Monday, July 22, 2024
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Khushbu Shah’s ‘Amrikan’ Celebrates the Art of Adaptation

In her new cookbook, Shah shines a spotlight on the Indian American diaspora’s culinary ingenuity and creativity

There’s a famous story in my family of how my Didu scammed customs. It was sometime in the 1960s, and she had just returned from a visit to India with a suitcase full of spices she couldn’t find anywhere near her home in Newark. The security agents opened her bag and questioned her, and she spun a story of how she was a part of a very specific, mystical religion, and what was in the suitcase was all she was allowed to eat, and oh, wouldn’t the officers please let her go so she didn’t starve? The non-Indian officers, seeing a 5-foot-tall brown woman in a sari nearly weeping in front of them, flusteredly obliged. This is what you used to have to do to get turmeric in this country.

Aside from using whatever she smuggled, Didu did what every other Indian immigrant of her and later generations did: She adapted. Khushbu Shah’s new cookbook, Amrikan, is dedicated to that adaptation. “Come visit my parents’ house any day of the week and I guarantee you’ll find a sunshine-yellow box of Bisquick,” she writes; her mother found it was a suitable substitute for khoya, a key ingredient in gulab jamun. Shah recalls upma made from cream of wheat, and chutneys made from peanut butter — whatever worked when the traditional stuff wasn’t available.

Amrikan includes recipes for chevdo made with Chex, and papdi chaat made with tortillas. But the book sets its sights wider than Shah’s family’s kitchen. Shah uses it to chronicle how Indian immigrants have swapped ingredients and techniques with other immigrants, creating Indian Tex-Mex dishes and Indian pizzas, adding Indian flavors to American staples, opening restaurants, and building a cuisine unique from those of the country from which they emigrated. Amrikan is a history book as much as it is a cookbook, a testament to a diaspora’s innovation and creativity.

Today, immigrants perhaps don’t have to adapt the same way anymore; you can get turmeric at basically any grocery store, and masala chai at the cafe. We spoke to Shah about what that means for the future of Indian American cooking, and why the cuisine of the Indian diaspora in America deserves recognition.

Eater: What made you realize that Indian American cuisine is a distinct cuisine?

Khushbu Shah: As part of my job with Food & Wine, I had a real real privilege to see Indian restaurants around the country, and it’s really interesting to see things pop up. And I’m lucky to travel to India and the U.K., too, and to other diasporas. It was just very clear that because of immigration patterns here, there’s certain styles of Indian food that have popped up, things that are very unique to our diaspora, like Indian Tex-Mex and Indian pizza. And then, observing how my mom and other aunties cook, using these very American substitutes and ingredient swaps. It’s a much younger diaspora [in America], which is also very interesting; it’s really shaped what Indian food in America looks like.

There’s still a lot of misconceptions around Indian food in America, because the exposure is more limited.

What are some of the differences that show up between America’s Indian diaspora and in other places that have older immigrant groups?

There’s been less time for things to blend seamlessly. In the Caribbean diasporas, Indian flavors are just often woven in — like doubles, right? If you break it down, it’s puri and chole. The Caribbean and the U.K. have direct relationships with India that the U.S. does not in the same way. The U.K. has a multi-century direct relationship with India, so there’s this cross-pollination where yes, the British colonized India, but because of that, the influence of India is very strong on Britain. Their national dish is [considered by many to be] chicken tikka masala. [Although technically, the dish is not entirely from India.] And if you go to normal grocery stores you’ll very easily find Indian ingredients. I remember studying abroad in London in 2010 and being blown away that you could just buy paneer at the corner store, and everyone knew what it was.

There’s still a lot of misconceptions around Indian food in America, because the exposure is more limited — A) because it’s younger, and B) because we don’t have this direct relationship with India in the same way. It’s like two diasporas removed: Indian food via Britain, to America. A lot of people here think that Indian food is just curries, or they haven’t heard of it beyond butter chicken or chai.

How did you determine the parameters of what was part of this American tradition that you’re talking about?

Ultimately, this is a cookbook through my lens. But it’s not only my family’s recipes. The diaspora here is larger than my family’s perspective; it’s not just Gujarati American. I’ve been noting things that I’ve seen in restaurants across the country, like Indian pizza. I did a whole story for it on Thrillist — it started in the late ’80s, but it really started to take off in the last decade, and I’ve been paying attention to that. And we’re lucky in America that we have a real pan-Indian diaspora. My mom learned to make dosa and idli from her South Indian friends; they would all share recipes. So it was important to me to get as much as I possibly could. But again, immigration patterns really dictate certain things, so there’s certain regions and dishes that are more prominent here. We skew very heavily towards Punjab, but there are so many regions and states and styles of food in India that just are now starting to have more prominence in the Indian diaspora in America.

A lot of this stuff is also just stuff I wished existed, or my takes on things that I grew up with. Like falooda: I always thought I was missing a chewy element. I also grew up drinking so much boba, so I was like, Oh, that’s what’s missing. Or the saag paneer lasagna, I was tearing through every Indian cookbook and I just didn’t see it anywhere. And this was wild to me. As someone who loves lasagna, I was like, Why doesn’t this exist?

There’s this misconception that Indian food is complicated and takes so much time.

You talk about curry powder as something that a lot of non-Indian Americans are familiar with, but how it’s not something that’s in most Indian American kitchens. But you also recognize the use of ready-made spice mixes that you’ll come across in lots of Indian grocery stores, that a lot of Indian home cooks rely on. Can you talk about the difference between the two: why curry powder got to where it is today, even though there are all these other things that technically could fall under the umbrella of curry powder?

It’s a British invention. I struggle with the term “curry.” I think there’s better descriptors, but I understand why “curry” is used as a standard because there’s just so many languages across India. The terms change between Hindi and Tamil and Punjabi, and whether you’re making a stir-fry dish or something that’s more like a stew. You can have an Indian friend group and everyone calls it a completely different name. But curries themselves are so vast and so different that the idea that you would use just one spice blend for all of them is wild.

I love the premade spice blends, though. I don’t use them in my book, but I do say that you can use them easily in any of the recipes if you don’t feel like combining various spices from your pantry. I think shortcuts are brilliant. There’s this misconception that Indian food is complicated and takes so much time, and it’s like, do you think no Indians have jobs and are only making these elaborate dishes? Both my parents worked; my mom runs her own dental practice, and would come home and still put dinner on the table. There’s a lot of great shortcuts like these spice blends, or the pressure cooker, or using frozen vegetables. It’s the same tricks as any other kind of cuisine.

You included one of my favorite things ever — a dupe of the McDonald’s India McSpicy Paneer sandwich. What did it take to create that? And why is McDonald’s India superior?

I feel like it’s like a shared Indian American diaspora experience when you go to India and see what’s there. McDonald’s is not the most exciting chain for a lot of Indian Americans — Taco Bell is our chain. Indians have such a complicated relationship with meat. The menu at McDonald’s is often very limiting, but you go to India for the first time and go to McDonald’s, and suddenly it’s like, everything on the menu is exciting. There’s so much flavor. That paneer burger is always the thing I look forward to the most, so I was really determined to recreate it. I really wish McDonald’s would throw them on its menu here, and I’m surprised more Indian restaurants aren’t doing a version of it. I really did it from taste memory, but it’s kind of hard to go wrong with crispy paneer.

Was there a recipe that was particularly hard to get right? Or something that required more research or a new level of knowledge from you?

I’m a little bit nervous for people to cook from the dosa chapter because translating when the batter is at the right fermentation level is so hard without giving people a scratch and sniff element to the book. It smells a very particular way, and you can hear the bubbles, there’s all these cues. It’s such a representation of the food people eat in the diaspora but it’s so finicky, so temperature-dependent. It really is one of those things that once you’ve made it enough you really understand where the batter is. But until you make it enough, it’s kind of hard to describe.

It does seem like in America, there are a lot more of these Indian diaspora restaurants doing this adaptive cooking. How do you think this kind of cooking changes as it moves from the home to more of the public sphere?

When you’re cooking at home, you’re catering to yourself, right? Or whatever guests are coming over. But when you put it into a restaurant, where we also need to make money on it, it changes. Certain ingredients are expensive so maybe you limit the use of saffron and cardamom, because it can get really spendy really fast. And you’re cooking for a much wider audience, and maybe people who don’t necessarily have exposure to the cuisine or the culture either. And so that becomes like an interesting challenge.

The home becomes this place for greater experimentation or adaptation, whereas restaurants can’t take as many risks.

That’s why you always see the new restaurants have a couple of riskier items, and then suddenly, it’s a menu of butter chicken. The standards are still there, just in case.

I’m waiting for someone to open the great Indian-American wine bar.

Throughout Amrikan you talk about adaptation being necessary for previous generations of Indians in America who didn’t have access to ingredients that were really common in Indian cooking. I feel like it is getting to that point where you can get turmeric at any grocery store here, and simmer sauces. How do you see that availability changing Indian American diaspora cooking, when you don’t have to adapt so much anymore?

I think it allows us to be on two parallel courses. On one hand, I think there will be this continuation of adaptation. People think “fusion” is such a dirty word, but it’s just the evolution of cuisine, the intersections of cultures. There’s such a thing as nonsensical fusion, but when it’s just elements you are familiar with and seeing how these play together, I think people are going to continue to do that. I think there will continue to be things that are born out of the Indian American diaspora that are unique to it, because it’s where all these cultures collide.

And on the other hand, I do think this access to ingredients is actually going to allow for more regional Indian cooking to become more prevalent. I’m hopeful for that. If you look at the Bay Area, there are a lot of restaurants that aren’t necessarily on, like, white people, mainstream radars, but they almost don’t even need those audiences anymore. There are these very regional restaurants, and they have enough business from Indians that they don’t have to adapt to do anything. So my hope is that we’ll just start to see way more regional Indian foods, while this other arm is still happening. I’m waiting for someone to open the great Indian American wine bar.

Truly, where is it?!

Or, like, the Indian American diner. Chinese food to me is very inspiring for that two-parallel-pathways thing I’m talking about. We’re seeing so much really sick regional Chinese food, and the fact that so many Americans know the difference between Sichuan food and Cantonese food. And then you have incredible restaurants like Bonnie’s and Golden Diner, where people are exploring their Chinese American heritage. I would love to see more Indians and generally South Asians in those spaces. I want a great Bengali American diner.

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