and am not afraid of hard work,” he comments.
Given the 16-18 hour days on their feet, in hot and humid conditions while under pressure to please discerning palates, hours in front of the camera, and days of experimenting to come up with gourmet-recipes, how do these chefs keep up their energy? Cardoz finds the flavors from his childhood inspirational. One of the dishes responsible for Cardoz’s win on Top Chef is the humble upma, a savory semolina pudding, which he would eat when he got home from school in Mumbai (the chef’s upma was made with kokum, coconut milk, and wild mushrooms). He knew he wanted to be a chef the day his dad took him to a big hotel in Mumbai for a sit-down dinner, with several forks and knives. That was when food became an experience for young Cardoz. Chauhan too attributes her love of food to her childhood memories. She grew up in Ranchi in eastern India, where the multi-regional neighborhood literally whetted her appetite. “I would go to the next-door aunties and tell them, feed me!” confesses Chauhan, talking about her delight at the various different tastes she got to experience at such a young age. Her mettle was tested when she had to sponsor her own education at the CIA. “I didn’t have financial aid at the beginning so I had to get creative. Culinary school is not cheap, especially for immigrants. On weekends, I volunteered to help chefs do events and demos, so I didn’t have to worry about meals. I acted as a tour guide to get coupons to the bookstore. I also was dorm manager in return for certain free privileges.” Chauhan graduated top of her class and in all award-categories.
Where does this courage of conviction come from? Is it not daunting for an immigrant to represent a not-yet-perceived-to-be-gourmet cuisine on TV? Sequeira admits to feeling that her knowledge of desi cooking didn’t amount to much in the early days of the contest (Food Network Star). “I felt out-matched by the professional cooks. Desi cooking was so ingrained in me that I felt like I had nothing worth offering.” Sequeira took to cooking as a creative outlet only when jobs weren’t easy to come by after her move to Los Angeles in 2004. She started to recreate childhood recipes, but kept feeling that “making lasagna seemed easier, the ingredients were all available, and I could pick up the recipe from anywhere.” This gap between what she wanted to do and what she could easily access got her experimenting, and she began hosting her own shows on YouTube. It took a while for her to realize that her knowledge of spices and Indian techniques, while seeming meager to her, was still more than what others knew. “I’d wanted a career in journalism, I wanted to change people’s lives. Now, I achieve change by touching the lives of so many people through my show.”
Chef Khanna is spiritually charged and devotes a large portion of his energies in the service of people. One of his programs, called Cooking For Life gets top chefs from the world over to collaborate on gastronomic events to raise money and awareness for different causes around the world. His documentary series, Holy Kitchens, captures the essence of food within the context of religion, tying it up with the real world experience of sharing food (trailers are at holykitchens.com ). His invitation to the White House is due in part to his spiritual bent; his food will be featured at the Hindu American Seva Conference to be held there. In a similar vein of keeping it true, Junoon’s menu reflects ancient Indian techniques such as cooking in thehandi (pot), tandoor (clay oven), patthar (stones), tawa (cast iron utensils), and sigri (an open pit fire).
Chauhan has a different muse, and takes on fusion cuisine with a flair, saying, “Vermillion is unabashedly bold, we celebrate spices; at the same time, fusion is dear to me. I’m inspired by everything, every day, and by everybody.” Her Indian-Latin American menu features among other fused dishes, a salad of shaved beef and curry flavored vermicelli. Vermillion is popular also for its fusion Thanksgiving meal, attracting regulars every year. The holiday menu appears on desi steroids: cumin-star anise turkey stuffed with rice and lentils, cranberry chutney laced with panch puran (Bengali blend of five herb/spice seeds) and greens, sarson da saag (Indian mustard), served with pumpkin empanadas. While Chauhan is proud of the how far her clientele has come along the spice road, she laments those that walk in asking for the “curry powder”—many Americans still believe there is one magic concoction that makes a curry.
Before taking on a spice-challenged clientele and televised contests though, some of these chefs had to take on their families. Like in a typical desi family, Mansukhani-Gurnani’s decision to not pursue medicine or law for a career was met with disdain. “You are crazy and confused,” is the reaction I got from everybody”, she says. “I’ve wanted to be a cook even before I knew of chefs. When I was a teen, I worked in a restaurant clearing tables and serving coffee. One Sunday, the kitchen was backed up and my boss asked me to help out. I spent my whole eight-hour shift peeling potatoes. It was then I realized I belong in the kitchen.” She did do a two year stint towards a Bachelors of Business, but then headed for Culinary Institute of Canada. Winning the Chopped title was for her a personal victory, a vindication.
Mansukhani-Gurnani is now an executive chef consultant in Boston and aims to promote non-mainstream professions among traditional cultures. She certainly has chosen the right cuisine at the right time!
The United States food scene seems to be going through an India-themed Woodstock, and like those Flower Power days, when Pandits Zakir Hussain and Ravi Shankar among others, were infusing ragas into American melodies, Chefs Cardoz, Chauhan, Khanna, Mansukhani-Gurnani, Saran, and Sequeira are starting to hold America in a delicious “Spice Vise.” We seem to be on the cusp of it becoming convention to sport turmeric and curry leaves alongside rosemary and thyme in Main Street kitchens. These pioneering chefs have chosen to adopt fine regional ingredients but stayed true to an Indian flavor profile; have dared to authenticate and amplify desi food; have taken Indian dishes through the gourmet-culinary grinder, thus delectably ambushing everyday American palates. Who knows, maybe McDonalds will import their McAloo Tikki from India to the United States due to popular demand.
Priya Das is a marketer with an interest in tracking grass-roots change in society and niche markets.
Meet the host of BBC’s Indian Food Made Easy television series, Anjum Anand. Her latest book is called I Love Curry. “My approach to Indian food is flavour without too much fuss or fat.” The no-fuss style is mirrored in her culinary background as well; Anand has had no formal training, and is self and family taught. Her influences include her mother’s cooking, and father’s drive and work ethic. Anand’s website and fourth book, Eat Right For Your Body Type emphasizes another inspiration—the benefits of adopting Ayurveda and how food is key to good health.
Anand definitely believes in making every day cooking comforting by bringing back authentic and simple techniques; she frequently uses the mortar-pestle on TV to grind up spices, for example.
Anand experimented with business school at first, but then decided it was better to make a career out of something she loved—cooking—rather than spending her life working for a pay check and waiting for the weekend. “My family were surprised by my decision; cooking was not considered a ‘respectable’ career,” she shares.
For the future, she is working on a range of sauces under the brand name The Spice Tailor, due to come out in the United Kingdom this summer. In keeping with her healthy attitude to cooking, her next cookbook will be about vegetarian Indian recipes.