Sunday, April 26, 2009

Whose Soul Food is This?

Last night I had the opportunity to help bust a friend's Indian food cherry at an excellent vegetarian place in the Desi community capital of Iselin, New Jersey. The explanations another friend and I offered to our neophyte - pakora is (sort of like Indian tempura), a dosa (crepe-like Indian burrito with potatoes) and paneer (it's like tofu and cheese had a baby) - attracted the attention of other restaurant goers and even got some smiling nods of approval.

My sense of Indian restaurant street cred soundly in tact and a supremely delicious mango lassi dancing down my esophagus, I pondered what it was about Indian food that I loved so much. Many people revel in it for the heat, others for the vast array of spices and flavors and I'm sure nostalgia plays a significant role for subcontinent natives and their descendents. But I've begun to think that for me, Indian cuisine represents something else entirely - it's my soul food.

Sure, there's the simple beauty of fried chicken, cornbread, greens, macaroni and cheese and those other standards we in the United States have come to acquaint with soul food. But I keep kosher and Southern food wasn't exactly created with a pork-free or vegetarian diet in mind. Other global cuisines can get a little heavy-handed with the treif. Whereas jumbalaya, rodizo and coq au vin, arguably pivotal and central dishes of Cajun, Brazilian and French cooking immediately form obstacles, Indian food and meatless go together like idli and sambar.

Right away, Indian scores in the accessibility department. Then there's pricing. Aside from a very snooty place in my town that charges $7 for a dish of basmati rice, most Indian food comes with a small price tag and big portions. Case in point, last night's considerable feast cost only $20/person and there were ample leftovers.

Everything I've described about Indian food so far could also be said about Chinese and several other culinary traditions that include a sizable Buddhist population. Beyond price, flavorfulness and lots of vegetarian choices, I believe my connection to this cuisine goes a little deeper. First, I think it's the inherently rustic nature of Indian food. You know this is food that real people eat in their homes on a daily basis. Plus, it includes lots of carbs and those are always comforting.

Though I grew up in a mildly-spiced home, owing to my mother's gastrointestinal woes, I spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen of my best friend, whose family is South Indian (Telegu for those in the know) and I was something of the white person guinea pig at dinner time. My friend's mother would always insist on feeding me, even despite my protests of having just eaten at my own house. I still wouldn't know how to order all the dishes I enjoyed around the Myneni family table, but I loved nearly all of them. Maybe those years of high school left an indelible mark on my palate or at least singed a few taste buds into craving more.

My more scientifically-knowledgable readers can perhaps offer insight into why some people crave one flavor profile while others loath it. Until then, all I know is that chaat (a snack of fried dough covered with chickpeas, yogurt, tamarind sauce, small crispy noodles, onions, coriander and spices) gets my mouth watering even as I write the description and other people are probably looking for a bucket. This strange concoction served on the streets of Mumbai and Hyderabad makes much more sense to me than the offerings of New Brunswick's grease trucks or the disco fries that appear at many a diner.

What does it say about me to love Indian food the way I do and what might it say about another who feels the same connection with Jell-O? Does every soul have a soul food? What's yours?


Vijay said...

Thanks for the shout out Becca. And I've never heard paneer explained better. You come to SF some day and we'll take to you to some good chaat and dosa places.

Maya said...

I love Indian food! I just heard that there is a (Jewish) Indian community (called Capuccinis or something that sounds oddly Italian) in the upper Golan. Apparently they have a restaurant, and I'm dying to go.

My soul food, though, is probably the health food I grew up with: black bean soup, fresh whole wheat bread, a generous serving of cheese (I said health food, not low-fat)... mm.

Jack said...

Good Indian food is awesome.

RivkA with a capital A said...

There are two very different, but equally wonderful Kosher Indian restaurants in Jerusalem.

The first is a fancy, well-known restaurant in one of the hotels, called Kohinor. They have a fabulous (and affordable) lunch special -- an open buffet, with no limitations. YUMM!! This is a meat restaurant (with no dairy).

The second is a whole-in-the-wall reastaurant in the middle of shuk Machaneh Yehudah. It is a delicious dairy restaurant with only a handful of tables (and that is in their new, larger location). I don't even know the name of the restaurant. Each time I go, I look for someone local and ask for directions....