Friday, March 26, 2010

Myths and Misconceptions That Americans Have about Desi Food

In the interest of promoting enjoyment of desi cuisines among my fellow Americans, I would like to discuss some misconceived ideas that some times crop up among non-desi Americans regarding desi food.

Indian food is healthy
Most non-desi Americans don't really even consider other desi nations in a culinary manner, they only focus on India. One of our stereotypes about Indian food is that it is very healthy (another reason that we goray log tend to have our racist, ridiculous, self-contradictory stereotypes about South Asians: we often think Indians are all skinny). Indian food IS healthy. Indian food is also unhealthy. There are too many factors at play in any cuisine to categorize it as healthy or unhealthy, especially the cuisines of India and the rest of South Asia. A home made stir fry type vegetable dish is healthy. A samosa or a gulab jaman, not so healthy. Rich, oily, meat and gravy dishes in desi cuisines are not so healthy. Neither is a dish in which all of the vegetables have been briefly deep fried before being added to a gravy. But considering that one may be eating a small ladel of such a dish with healthy boiled rice or whole-wheat flat bread, along with a stir-fried vegetable dish or a boiled lentil dish and some freshly cut vegetables, a balance exists. Many desis do eat too many carbs, especially deep fried carby foods. So do Americans. Carby, rich foods that sustained our ancestors through a day of manual work are not necessary any more. Although our lifestyles have become less active, we still eat as if we were working in a physical capacity all day. We don't burn off the calories we take in. Sound familiar? That a region has healthy as well as unhealthy foods should be obvious. Some non-desi people who are only familiar with desi cuisine through restaurant offerings may think that desi cuisine is filled with ghee, cream, and coconut milk. That is not true either. Home cooked desi 'main dishes' tend to be significantly lighter than what is found in South Asian restaurants. But I think that since Americans have our stereotype about these skinny, healthy Indians, we can even feel disappointed or duped to find that many desi foods are rich or prepared using unhealthy techniques and ingredients. Anyhow, desi food is not entirely healthy or unhealthy. We had our false notions of desi cuisine let down. But it was our own stereotypes that let us down, not the desi food itself.

India is a vegetarian country
This misconception is also related to the above two stereotypes. Vegetarian food is stereotyped as being healthy, so since Indian food is supposedly vegetarian, Indian food is healthy. Since Indian food is healthy, Indians are skinny. The dominoes of stereotypes fall down, clanging against one and other. Okay, there are many vegetarian Indians. However, most Indians are not vegetarians. Certain communities of Indians are associated with being vegetarian. For example, many Gujarati Hindus and especially Jains, Tamil Hindus of certain specific communities (like Iyers), and so on tend to be strict vegetarians. Non-Hindu Indians eat meat. There are a lot of them (+/-20% of the total population). Many, many Hindus eat meat. Some Hindus go through periods of being more religious, and give up meat for this, just like some Americans also go through phases of stronger religiosity. In some regions of India, even Brahmin food is non-vegetarian. Some regions are known for a broadly meat and fish based cuisine. Bengali food as well as the food of Kerala is mainly non-vegetarian. And on and on. Quite simply, India is a place with a wide variety of vegetarian foods, and some cuisines within India are largely vegetarian. However, India is not really a vegetarian country.

I would like to take a moment to address a common myth that I hear Indians or other non-Pakistanis repeat about Pakistani cuisine: Pakistanis only eat meat. This is so untrue. Most of the typical North Indian vegetable standards are eaten in Pakistan, too, with regional variation on exactly how they are prepared. A "proper" Pakistani meal would have a meat dish plus a daal and a vegetable served with rice and chapatti, plus some yoghurt, pickles, possibly a kasaundi (type of pickle) and some fresh salad vegetables layed out on a plate. The meat dish would be the "star" of the table, but the other dishes would be necessary to make the meal well-rounded and complete. Also, many of the "pure" veg dishes of North India are also iconic dishes of Pakistan: vegetarian chaats, dahi baray, karhi pakora, and so on. Although one does find dosai made by Pakistanis of South Indian origin, especially in Karachi, the dosa has not taken over Pakistan as a light meal or snack as it has in North India. But generally speaking, whatever meat and veg. dishes one finds North Indians eating, one will find Pakistanis eating. So it is totally untrue that Pakistanis don't consume vegetables.

South Asian food is spicy
South Asian food can be spicy. Chile heat levels vary again from region to region, family to family, and even between individuals. Non-desi Americans expect that all Indian food should be spicy and chile hot. They feel that milder Indian food is being served to them at restaurants as an adaptation of Indian food cooked to suit the American palate. This is partially true. Some non-desi Americans are grateful for this because they cannot tolerate spicy foods, so they appreciate the adaptation. However, many non-desi Americans do like to eat spicy food. They feel that being served mild food is an insult to their ability to stomach "authentic" desi atomic chile heat. They believe the restaurants are duping them. Okay, it is true that many Indian or Indo-Pak restos that cater to a non-desi clientele cook milder food. However, it is simply untrue that all desi food is fiery hot. Some foods are known to be hot. Some foods are commonly eaten mildly spiced or spiceless on purpose because that is how they are served (like a simple khichri or a daily daal). I recall reading recipe reviews from goras in which they complained that the original Indian recipe for a daily type daal was "bland" or "not spicy enough." Some particular daal dishes are cooked with a lot of chiles and spices. However, often a daily daal is very mild. It is simply boiled and has a light tempering that may include a few dried or fresh chiles, but the dish itself is not supposed to blow your head off. Some desis do like very hot foods and cannot stomach chile-less foods. However, many desis feel that a dish being overly spicy and hot (as well as oily) is a marker of it being poorly cooked. Low quality restaurants serve oily, fiery food for undiscerning customers. Being delicately seasoned is a sign of refinement. "Delicately seasoned" is a subjective description, as to an American person who cannot tolerate any chiles, a "delicately seasoned" desi dish may still be too hot and require copious glasses of water to quench the burning sensation caused by said dish.  Anyhow, my recipes on this blog are probably not spicy enough for chile-heads. The red chile powder and green chile amount can be increased to taste. But Americans shouldn't just assume that desi food has to burn off the tastebuds to be "authentic" or enjoyable.

A side note: I have read on food oriented forums and websites that American goras think that Pakistani food is chile-heat hotter than Indian food. This is not true. What I think is that many "Indian"-labeled  restaurants in the US are serving a less spicy, creamy restaurant genre of food loosely based on authentic Punjabi and Mughlai cuisine, particularly the non-regional-specialty restaurants that target a multi-ethnic (here meaning not just desi) clientele. Regional-specialty Indian restaurants, which mainly target an Indian clientele and are not widely popular among non-desi Americans, use a more "normal" chile heat level, and I am not referring to these types of Indian restaurants here. Pakistani restaurants may keep some of these restaurant-genre Indian items on their menu (jalfrezi, chicken tikka masala, etc). However, in the US I have noticed that restaurants that label themselves as "Pakistani"are often serving more homestyle desi type foods. "Indian" labeled restaurants are more widely popular in the US, and Pakistani restaurants are more likely targeting a Pakistani clientele. Be aware that any "Indian" restaurant can be owned by actual Indians, as well as Pakistanis, desi origin East Africans, Bangladeshis or whoever else. I mean restaurants that are promoted as Pakistani, and not "Indian"-labeled. Anyhow, since these restaurants are serving Southern Pakistani home style cuisine, they are using "normal" amounts of chiles and are not adapting the chile heat for the non-desi customers. So when goras are familliar with a typical generic Punjabi-Mughlai inspired Indian restaurant, which sets the parameters for what they know as Indian food, they must not compare this to the authentic, unadapted Pakistani food. In my hometown, many of the Indian origin people who I know joke that the only desi restaurant that serves "real Indian food" is the Pakistani restaurant. That is because the Pakistani restaurant is serving cream-less homestyle food which very much overlaps with what North Indians eat. So they feel it is much more like "real Indian food" than any of the creamy faux Punjabi-Mughlai "Indian" places. Anyhow, it is not true that "Pakistani food is spicier than Indian food." This is just a misconception based on what is available to us goras at restaurants.

South Asian food is oily
See, I told you the stereotypes we Americans have can co-exist even though they contradict each other. Among the gora's battery of stereotypes about desi food are that it is both healthy AND oily! Non-desi people who delve into authentic desi cooking and look at recipes made by and for desis and not oil-shy, Pam spraying Americans, are often wary of deep fried items, and shocked to find that traditional meat plus gravy recipes can call for 1/4 cup to even 1 cup of oil (like many 'Muslim' recipes). One has to look at it this way: the oil is not to be consumed by one person. The amount of oil is used for a dish meant to feed a large family. The cooking process in many desi cuisines requires some short and long term browning in oil, and reducing the moisture of ingredients by frying in oil. This requires a lot of oil to be done properly (although there are low-fat techniques to use as an alternative), and unlike frying techniques in which the foods are removed from the oil, the oil in these desi dishes is not removed and one adds more ingredients to this oil stage by stage. One can opt to pour off the oil at the end of cooking, or try to get less oil on the serving spoon when ladeling food from dish to plate. I have a friend who drops a dry paper towel on top of a finished dish to absorb some of the oil. One can opt to eat less of these oily meat dishes and go for more vegetables. There are ways to get around the oil. Some regional South Asian food is not particularly oily. However, foods from these regions are not widely available or known to Americans. So not ALL desi foods are oily.

Desi food is too salty
A desi "main dish" is rarely meant to be consumed without rice or bread. The desi dish is conceptualized as dish plus accompanying carb: wet dish with rice or flat bread, dryer dish with flat bread, fancy dish with special naan or kulcha, etc. Since the dish is meant to be mixed with a quantity of carbs, the dish must be highly salted or when it is combined with the carb it will taste under-seasoned. So yes, desi food is salty, but only if you are eating it the wrong way.

A common mistake in desi food consumption
Do not eat a rice dish with a piece of flatbread. Do not mix daal into your biriani. I recall reading a local review of a new restaurant in which the non-desi reviewer said that he mixed his daal into his biriani and mopped it up with his naan. He can eat it that way if he wants to, I guess. But biriani is meant to be eaten alone or with a bit of yoghurt...with some exceptions like a squeeze of lemon juice to lift a dull biriani, or a small bowl of mirch ka saalan in a Hyderabad resto, but I digress. Don't mix daal into your biriani at the Indian resto, O goray doston. It isn't mean to be eaten that way. And choose rice OR bread as your accompanyment. Ne'er the twain shall meet on the plate of the savvy.

I suggest interested readers also have a look at this post, which further discusses regionality among desi food and how that affects non-desis or non-cooking desis who are married to desi men and who would like to learn to cook their husband's regional cuisine.


Saboodle said...

Loved the post :) I still maintain that most desi food is too salty, even mixed with carbs but that's just me LOL. May I add that Europeans and other non-desi living in Europe will have very similar misconceptions about desi food. I had them myself, living in UAE has taught me a lot :)

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about your Lucky Delicious blog, but now I do thanks to GoriWife... looks like I have some reading to do! :)

Susie Zbaby said...

Great article, can you tell me What type of oil is used in Indian cooking?