Yes, there is such a thing as Indian-American cuisine – at least that is what New York City-based author Sri Rao, steps out to prove in his unique book released Nov. 7.
Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films may sound like a gimmicky title to attract readers, but is anything but that. It runs deeper. As you begin to turn the pages, you find Rao’s unique voice which in essence represents the experience of a whole generation of Indian-American youth born and/or brought up in this country and fed on a daily diet of savory Indian food and equally colorful Bollywood movies.
Evoking the moods of movies and meals shared and enjoyed over the years, Rao spins an easily readable and interesting account from the time he swooned over Superstar Rekha as a gay 8-year old, to an adult screenwriter based in New York City who has produced or written three films and has sold TV projects to networks including ABC, NBC, Fox, and BBC America.
He spoke to Desi Talk from Austin, Texas, on the second of his three-week national book tour. Rao has already been featured in several media outlets, including National Public Radio since the release of his book.
“My target audience is Indian-Americans. I wanted to represent the type of food we make here, the type of food we grew up with,” he told Desi Talk. “We don’t make tikka masala and tandoori chicken all the time at home. And we use a lot of “American” ingredients. My Mom and Dad had to make do with say Brussel sprouts, asparagus, salmon.” when they arrived in America in late 1950s. The second generation, like him, enjoys those foods, he says.
Alongside, he includes the traditional Indian dishes like chana (chick peas) or Rajma (red kidney beans). And, chicken curry — which, to my growing realization, shows the gap between different generations of Indian-Americans. Brought up on the dictum that chicken with bones is by far tastier, Rao was able to date me. “That is a perfect example of the difference between first and second generation,” he said. While I may consider keeping the bones as the authentic representation, for Rao, and others of his generation, it makes sense to use boneless pieces.
In his book Rao covers all the bases, with recipes for chicken with and without bones. In all his book presentations over the last two weeks, he has been featuring “Sri’s Signature Chicken” – “It’s in every (non-vegetarian) Indian kitchen, on the menu – special enough to be served to company and even make on a weeknight.”
But we are getting ahead of ourselves – for Rao, all this food has a symbiotic relationship to Bollywood. Why? Growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, there were two constants- the scent of Indian food simmering in the kitchen, and the sound of Bollywood musicals emanating from the TV in the living room.
“Because I love Bollywood movies and I love Indian food so much – my two passions are combined in this book,” which he says is the first non-academic book about Bollywood published by a major publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, with memorable photos from Box Office hits from contemporary Bollywood films, all authorized for use. “It was a very big task to get those images (authorized),” Rao sighs deeply recalling his experience.
For those like Rao who were brought up here, Indian food and Bollywood movies most importantly defines their lives. “The two things are what connected us to India,” he says. “And it’s the way I learned about my heritage,” he adds. In America, he notes, “It doesn’t matter if you are Punjabi, Gujarati, or something else. All my ‘aunties’ were Punjabi or Gujarati or …” It was the movies and the food that bound everyone together in the new country they adopted.
In the United States, Rao says, Indian-Americans are creating new definitions of what social life, love and marriage, including same-sex marriage mean, going beyond the food they eat and the films they enjoy.
His book is an attempt to show just that, “It’s all to say we can maintain our culture and heritage without having to maintain everything. What’s great about our culture is how welcoming it is,” Rao emphasizes. In a new country, it’s not as if Indians are doing anything ‘new’. “But rather, they are going to the ‘correct’ interpretation of Indian culture as a ‘welcoming’ culture,” he said.
Rao’s father came to the segregated South in 1959, when barely 10,000 Indians lived around the country, he notes in the book. Through the 1960s and 1970s, they assimilated the best they could, even as they clutched firmly to the few remnants of home – language, religion, and of course, food and films, Rao says.
Bollywood, he says, may be “a little wacky” but it is “incredibly addictive” much like Indian food. Those addictions are what Rao mixes in a spicy combination of foods to make and movies to watch while eating them. The process of whittling down film choices and foods, was painstaking. The product is anything but that. The book moves with easy grace, humor, and interesting tit-bits about Tinseltown from the 1990s, when big-budget films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and the likes, became the new norm.
Bollywood’s major genres, milestones, iconic actors, actresses and directors, with a language of their own, their sometimes Shakespearean plots, interspersed with “juicy morsels,” converge in Rao’s labor of love. So comedies, suspense, action and art house films make their way into the pages.
And how he mixes them. Note this starting line in his recipe of “Homestyle Chicken Curry” to go with the film Dor — “In keeping with the bucolic setting of Dor, I present this rustic, comforting dish.”
For the movie 3 Idiots, he picks dinner dishes named Keema Pav (Aka Sloppy Jai), Pan-roasted Aloo, and Nimbu Paani. Why? “This broad comedy about three buddies navigating the stress of college while getting into slapstick mayhem is like a food fight in your dining hall during finals week.”
For the quirky, father-daughter comedy starring Big B and Deepika Padukone, Piku, he partners Masoor Dal, Nimpudu Vankaya (stuffed eggplant), and Baked Pakoras. It all has to do with keeping a healthy bowel movement. Rao is married to a gastroenterologist, we find out, and can attest to the fact that there are few topics people love discussing more than their ‘GI issues’. “Every dinner party that Jason and I have attended eventually devolves into perfect strangers sharing the intimate details of their bowel movements with him,” recounts Rao.
Full of humor and insight, Bollywood Kitchen makes a great read, even if neither Bollywood nor cooking are your passions. A delightful read not be wasted only on the coffee table.