Reading India Currents, desis began to pay more attention to Indian dance, music, arts and cuisine available in their neighborhood. Many restaurants began to advertise in IC, a welcome service for those of us looking for new eateries to explore. For me, an added attraction to the extensive cultural calendar was India Current’s vegetarian recipe column. Vegetarianism was becoming popular in the SF Bay Area at the time. And as we Indians have a history of taking our culture and cuisine wherever we go, our vegetarian cooking attracted a growing interest amongst health conscious people.
A couple of years after the magazine began, I met Arvind Kumar, one of the founders. Our conversation turned to food, and we both marveled at how our desi ancestors had figured out that a vegetarian diet can be very nutritious, a fact that the Western world was just beginning to discover. In 1994, I was working on my second cookbook, which included a chapter on vegetarian nutrition with some of the latest food research. Arvind asked me if I would share what I was learning with IC readers. I agreed, and wrote a two-part essay which appeared in the next two issues. This was the beginning of my long relationship with the magazine.
I was busy raising three children, with the youngest only two years old. Some of my spare time was spent cooking and creating new recipes. I had also begun working part-time at Other Avenues Food Cooperative (of which I am now a part-owner) so there was no shortage of good, seasonal ingredients to experiment with, and friends to share a new dish. One good thing about creating recipes is that family and friends can be guinea pigs! So when India Currents offered me a regular recipe column, I eagerly threw my hat in and began to develop new recipes to contribute almost every other month.
Some of my favorite columns in India Currents are Teed Rockwell’s music essays and Sarita Sarvate’s Last Word columns. Both of these contributors have strong, educated opinions and, whether I agree with them or not, they have always made me think. Last year I had the good fortune to meet some of these talented contributors at a writers’ party that the India Currents team hosted; I had the feeling that I already knew them through their work. They were already a large part of my life.
My daughter Serena, who illustrates my columns, also loves to read and shareIndia Currents with her friends. Among her favorite columns are Dear Doctor and the film reviews. She and I regularly consult the carefully researched calendar of events in the SF Bay Area.
As modern telecommunication shrinks the world and makes information available at the speed of thought, only publications that adapt to change will survive. As always, arts and culture remain a staple of IC, but other columns have evolved to serve the contemporary Indian American community. This is the main strength of India Currents; it is always evolving in response to its audience.
Similarly, the recipes that I have written over the years have changed as people’s eating habits and attitudes toward food and cooking have changed. This is particularly visible here in California where our tastes are influenced by the many cultures and ethnicities that mingle here, and the great variety of fresh ingredients that are easily available.
A wholesome, plant-based diet has always been popular among the health conscious people of California. However, 20 years ago, seasonal and local foods were not in vogue. Also, shoppers at health food stores did not focus on low-fat and low-salt foods as much. They assumed that being vegetarian was healthy enough, even though research has indicated that a meatless diet can be unhealthy if not balanced.
In the past few decades, health conscious people have greatly expanded their awareness regarding the food choices they make. They have modified their lifestyles in order to be ecologically responsible and also to be respectful to animals. The customers at my health food co-op report that Indian vegetarian diet is quite suitable for them because it is not dairy-dependent.
Indian Americans seem to have changed their attitudes towards their diet as well. Previously, these immigrants embraced the variety of meats available here in the United States, but now many desis are returning to their virtuous rice and dal tradition.
Two decades ago, the Indian community in the SF Bay Area was not as visible as it is today. Pockets of Indian immigrants were found in the academic communities in the East Bay and the South Bay. There were only a few good Indian restaurants. It was not always easy to find unique ingredients needed for Indian cuisine in San Francisco. I remember taking my cooking class students on a “field trip” to Indian food markets in Berkeley where they could buy black mustard seeds and asafetida.
During the technology revolution of the 80s in Silicon Valley, the Indian population increased dramatically. Along with them came their culture and cuisine with Bollywood movies, more restaurants, and Indian food markets. The ingredients needed for Indian cuisine can now be found at health food stores and gourmet supermarkets. You can now get genuine saffron even at warehouse stores like Costco!
In addition, a growing number of Indian grocery stores all over California carry ready-made, packaged, canned, and frozen Indian foods so working folks can now make their favorite idli, dosa, or dhokla in minutes.
Lately there is another phenomenon developing within the “foodie” communities in California. It is the renaissance of “making food from scratch.” This trend seem to have started partly because many creative people are now finding the time to source and prepare quality food. Others wish to cook with wholesome, organic, and local ingredients.
Indian Americans have become more aware of healthy trends. We realize that Indians are genetically more prone to have heart related ailments than many other ethnic groups. Adopting a low-fat, low salt and high fiber diet is good for our coronary health.
The new generation of young Indian Americans (including men) report to me that they are eager to learn how to cook healthy Indian food because as children they were often kept away from the kitchen by their desi moms.
More and more, Indian chefs are exploring how to combine and cross various cuisines in a complimentary, health promoting style. The interethnic trend has even reached some restaurants in the Bay Area.
I used to call my recipes “Classical Indian,” but over the years they have become infused with other ethnic cuisines that I have encountered and learned from. I have taken advantage of what is growing locally and made it “Indian” with the use of spices and traditional cooking techniques. I experiment with traditional Indian entrées and combine them with ingredients and techniques learned from other cuisines. In my cooking class we make patra, (a savory dish which traditionally uses taro leaves) using different locally grown leaves including green chard, red chard, and collard greens. And, as I learn more about health and nutrition, I incorporate my knowledge into the recipes I develop. I also enjoy and learn from columns contributed by the other chefs who write for India Currents.
Lately I have been working on creating recipes to meet the needs of people with dietary limitations, such as low-fat, non-dairy, or gluten-free diets. Some of these special recipes have already appeared in India Currents, and others are on their way.
We the writers, contributors, and readers, continue to help IC’s dedicated staff to keep India Currents always current and responsive to cultural and political changes. IC is important, not only to Indian immigrants, but to everyone who feels a kinship with the Indian community, in this generation and the next. We are fortunate to have India Currents as a forum for change and exchange in our constantly expanding, vital global village.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager and co-owner of Other Avenues, a health-food store.