Feeding modern desires


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THERE are two sites of Indian cooking in Manhattan – one in exotic restaurants for the imaginary voyager, the other in familiar settings for the travel-weary. They are opposite but complementary approaches to home and heritage. One, desperately seeking familiarity and the other, obstinately looking for difference, both seeking authenticity. There are pleasures and disappointments in each adventure.

On 2 November 2005, Julia Moskin, a food critic for The New York Times wrote, ‘New Yorkers have learned to tread fearlessly in the world of real Indian food. They know pakoras from samosas and dabble in idlis and utthappams.’ Florence Fabricant, another Manhattan taste-maker, informed us that ‘Gary Sikka… ha[d] taken over the restaurant in the renovated San Carlos Hotel and opened Mint, an Indian restaurant designed by Wid Chapman with splashes of hot colour and a waterfall.’ Frank Bruni, arguably the most powerful restaurant critic in the United States, reviewed Mint and found it wanting. But he found the chole bhature at Tandoori Hut exquisite. Danny Meyer, one of New York’s elite restaurateurs, recruited Chef Floyd Cardoz to open the most expensive Indo-French restaurant and called it Tabla in 1998 and the talk about Indian food took off.

Devi, perhaps the second-most talked about Indian restaurant among the cognoscenti in Manhattan, received two stars from Frank Bruni out of a possible four. New York Magazine ranked it 28 among the top 101 restaurants. ‘Best of all, Devi has chefs, Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur, who do not feel bound by your expectations for Indian food,’ wrote Bruni. In all, The New York Times has carried fifteen different stories on fine-dining Indian restaurants over the last year. That is an unprecedented level of talk for an ‘ethnic’ cuisine.

Only Japanese cuisine has done better in Manhattan, but that is another story, because Japanese food is considered ‘foreign’ food by Americans, distinct and different from ‘ethnic’ food of recent immigrants. The two polarities are beginning to meld in the American imagination in the egalitarian ethos of the post-civil rights era, but they have followed different trajectories. Foreign food has always done well in the U.S. (pace Continental and French in its classical and nouvelle variants), what is new is the valorization of ethnic cuisine. But the current craze for the Indian restaurant in Manhattan is not so far from the reception of the first Indian restaurant identified by The New York Times on 3 April 1921, on Eighth Avenue, near Forty-Second street, where ‘Grave Indian gentlemen, with American clothes but with great turbans on their heads […] come in for their curry and rice’ and ‘Americans tourists’ come ‘for turbans and local colour.’


It is the food and the talk that makes a cuisine, by distinguishing it from mere cooking. Cuisine happens when cooking leaves the domestic kitchen for the court and the restaurant. Cuisine also happens when, and only when, talk about the food leaves the kitchen. It is a double orality – taste and talking – especially in a durable form, the print media, which gave Europe its first fashionable food after the French Revolution. French cuisine was centred in Paris and deployed in a new setting called a restaurant. People have always eaten out, but they have eaten in restaurants only since the French Revolution.

In the U.S. the first reference to the restaurant appears in the early 19th century. A perusal of American newspapers in that century shows that the ‘dinner-saloons’ and ‘beer-gardens’ of the ethnics (defined as other people) – such as the Germans, Irish and the Scandinavians, which is anyone marked by difference in language, religion or appearance from the normative expectation of the dominant group – were almost always embedded in racy narratives of crime, prostitution, and punishment. Restaurants clearly belonged to the demimonde. Public eating in ethnic restaurants was embroiled in deep-seated anxieties about race, gender and gentility. For instance, on August 6, 1871 the NYT noted, ‘that restaurants and boarding-houses are fast multiplying, and threaten at no distant day to usurp the place of the family dinner table as well as the family mansion.’


Anxieties about the ‘domestic’ in its multiple resonances – of family, home and nation – are typical in almost all commentary on ‘cheap restaurants’, which are mostly referred to as ‘German, French, and Italian dining-saloons’ into the late-1920s. Until then, ethnic food, if referred to at all, was subject to open disgust in titles such as ‘Found in garbage-boxes: stuff that is utilized for food by some people’ (15 July 1883, NYT) and the shrill announcement of ‘An octopus eaten by Chinamen’ (6 December 1880, NYT). Distaste marks the outer boundary of a taste community.

In contrast, society restaurants such as Delmonico’s were welcomed with open arms. It was the only recognized restaurant in New York City in 1833, while there were up to six thousand such establishments by 1876. According to Harvey Levenstein, the pre-eminent historian of American food habits, the post-Civil War era was the classic period of conspicuous consumption when a newly rich class sought to establish itself in the realm of consumption as theorized by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was written precisely at this moment. The simultaneous presence of old elites and the newly rich – by one count 84 per cent of the rich in the 1880s were newly minted – made these restaurants the perfect locale for intense status competition by way of showy dinners and restrained manners.

The food was stringently haute French. >From the 1880s to the 1980s, it can said perhaps only with a little exaggeration that American restaurant food was some derivative version of French cuisine in its various incarnations. Even Chez Panisse (established 1971), the most celebrated inventor of the new American restaurant cuisine, has carried the Franco-phone resonances of the earlier era both in its name and foundational culinary principles, although it brought a markedly different aesthetic of the Arts and Craft Movement to American cuisine in the post-Vietnam War era. The new focus was on ‘organic architecture’, and a sparse informal style arrayed against opulence of the Delmonico’s variety. Craftsmanship of bourgeois home-cooking was the new posture, against the mannered style of French haute cuisine. Rusticity replaced elegance. That went hand-in-hand with Alice Waters’ – the owner of Chez Panisse – crusade on behalf of organic and seasonal produce.


One factor in the slowly changing culinary canon was the logic of distinction, as each new cohort of the rich and the professional sought to distinguish itself from the previous one, without straying too far from the old standard of Continental cuisine, which was transformed first into classical French, and then into nouvelle French cuisine. Another factor in the transformation has been the pattern of immigration, which was nevertheless repressed for a long time in fine-dining American restaurants.

Starting at the broadest level we can identify three waves of migrants into the United States, totalling about 65 million in all. The dominant template for American home-cooking was provided by the first 20 million Northern European immigrants in their regionalized variants, but that hardly affected American restaurant cuisine simply because there were scarcely any restaurants serving American food.

The next 20-odd million ‘ethnic’ immigrants between 1880 and 1924 – Italians, Slavs, Eastern European Jews and Greeks – gave us the ethnic eateries that were never really recognized as restaurants. By the end of the 19th century, region had given way, on one hand, to a relatively homogenized national gustatory experience, and on the other hand, to the creation of ethnic enclaves. Ethnic eateries flourished within the ghetto, far from the Waldorf-Astoria, the Delmonico’s, and the Hoffman House.


From 1924 to 1965, that is for two generations, with few immigrants coming in – about seven million over four decades compared to four-times that figure before and after that period – Americans would elaborate a naturalized and standardized American cooking, with the help of a new kind of mass media – radio and television.

The next group of migrants – another 20 million or so – this time from the very places blocked by racialized laws of the pre-civil rights era, such as Asia, and driven by increasingly unequal opportunities for the poor, such as in Latin America, would break upon American shores as a terrifying and exhilarating horde since 1965, as if the very tower of Babel had collapsed, destroying the layered sedimentations of the first and the second 20-millions. This would be the death of American food as we know it.

Since we are still in the midst of this transformation, it is not yet normalized into a paradigm. Yet, the breaking of the established American mould would also allow the food of the ultimate racial other – Blacks to be reinvented as Soul food (first mentioned by the New York Times on 18 September 1966). The ferment at the bottom would finally bubble up to the top to inflect American cuisine and destroy the established templates – Continental and French. Difference would be democratized. In the process Americans would find themselves in the midst of a reconfiguration of the culinary canon and Italian-Americans – ethnic but White – would play a crucial role in American re-imaginings. In the process Americans would also find the courage to invent a cuisine of their own aided by television and served in fine-dining restaurants. Indian cuisine would be discovered in the afterglow of this transformation and the competition to recreate new hierarchies of taste in the context of the new immigration.


Dinner for one, at any of the talked about Indian restaurants at the dizzying heights of the Manhattan restaurant scene – Tabla, Devi, Dawat, Tamarind (or the hidden gem Babu) – with a glass of wine, plus tax and tips, would cost about $70. The average American makes less than that in a day. The typical immigrant much less. It appears that when material life – food, clothing and housing – is turned into fashionable art, things get pricey. But $70 is not the typical check average at the conventional Indian restaurant. Most Indian eateries in New York are relatively cheap – averaging about $15 for dinner for one and half of that for lunch. This is in the context of the fact that restaurant workers on average made $19,632 per annum in 2000.

Indian food is fashionable in Manhattan but it does not reach the heights of other cuisines. First, there are other more popular cuisines. Second, there are other more fashionable ones. The 2006 Zagat, which is the most popular survey of fine-dining restaurants, lists 43 Indian restaurants, after Italian at 389, American 270, French 202, Japanese 101 and Chinese at 63. To get a perspective on these numbers, it is important to remember that all this is in the context of about 15,000 eating and drinking establishments in New York City, employing more than 165,000 people, particularly immigrants of colour, mostly Latino and Asian men in the kitchen and white women in the front.


In terms of check averages in Zagat 2006 – which is good shorthand for the hierarchy of taste – Indian restaurants come in at $33.85, after French at $47.81, Japanese at $46.72, American $42.83, Italian $42.27, Greek at $38.71 and Spanish (as separate from Latino) at $37.73. In general there is an inverse relationship between the demographic weight of a group and the check average. For example out of about eight million people in the five boroughs of New York City, only 52,907 claim a French and 22,636 a Japanese ancestry. But French and Japanese are amongst the most popular fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan (202 and 101 respectively out of 2,003) and their check averages are among the highest. In contrast almost two million New Yorkers claim African-American heritage and another two million claim Latino ancestry, but fine-dining restaurants associated with the identity of these groups are among the fewest (11 and 10 respectively) and the cheapest ($24.50 for Soul and $22.00 for TexMex).

Just as there is a social clustering of Indian restaurants in the middle – along with Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean eateries and below French, Japanese and Italian restaurants – many are spatially clustered in three areas: the stretch of East Sixth Street between First and Second Avenues in the Village that houses almost fifteen Indian restaurants run mostly by Bangladeshi migrants; the area between Twenty-Sixth and Twenty-Ninth Street on Lexington Avenue which houses about twenty Indian restaurants including more recent additions of Indo-Chinese and southern Indian eateries; and in Jack-son Heights in Queens, popular among expatriate Indian men and hipster American students with adventurous palates. By the end of the 1990s, the city and its suburbs were also peppered by Indo-Pak grocery stores and bodegas that sell cooked food – such as samosas, dals, and vegetable curries – on the side.

One could hardly imagine the variety of Indian regional cuisines from the food served at Indian-American restaurants. Most dish up a version of northern Indian Mughlai cuisine. Contrary to the dispersal of taste in India, food in Indian-American restaurants is limited to one (or two) kind/s. When done well, the various kinds of tandoori rotis and meats are good, while most of the curries and dals are generic, but for single, male, expatriates these are often the only ways of reinvigorating gustatory memories of home. Yet, generic South Asian food, instead of assuaging the longing for home, accentuates its loss, especially among immigrant men who cannot cook.


Perhaps this is the right place to expand a little on domestic cookery within the expatriate Indian community. To say something about that I would have to abandon the category ‘Indian’ and look more closely at any of the linguistic subsets such as Punjabi-American, Gujarati-American or Bengali-American. Since most of my work is among Bengali-Americans, I will use their case to illustrate my points about Indian-American domestic cookery.

There are about 100,000 Bengalis in the United States. For most of the approximately 30,000 Bengali-American households, breakfast eaten at home is milk and cereal, or toast. The exception is tea instead of the ubiquitous American coffee. Lunch, consumed at or near the workplace, is a salad, or a slice of pizza, sometimes a sandwich, or a packed lunch from home of roti and subzi. It is dinner that remains the realm of ‘tradition’ where there is still a literal truth to the question asked by a Bengali: ‘Have you eaten rice?’ Rice, dal, and fish cooked in a sauce with panch phoron (a Bengali five-spice mix of fenugreek, kalonji, fennel, cumin, and mustard seed), is eaten for dinner, more often in the United States than in Kolkata.


It is of course an exaggeration to say that dinner remains wholly ‘traditional’ in any meaningful sense. It would be more accurate to argue that dinner is perceived to have remained traditional while in reality it has changed. Take for instance, the appetizer for one of the typical house-holds I studied for a Sunday dinner – it was turkey pakora cooked with chopped garlic, ginger, onion and fresh cilantro. Turkey is hardly a traditional Bengali ingredient. Yet it is cooked in a typically Bengali form, with ground turkey replacing ground goat meat. Any meat in Bengali cuisine is usually cooked with the trinity of wet spices – onion, ginger, and garlic. It is so in the case of the pakora.

Then there is the more explicit intermingling of what are self-consciously defined as American and Bengali cuisines on Monday night when the menu was: roast chicken, steamed rice, American style salad, sautéed bittermelon, grapes, and apple juice. On Tuesday it was a typically Bengali repertoire. It is typically Bengali, that is, with the exception of strawberry shortcake for dessert and grape juice as an accompaniment. On Wednesday, dinner was at Red Lobster – hardly a classical Bengali option.


Nonetheless, there is a pervasive Bengaliness in all this mixing up. Rice continues to be the core of the evening meal. The animal protein is important but remains a fringe item in terms of the calorie contribution to the meal. It is usually two small pieces of fish or a few bite-sized portions of meat. The complex carbohydrate core and the animal-protein fringe is paired with the third defining element – dal. Dal is sparsely spiced, which is often a few roasted cumin seeds. The animal protein fringe, in contrast, is highly spiced as is typical in Bengali cuisine. The spices and herbs are drawn mostly from within the Bengali repertoire and the cooking processes are typically limited to sautéing, stewing and braising – basic Bengali notions of ‘cooking’.

Further, we see the greatest change in the elements that are peripheral to the Bengali conception of the ‘meal’, that is, turkey replacing goat meat in the appetizer, juices and soda replacing water, and strawberry shortcake simulating Bengali desserts. It is perhaps because the most radical changes are confined to the accompaniments – the drinks, the dessert and the appetizer – that the ‘meal’ as such can still be defined as Bengali. Hence, in spite of rampant creolization of ingredients dinner is perceived as the realm of traditional Bengali cuisine.

Further, what might encourage the perception of the Bengaliness of dinner is that it is truly so, almost in an exaggerated manner. Middle-class Bengalis consider rice and fish to be the most distinctive ethnic ingredients of their meal. About sixty per cent of Bengali-American households serve rice for dinner almost everyday. An equally dramatic sign of change is the rate of consumption of fish. Up to a third of comparable households in Kolkata serve fish for dinner on a typical day. In contrast, almost one-half of Bengali-American households eat fish at dinner on an average day in a week. Thus expatriate families have become even more Bengali in their food habits in exile!


In addition, rice and fish have migrated from lunch to dinner, and dinner has become more important in defining a Bengali culinary identity in the United States. Heightened valorization of dinner is in itself a product of modern work schedules. Although in this case that modern transformation is being used to strengthen a tradition – a dinner of rice and fish. Further, the portion-size of fish has almost doubled from about four-ounces on the outside in Kolkata to about six- to eight-ounces in the United States. Which is also a development that can be seen either as westernization because of the valorization of the protein component of the meal or as a traditional carry-over because of the stress on fish – a self-conscious marker of Bengaliness.

Perhaps a Bengali would not be a Bengali without consuming rice and fish in one of the main meals of the day. As dinner has come to be the only cooked meal, Bengali-Americans feel compelled to partake of ingredients that anchor their Bengali-ness – rice and fish. Thus dinner has changed in two directions: new ingredients, such as turkey, are absorbed into old culinary paradigms, and the use of old constituents, such as rice and fish, are insisted upon. One absorbs change and the other accentuates tradition.

Middle-class Bengali men are particularly insistent on a Bengali dinner and that may be for a number of reasons: (a) their limited social interaction with other Americans outside the context of work, hence their unfamiliarity with American food other than the hot-dog, hamburger and salad syndrome; (b) as a respite from the American world that they confront each day; (c) their culinary incompetence which makes their nostalgia particularly acute and takes the form of a desperate longing for their mother’s cooking; (d) the smell of Bengali food cooking at the hearth confirms their very nature as Bengali men and is proof both of patriarchal control and containment of polluting American cultural influences.


With breakfast and dinner, it is as if middle-class Bengali migrants have divided up the day into what they characterize as moments of ‘modernity’ and moments of ‘tradition’, both perceived as good and necessary in their separate places. This complementary duality towards the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’ – the former imagined as embodied in something as mundane as industrialized breakfast cereal and the latter with traditional rice and fish – is central to the identity of the Bengali bhadrasamaj.

The Indian middle-class has for long been both threatened and seduced by the promise of modernization and they have acted on those concerns in organizing their food practices in the United States. Furthermore, the migrant’s search for stringency in home-cooking and the tourists’ quest for authentic ethnic food – where he can distinguish between a samosa and a pakora or may be even a singara – are congruent strategies to still the turbulence of time, one projected on another people, and the other projected on another place, and both are complex considerations about home and heritage, which is nothing more than our relationship to a place and a past.


* Author of The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories Among Bengali-American Households. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.