What’s for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant?

Mina Kumar makes a meal of New York’s Indian restaurants
By Mina Kumar

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There are six 'Indian' restaurants within a fifteen block radius of where I live. They are all, like most Indian restaurants in Manhattan, run by Bangladeshis. They all have mediocre food. This is not a particularly interesting fact, most restaurants in my neighborhood have mediocre food.

There are also two Ethiopian restaurants in my neighborhood. They may have the same menus, I haven' checked. They, however, have good food. Perhaps I can't tell the difference between good and bad Ethiopian food, but I imagine the throngs of Ethiopians in these restaurants can, and they keep on coming, and keep on eating. In Calcutta Café or Indian Café, however, there are rarely patrons of South Asian descent. When we do come in, we eye each other warily, testing to see if the other is an Indian-from-Rhode-lsland or on the qui vive. We apologize. It's only homesickness, yaar. Desparation. Shaheen is a hundred blocks away and on the other side of town. With apologies for our presence, we sit down to eat. And then we complain of the food's presence.

After that little business of a war of independence, it is beyond me why no-longer-East-Pakistanis come to America to make West Pakistani food, but Mughlai cuisine is the first commandment of these restaurants (except for the addition of nasi goreng onto the menu of one quixotic establishment). This would not be so bad, neceessarily. The problem is that there are more laws than just Thou Shall Tandoor. The half-page of vegetable dishes is the most poignant example of the powerful and mysterious rules on what can be served in an Indian restaurant. If you want a vegetable other than cauliflower, potatoes, peas, spinach or okra, you're out of luck. Pumpkin and capsicum? Out of luck. Did Aurangazeb in his mad denial of pleasure forbid the cooking of the voluptuous eggplant? What of drumsticks and sweet potatoes, beans and gourds? Out of luck. They are beyond the pale, banned by the decree of the god of Indian restaurants, a god whose presence is known by the sitar muzak he favors, heard nowhere else but in his hallowed alters.

If I was a certain kind of third world girl, I'd blame it on the White Man. If the menus in these restaurants are meat-heavy, the argument goes, it is because the menus are shaped to cater to Western tastes. I don't buy'it: everyone knows Westerners don't like spinach, so how did spinach make the cut? Who said Westerners don't like green peppers? The rules are not so easily explained. But even these limitations aside, there are worse problems: call it a failure of the samosa test.

Mind you now, I am not blindly wed to tradition, incapable of appreciating the innovations of evolving diaspora cuisine. One of the most memorable meals of my life was at La Vallee du Cashmire, a charming little place in Montmarte, with the lightest, airiest, most delicately spiced North Indian food I have ever eaten. The oily heaviness which is the worst feature of Indian cooking was erased by a French subtlety that made everything yum-yum in the highest. My palate is no prisoner of my politics. If Bangla-American food were a delight to the taste buds, I would be the first one to praise it. Unfortunately, when you order samosas, what you are apt to get is a pair of thin, two-dimensional triangles of cooked flour with minced potato in between. These restaurants do not even know that samosas come in three dimensions! The chunky, spicy potatoes, contrasted with the smoothly globed peas, the flaky pyramid of crust bursting with warmth and flavors (insert your favorite vulval simile here)—out of luck. Don't think that the shape of food has anything to do with tastes? Don't know why Italians make pasta in thirty different shapes? Order a samosa from Indian Café and it will all be made plain.

Theoretically, I believe that we can all be all that we want to be. Who am I to question the yearning of Bangladeshis to make motor paneer. and shahi biryani? If there has been a craze for the appreciation of Mughlai culinary arts in downtown Dhaka, who am I to ask, why? But when raita is a thick goop of sugared shredded cucumber fampened with yogurt, you have to say, Bangla darling, make some gulab jamun and call it a day. Actually, the gulab jamun isn't that good either.

Despite the preponderance of Banglas in the business, Bengali friends assure me that even Bengali food is difficult to find. If I were to tell you about the dearth of South Indian cuisine, you'd weep. Get ready.

A columnist for the Village Voice, reviewing a new Indian restaurant he liked, was puzzled that there never seemed to be any customers there when he went to dinner. Well, mystery solved: Indians don't eat dosas for dinner any more than he eats pancakes for dinner.

Actually I, in the first flush of independent living, ate Raisin Bran three times a day, so I understand his taste for evening idlis, but we Tamil girls know it's just not done. But what is a Tamil girl to do? In this city where you can get everything for a price, I can't find porichche kute, garlic rasam, tomato goche, podalanga sambar, beans and peas kute. To tell the truth, the latter list is a line from a poem of mine: who cares to write sonnets about desire when that is so much more easily fulfilled than the yen for good paysam! The draconian laws of Indian restaurants have decreed that South Indian food should consist of dosas and uthappams made from every available kind of grain, plus the odd avial (no doubt the result of fervid politicking by the Malayali lobby).

Late one afternoon, having spent my day in a museum staring at Chola Shiva Natarajas and missing my great-grandmother, I wandered into Madras Woodlands, the one South Indian restaurant in Manhattan, now deceased. I took a seat, the waiter came. "What rasam do you have?" I asked. He looked at me as if I had just descended from another planet. Foolish girl that I was, I had forgotten that garlic, lemon, yogurt, all the flavors of rasam that I relished in my childhood on sick days, rainy days, are irrelevant in the face of the implacable tomato that rasam must be in Indian restaurants. I mentally revoked the waiters', cooks' and owners' of the establishment right to Indianness.

For ultimately, this is what the narrowness of Indian restaurant cuisine does. The few good places in the city, like the Punjabi Shaheen, are true to their ethnic identity, and even if that identity is not identical to mine, it specificity allows an authentic space for us to meet. Generic Indian food, on the other hand, where south equals dosa and north equals vindaloo, is so decontextualized that it robs food of its ability to act as culture. The food of Calcutta Café is not anyone's home cooking and it, unlike chop suey or pizza, isn't even a real reflection of culinary hybridity. Separated by this arbitrarily created cuisine, people of South Asian descent cannot bond over the taste of a shared past. And therefore, in my neighbourhood's Indian restaurants, we are rarely customers, and are shy of each other when we are. The camaraderie of the patrons in the Ethiopian restaurants, in the West African restaurant, in the Dominican restaurant is lost to us. We each stare into our own bowl of mulligatawny soup, remembering molagu (pepper) thanni (water) and rice, and feel sorry for ourselves.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Mina Kumar was born in Madras and lives in Manhattan, New York. Her writing has appeared in over twenty publications.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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