Vantage point

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Culinary Underdogs - "Simple" Indian Dishes

This week, Floyd Cardoz, a New York-based Bombay-born-and-raised chef won Top Chef Masters. In the finale, the first course was supposed to be a dish that was associated with an early memory. Cardoz made the humble upma, by elevating it with subtle variations, like using chicken stock and adding mushrooms. In the third course, along with an Indonesian braised beef dish, he served a side of what he called "tapioca pilaf", but which essentially looked like good ole sabudana khichdi.

My twitter timeline and facebook newsfeed are full of Indians marvelling at, confused at, and even laughing at an Indian chef winning a prize of $100,000 after serving *snicker* upma and sabudana khichdi. And that triggered a post I have been composing in my head for a while now - simple Indian dishes, the culinary underdogs.

Indian cuisine's foremost ambassadors have been Punjabi restaurateurs. So what the rest of the world thinks of as "Indian" cuisine is essentially Punjabi (plus some mughlai). These dishes are elaborate, requiring a dozen or more spices and ingredients, including but not limited to the standard pantheon of turmeric-chili-cumin-coriander-ginger-garlic-onion. Then there's garam masala, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, poppy, dry fruits, and much more. The main ingredient, whether meat or veggies or dairy, needs to be cooked thoroughly. So the cooking time is at least half an hour.

The end result is usually yummy. I have spent a couple of hours on biryani, nihari, haleem, murgh musallam, and always found the food worth the time and effort.


The elaborate cooking is just one facet of Indian cuisine. Not that this is news to any Indians out there. We have all grown up eating the simplest of dishes that our moms could whip up in no time. And we love eating them. But for some reason, most of these dishes have not made it to fancy restaurant menus, and the few that have, like upma, are treated like stepkids. Subsequently, they have not been the subject of experimentation and enhancements with a few exceptions like Floyd Cardoz and Jehangir Mehta in New York. If an Indian dish is simple, it is considered infra-dig.


Some of the most fancied dishes in the world are refreshingly simple. But they are fancied because their proponents have, without any sense of shame or inferiority, held them up as special dishes. So if you think "upma", you think, oh, this simple lame dish I have had a million times. But take the same concept, apply it to a different grain - corn, give it a fancy name like "polenta", and suddenly people are willing to pay big bucks to eat it at a posh restaurant. Or, take yet another dish based on the same idea - "grits", and people will wax eloquent about the magic of soul food, southern American cuisine, and so on.

In a Frasier episode, Frasier and his brother Niles, who considered themselves refined gourmands, realize that the fancy French and Italian dishes they swoon over are essentially "peasant food", so why should they look down upon American "peasant food" like burgers and sandwiches? They get rid of their snooty attitude and enjoy pleasant meals.

Similarly, my dear Indians, most of the non-Indian dishes we eat are simple, yet delicious. So why not share with the world our own simple dishes? And why not take pride in them?

I have enjoyed cooking and eating all sorts of dishes from different cuisines. I love a good risotto, but don't see why bisibelebaath or dahibutti or tempered-curd-rice shouldn't be considered in the same league. Why are savory crepes so la-di-dah but dhirde/ghavan (served as "veg tomato omelet" in Indian udipi joints) infra-dig? Why is couscous such a posh choice, but sabudana khichdi sold only in tiny college canteens? Why is Neapolitan Eggplant Parmesan so eclectic but simple vaangyaache kaap are not even seen on a menu? Et cetera et cetera...

Growing up, I have eaten dozens of simple Indian dishes at home (or at friends' homes) that have given me as much pleasure as elaborate dishes. On the few occasions that I made and shared such simple dishes with non-Indian friends in the US, I got a great response, with them wondering why Indian restaurants don't serve these dishes. I am convinced that if Indian foodies and cooks go forth and boldly serve a different kind of Indian cuisine - simple low-on-ingredients dishes, it will be just as successful as the spice-and-effort-heavy food that everyone now thinks of as Indian food abroad.

Do your part!

As for me, I can't wait to try making upma with chicken or beef stock!