My friend Chandra Ram recently came out with a new Indian cookbook and I couldn’t wait to dive in and start cooking. As I thumbed through the gorgeous recipes for dishes like Navratan Biryani, Rogan Josh and Dal Makhani it dawned on me that I knew so little about them. While I have an above average working knowledge of Italian, French, Spanish and even Japanese food, I really don’t know much about Indian food. If hard-pressed I couldn’t even tell you the difference between korma and kulcha. Part of the reason for this is my family is not directly from India but rather from the Fiji Islands. My great-grandparents came over from India during the British Raj as indentured laborers to cut sugar cane somewhere around the 1890’s. Sadly, we lost a lot of our ancestral history after the migration but as far as I can piece together my father’s side is from near Agra and my mother’s side is from Kolkata. Indians have a tendency to hold tight to their traditions, culture and food but my great grandparents also had to make due with what was available on the island. Indian food can be adapted to any place by incorporating whatever ingredients are available and Fijian-Indian food came to represent a melange of influences from all over India (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Southern India) blended with local Fijian ingredients such as taro, cassava, mackerel and jackfruit . As a result the dishes I grew up with are vastly different from the Northern Indian staples found in most Indian restaurants today. I didn’t even know what butter chicken or saag paneer was until after I had moved to Chicago and started exploring Devon Avenue.
I grew up eating Indian food pretty much every single day. My mother was and still is a wonderful cook. She would spend hours in the kitchen teaching herself how to make this and that (and I wonder where I get it from). Long before kati rolls became a trendy fast food she would send me to school with curry burritos and I absolutely hated it. The kids would make fun of the smelly yellow stuff I was eating and ask if it was monkey brains referencing that ill-fated scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that most likely scarred every Indian-American kid in the 80’s. Kids can indeed be cruel and I just wanted to be like my “American” friends and eat “white food” like pizza, spaghetti, tater tots and bologna sandwiches. But as we get older and more confident and comfortable in our own skin we begin to wonder more about where we came from and what makes us - us. I now realize that I have been missing out on an important opportunity to explore the depth and richness of my Indian heritage through our food. I may never know where exactly my ancestors came from but maybe I can learn more about them through the food they would have eaten. I also believe 2019 will be the year for Indian food, especially here in Chicago. We have four Indian restaurants (Grand Trunk Road, Vajra, Superkhana International and Rooh) opening in the coming months that celebrate a more modern interpretation of Indian food - way beyond butter chicken and chicken tikka masala (which isn’t even from India by the way, it’s a British invention). Indian food is also extremely misunderstood and misrepresented as highlighted by this recent article about Bangladeshi food in The New York Times. I’ve decided for 2019 my resolution will be to learn more about the foods of India — really explore and understand the vastness and history of its regional cuisine. But where to begin? A quick Google search turned up Colleen Taylor Sen, a scholar and expert on Indian food who happens to live here in Chicago — sign taken! Colleen is a native of Toronto and came to love and appreciate Indian food after marrying into an Indian family. She is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the subject and has penned six books including the 336-page Feasts and Fasts, a History of of Food in India. I figure Colleen’s book would be the perfect place to start to my journey into the world of Indian food. I hope you will join me.