The food at Indian restaurants in America revolves around 2 subregions of Indian cuisine. I’ve always been confused about where the familiarly aromatic flavors of my north Indian mother’s cooking went — perhaps they were lost in translation. I could never find the countless rice dishes I used to eat at my south Indian friends’ houses — the nutty notes of the coconut, the subtle sourness of the curd rice, the trifecta of sweet, sour and spicy in puliyogare – at most, the kind of Indian culinary representation we get in America is reduced to a few south Indian and Mughlai dishes.
Growing up in India, every holiday or lunch at school required bringing our own food, allowing me to sample many unique dishes from just about every corner of the country. Indian cuisine is far from homogenous, emphasizing various flavours, ingredients and cooking techniques. This, to me, is Indian cuisine, not the “chicken tikka masala” or “curry” that’s been sold and marketed to us in America.
South Indian Food
I grew up in the south of India, so I take pride in defending the south and differentiating it from the north. South Indian food is often reduced to Idly, Dosa and Vada, a subset of cuisine prepared using fermented batter. And while they are staples, the universe of south Indian cuisine has much more to offer: the sheer variety of rice dishes — like the sweet and spicy Puliyogare, paired with a perfectly crunchy cooked Dal — or the coco-nutty flavor packed into meat curries. And, of course, lemon rice, infused with curry leaves and citrus flavors, and curd rice, chilled comfort food of cooked rice fermented with yogurt. The southern coastal regions also have some incredible seafood and meat dishes, with tropical coconut and curry-flavored Fish Fry and Fish Curry or poppy coconut and chilli-flavored Chettinad Chicken.
North Indian Food
This, in and of itself, is a generalization. Still, I’m writing about the north Indian food I grew up eating. As someone ethnically north Indian who lived in the area, the north Indian food I know and love is never represented at restaurants. Forget homely staples like rajma (kidney bean curry), kadhi (yoghurt curry) or endless arrays of lentil stews. And lest we forget all the delicious dry vegetables and vegetarian staples that are often left out. Tandoor epitomizes this one-dimensional interpretation of Indian food — flat, lacking a diverse flavor profile and underwhelming.
There’s also the issue of Indian restaurants overloading on oil, grease and unnecessary spices. Instead, I would like to see ingredients and dishes that shine through in North Indian food. Such food showcases its authentic flavors and goes beyond tandoori food. And perhaps most importantly: I want food I can eat every day, not food that leaves me stuck on a toilet.
Although there is so much more to Indian food I haven’t explored in this article, I can’t comment on its authenticity as I’ve only lived in the north and south. These are also the only foods I see on restaurant menus. The only part of my Duke experience that leaves me wanting more is the food. Obviously, acknowledging the fact that Duke even has an Indian option is impressive, but what I crave is a more genuine effort to bring authenticity to Indian cuisine and how it is represented in both pop culture and on restaurant menus.
I love food and how it shapes our identities. I can’t wait to finally have a kitchen of my own where I can fully explore the food I love — to cook for my community (and myself) authentic Indian food that won’t have them reeling with digestive pain.
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