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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Friday, April 20, 2007

The Chaat of Destiny

Some paragraphs were accidentally omitted from Somini Sengupta's recent article on Chaat and other Delhi street foods in the New York Times. Because I am a devoted Somini Sengupta groupie (a "Sengroupie," if you will), I was sent the missing paragraphs as a gift, under strict order not to reveal my sources:

The reporter visits a lost alleyway in Mastinagar, a suburb of Delhi. In the alley are an endless variety of special chaat stalls unknown to western taste-buds and unimagined by western food tourists. This is as “street” as it gets; if pressed, the people of this alley all state that they have never been near an air-conditioner or even a piece of plastic. Indeed, it is highly unclear whether the residents of Mastinagar have ever been outside Mastinagar, or even know that their “Shehr” is in the city and state of Delhi. In the lost alley, one finds an almost infinite variety of Chaats, some of which were tasted by a reporter. A short list of the highlights follows:

Orientalist Chaat: This type of chaat will fulfill all your desires for mystical knowledge and understanding, and set your brain on fire. If this chaat is eaten, it is said, the eater will learn a thousand yoga poses (a DVD is included), a thousand Sanskrit chants that will lead to Enlightenment, and perpetual unity of mind and body in pure relaxation bliss. After eating, you will have reached the other side of the moon, tasted the stars, found the ergonomically perfect chair, and finally know the answer to the question, Why Did the Bodhi-Dharma Leave For the East? (NOTE: Insiders report that Orientalist Chaat is exactly the same as regular Chaat, only 10,000 times more expensive.)

Erotic Chaat: This chaat is an aphrodisiac composed entirely of garlic and crushed Viagra powder. Not especially tasty, but surprisingly "potent," as a reporter subsequently discovered.

Chaat Feng Shui: This Chaat, which is composed entirely of wind, water, and garam masala, is not meant to be eaten, but rather dispersed around a room in need of redecoration. Pirated Chaat Feng Shui originates from China, which continues to flood the Indian market with inexpensive rip-offs of actual Feng Shui.

Message Chaat: Kiwi, lime, mustard seeds, and ice cubes. Once the ice cubes have melted on your tongue, it is said, your message has been telepathically sent to the individual you are thinking of (the strength of the message is increased if the recipient has also eaten chaat recently). This type of Chaat is especially popular with Delhi's young men, who are notoriously shy when it comes to talking to women they are not closely related to.

Immunity Chaat: The demons that chase you will be temporarily silenced by this chaat. Their multifarious coloration will be neutralized to blue, and the eater will suddenly be able to eat the blinking blue demons for extra points. This Chaat is also said to protect the eater from "Delhi Belly," and is generally eaten by those who are planning to go on to eat other Chaats. As a result, some Chaat addicts of Mastinagar jokingly refer to Immunity Chaat as the "Gateway Chaat."

Penn Masala Chaat: This chaat tastes a little syrupy, but it is known to cause the eater to burst into spontaneous acapella renditions of Bollywood tunes.

Raagapella Chaat: Raagapella Chaat is ssentially similar to Penn Masala Chaat, but with a funny/clever desi-ized version of "Motel." Many insiders predict Raaagapella Chaat will soon give Penn Masala Chaat a run for its money.

Gandi Chaat: Universally known as the best, most sublime form of chaat of all, Gandi chaat (also known as "Drrrty Chaat") is exceptionally rare. This chaat is made of pure, ancient Indian dirt, and is served with ketchup. What constitutes the dirt is of course a strictly guarded secret; insiders say it comes from tribal regions of India that have never once been visited by outsiders, where all the inhabitants are albinos. Food archeologists have been desperate to understand the properties of this mysterious form of chaat, and have repeatedly tried to have samples sent by secure couriers to western labs for analysis. But the Drrrty Chaat is so addictive that no courier has every withstood temptation -- and the Chaat has always somehow gotten eaten along the way. All the couriers have also mysteriously died, leading to the rumor that this Chaat, if ingested outside of India, will lead to instantaneous death.

(What other varieties of Chaat can be found in Mastinagar?)

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