Monday, June 2, 2008

Gori cooks desi: My notes for the gori

It is hard to learn to cook a cuisine that you didn't grow up with. I am a foodie at heart and I love trying new things. Enjoying desi food took away some of the difficulty in actually learning to prepare desi dishes. I think as a gori, if you are open to desi flavors, you can become a successful desi cook.

I learned by sheer trial and error. I made a lot of mistakes. I questioned the aunties. I tried to learn the names of all of the foods and find out how to make them. Authentic South Asian foods are very different from what is served in the average American Star of India restaurant with its creamy dishes like the ubiquitous saag paneer and so forth. It was in peoples' homes that I got exposure to "real" South Asian food. I read a lot of Indian cookbooks. Unfortunately, there simply aren't very many Pakistani cookbooks. There were certainly none available to me when I was learning. Luckily, North Indian cuisine overlaps a lot with Pakistani cuisine due to the obvious shared geography and history and all. Now we have so much more on the web. But nothing beats a good, detailed cookbook.

So, a gori marries a desi. She tries new desi foods and wants to replicate those foods at home. She wants her husband to say that she is a good cook. Not in a "surrendered wife" way. Just cuz it's nice when someone likes your food, especially if that someone is a loved one. Where should said gori start? First of all, from our typical knowledge base goris only know the desi nations, maybe not much more than that. We do not know about the never ending diversity of people in South Asia. I know a gori-wife friend who wanted to surprise her husband by learning to cook Pakistani foods. She took an cookbook of Indian curry recipes from the library---700 Yummy Curries or some such title. Her husband is from a place near to Peshawar. She surprised him with a chicken in coconut milk dish filled with mustard seeds and curry leaves. It didn't go over well. Why not? Typical Pathan cooking doesn't contain coconut milk, curry leaves, or mustard seeds. The food was just as alien to my friend's husband as it was to her. He was actually grossed out by the curry leaves. She was crushed. Where did it go wrong? Well, you may be asking, what the heck is a Pathan? Her husband was one and she didn't know that. In South Asia, communities are divided into regional ethnic groups, castes, and so forth. These identities are paramount to people. Each group has its own unique customs, often its own regional language, and most importantly for the gori wife: its own distinct foods.

If two Pakistanis intermarry, say the husband is Punjabi, and the wife is from an Indian Gujarati origin family, if the family follows a traditional structure, then the wife will have to learn the ins and outs of her husband's family cooking. She may cook some of her Gujarati dishes sometimes, but she must pick up the recipes of her husband's community. That is just the way it is. So, if you are a gori wife and you want to impress your dear husband with your cooking skills, you must know what community your husband is from. You must know the standard recipes of that community, and if possible, the specifics of his family's recipes.

My own husband is pretty broad minded and likes a lot of different foods. I cook a lot of New American, Italian, Cantonese, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, South Indian, whatever at home. He eats it all, and has international favorites. He loves Korean barbecue, he savors a good steak. But he loves recipes from his particular community, and also from his family. So I have learned those as well.

So, the first step a gori should take is to learn what her husband's family background is, and what repercussions that has on the style of desi cooking she will learn.

My husband's family is what in Pakistan is known as "Urdu speaking," "Hindustani," or "muhajir." Both of his parents were born in India and emigrated to Pakistan when they were young. If you know your husband is "Urdu speaking," don't leave it at that. Where in India are his family's roots? That is an important question that will affect the cooking you aim to learn. His family could be from Bhopal, Hyderabad, Delhi, or any of a million places...each with special recipes. My husband's family's roots are from the general U.P. area, specifically Dehli, Dehra Doon, and Lucknow. This has huge implications on the way his family cooks and eats. His family settled in Punjab in Pakistan. Punjabi cuisine is similar...it all seems the same at first to us goray---but it is distinct. For example, some Pakistani favorites of my husband's family are made with a yoghurt based gravy instead of a Punjabi style tomato gravy. There are foods that my husband's family prefers to eat with rice, whereas people from the Punjab would have these foods with whole wheat flat bread---though my husband's family usually has both rice and flat bread at every meal. I could go on an on. Anyhow, if you were raised knowing all of this stuff, great. But it is mind boggling for a neophyte gori wife. Give yourself time to research. Don't be afraid to ask people for recipes and request that they specify their community. It is normal for desis to know each others' communities when they interact. In terms of what is available to you, most North Indian style cookbooks are suitable for both U.P. and Punjabi recipes. Most online Pakistani recipe sources also cater to the U.P. emigrant or Punjabi style---what is thought of as "standard Pakistani food" are the foods of these two communities. Shan Masala caters to that generic style as well. But if your husband's community is from Hyderabad, India, or he is a Pathan, or a Memon, or whatever, you will have to find out the culinary nuances of his particular community and may have a more difficult time with recipe sources. Don't worry, there is so much out there on the net these days.

I personally don't appreciate a picky man---hopefully your guy is satisfied with whatever you put forth on the table, even better for you if he gets in the kitchen himself. But come on goris, you know you want to learn to cook desi and get stuff right. So here I am presenting my humble advice on how to learn to cook in a way that honors your husband's family tradition.

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