Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Desi Food, in Theory

Through a posting on the Sepia Mutiny news tab, I came across an interesting "food tourism" type piece in the New York Times, featuring Krishnendu Ray, a Professor of Food Studies at NYU (can anyone think of a better discipline to be in? I can't).

Professor Ray is the author of an intriguing-looking book called The Migrant's Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households.

The Times has Prof. Ray go on a tour of a series of very different Desi restaurants around New York City, beginning with high-end fusion food in Manhattan (Angon), passing through Jackson Diner (a cross-over favorite), stopping by the Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing, and ending at a working class place in Brooklyn called Pakiza.

Ray's comments are really intriguing. First there is a general, theoretical comment about the function of the Desi restaurant as a space of cross-cultural interaction in American cities:

“The immigrant body is a displaced body — it reveals its habits much more than a body at home, because you can see the social friction,” Mr. Ray said. “The ethnic restaurant is one of the few places where the native and the immigrant interact substantively in our society.”

Interesting -- and possibly true. (Thoughts?) I think what Ray is getting at here is the fact that how we eat is both more intimate and harder to conceal than other aspects of cultural difference. In many other spheres, adaptation and mimicry can be pretty straightforward: you buy a certain kind of suit and shoes, and fit in at a workplace or school, more or less. But eating is closer to home, and the Indian restaurant in particular is a space where "old habits" (like, say, eating with one's hands) can come out safely. But, as Ray also points out, the rules are somewhat different when the Indian restaurant in question has a mix of Desi and non-Desi patrons.

On $6 for a tiny, pyramid-shaped mound of Bhel Puri at Devi, Ray says:

“We like this very clever insider joke,” Mr. Ray continued. “We are taking something cheap and from the street, and reducing the quantity, turning it into a pyramid, putting it on a big plate, and all these white guys are paying 20 bucks for it.” (link)

Heh. His bewilderment at the idea of veal at a restaurant named "Devi," as well as at the ingenious preposterousness of "Masala Schnitzel" is also worth a look. I also agree with him about the greatness of Saravanaas, on Lexington Avenue, and on a few other things as well.

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Blogger Anu said...

Interesting article but I did not like that Mr. Ray reinforced the impression most Americans have of Indians = Hindus and Hindus = vegetarian:
"Not only are Hindus vegetarian, he pointed out, but cows are deeply sacred to them. “Who is supposed to eat here?” Mr. Ray asked."
One half of my family is Malayali Christian and traditionally eats veal. Also while a substantial number of Hindus are vegetarian, there are far larger numbers of Hindu non-vegetarians than one would suppose through a random sampling of Indians in the US, since the higher castes tend to be vegetarian, and also tend to be the ones with the opportunities to travel to the US.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

What's the Bengal state of Orissa?

10:31 PM  
Blogger Bidisha said...

In continutation to the comments above, ... and since when does Saravanaas offer Bengali-Indian food? Some facts in this article are truly jarring.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Anu said...

Wow, I did not notice those two obvious errors through a first quick reading of the article. The New York Times ought to fact-check its articles better.

10:30 AM  
Anonymous narayan said...

A very irritating article. Fishbane & Ray, sounds like the cult movie duo "Withnail & I", and similarly clueless. My guess is that Ray, a sociologist by PhD, knows his Mughlai & Bengali cuisine, and little of much else, including the changes in dining-out over the decades in India. I see a certain swagger in his pronouncements to the impressionable Fishbane.
When Hindi and Chini were bhai-bhai, Indian Chinese food was entirely in the hands of Chinese Indians. The cuisine was adapted to the Indian palate but retained the Chinese cooks instinct for texture. Loved that chicken-corn soup! Many years after the brotherly ties were disavowed, Indian chefs still retained the memory of that good food you only found in Chinatown. My friend MJ came back from her first India trip in '82 raving about Indian Chinese food, and we were not disappointed with the fare at the Chinese restaurant at the Taj hotel in Bangalore in '89. I believe that that cuisine has died an unnatural death. In '06 I had the most gawd-awful food at a pricey new Chinese restaurant in Bangalore owned by Bengalis, with everything cooked to mush; the salads fared no better. My last taste of it was at a Chinese restaurant in Oulu (Finland, 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle), owned by a Chinese family from Calcutta, and even they had lost the memory of that food.
I had never even heard of bhel-puri until we moved to Bombay in '58. It was beach food, a cut above street food, and therefore proscribed. Our Goan neighbour, Alfonse, called it "thrash", and taunted us for not being able to indulge. Pani-puri, with the liquid half drawn from an encrusted matka covered with a brown rag was even more degenerate. I doubt that these twins migrated to other Indian cities till the 70s, decades after the country was stricken with weekly dosa cravings. Bhel and pani have now been sanitized, I suppose, and lost their charm as a guilty pleasure.
Will someone please tell me the significance of Peter Cooper Village and Saravanaas. The latter sounds like a hick's rendering of the Hindi word for annihilation.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

Come on Narayan!

I agree with you about Indian Chinese food - have rarely tasted anything like it after the 1980s. (I don't eat Chinese food in the US, prefer Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese)

Panipuri migrated from Bombay to other Indian cities in the '70s? You are kidding, right? Bhelpuri, yes. But panipuri is a north Indian specialty - the authentic muscular name for it is Golgappa! In Calcutta it was sold under the rather dismissive name of "Phhuchka." I grew up eating this marvel of an unhealthy snack in Delhi establishments like the world famous Bengali Market shops and Roshan in Karol Bagh and more rarely from the raggedy, roving vendor. My mother (a picky hygiene fiend) watched me anxiously for the first attack of cholera every time I indulged. Nothing untoward ever happened just as it didn't from hundreds of mouth watering servings of fruit chaat eaten in Kashmiri Gate - another suspect on the list of my mother's lethal cholera causing agents.

Those who associate Indian food only with the north Indian Mughlai / tandoori/ naan fare or the Udipi style south Indian cusine, should note that east Indian cooking (Bengal, Orissa, Assam) may be the best kept secret among Indians. It is different, takes some getting used to for the novice, is delicious and in the purist tradition, uses only mustard oil to cook fish. And the wonders of the traditional Bengali fishless, meatless "widow kitchen" of the by gone era was a marvel that qualified as a separate culinary specialty.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Anu said...

Saravanaas is a South Indian chain of restaurants that originated in Chennai. As far as I know does not serve Bengali food as mentioned in the article

8:58 PM  
Blogger krishnendu said...

"Guys" relax.

You criticisms are right on the mark.

Matthew made some errors of geography, about regional Indian cuisine, and vegetarianism. He is learning.

If you now check out the article, the factual errors have vanished! Of course the opinions persist.

And yes, sometimes I can be full of myself and irritating (I would suspect much like most of you?)


12:04 AM  

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