Ever since I’ve discovered the variety within Indian cooking, courtesy of the hundreds of food blogs on the internet, I have wondered what is authentic and what is not. I mean what is the original way of cooking an avial for instance. Does anyone even know anymore? Because each person, each food blog has a different recipe to cook the “same” dish. Each home has their own way of cooking a certain dal or subzi depending on the local availability of ingredients. As ingredients are added to a certain region the food habits change. Apparently the green chili that we are so fond of in India is not even indigenous to India. We used black pepper to add heat to food until the chili pepper was brought from the Americas via Europe. At what point in history was Indian cuisine authentic?
People like to harp on the fact that chili paneer is not Chinese food. Of course it is not. People in China don’t eat paneer (I think). Perhaps they don’t eat chili anything. But the Chinese people in India started cooking chili paneer because paneer was available in India. So are the Indian- Chinese less Chinese than their brethren back home? Or is it just their food that isn’t “authentic”. I don’t know why people give so much importance to names. It may not be Chinese but it sure tastes scrumptious. Personally, I think all the ingredients in the world are mine and I can use any of them in any combination I want to make food that I would like to eat. Of course not all ingredients go together and certain combinations would result in bad tasting food. And certain ones might result in food that gives me IBS. And yet others might result in me burning down the kitchen. But that doesn’t mean something stops me from cooking them together. I might have to call the dish something new because the purists might complain if I make a stew that doesn’t really “taste like stew”, that should have had a little more this or a less of that. Like a painter and his colors, you need some madness in your cooking and your ingredients. But that madness will give rise to something harmonious if you understand what ingredients blend with each other, one playing off the other, one complementing the other. Because you don’t want madness in the end product – you want peace.
A friend of mine once wrote on Facebook that her husband cooked a curd rice with bacon and that it was yummy. Oh man I can see some Tam Bram hearts skipping a beat out there! But I thought why not? It’s a beautiful combination. Curd rice is cool, smooth, sweet and tart. Why not perk it up with the the crunch, salt and smoke of crisped bacon? It is a beautiful idea of contrasts that show each other off. So one day late in my pregnancy when I was craving bacon I made this dish. Except I used orzo instead of rice (I had orzo that was lying around in my pantry for way too long). I crisped the bacon and then tempered the bacon fat with mustard seeds, dried red chilies and curry leaves and fried up some onions in it and then added them to the orzo and curd; then crumbled up the bacon on top, tossed it all together and had it for lunch. It was beautiful except that I burned some of the bacon – yes I was in that much of a hurry! The husband didn’t enjoy it too much though, but that is because he has something against curd rice in general!
Here in Mumbai I am constantly thinking of ways of adapting food that I would cook in the US using local ingredients available here to duplicate the flavors. In the US, I would constantly try to adapt “Indian” recipes using the ingredients commonly available there. I used two books to guide my fusion Indian cooking in the US. One is Elegant Inspired by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala and the other is American Masala by Suvir Saran. I love both these books because they combine techniques and ingredients that are not commonly used or seen in India with traditional Indian cooking styles and ingredients to create something that is at once familiar and new. And yet there is nothing rocket sciency (as if that is a word) about it. It is what thousands of women do everyday at home – ask the lady who moved to London in the 70s and couldn’t find Indian vegetables or the woman who moved from North India to the South in the 70s and had to make do with vegetables that she had never seen back home. It is what humans do -we work with what we have, the hardest we can, to create something that we love. It is who we are. The results of our endeavors may not be perfect but they are good enough to help us survive. In the end, that’s all that matters.