Explore the origins of cuisine.

 

TAKE ACTION

  • Currently, India is experiencing unprecedented levels of COVID-19. Here is a list of individuals and organizations that need support: bit.ly/MutualAidIndia

  • Reflect: What are your expectations regarding Indian food and Indian restaurants?

  • Support restaurants that challenge your perceptions of the limits of Indian cuisine.

  • Advocate for the people who labor to put food on your plate, including but not limited to farmers, service workers, and BIPOC and immigrant restaurateurs.

As the pandemic surges, diners and celebrities have drummed up support for BIPOC and immigrant restaurateurs. However, to revolutionize the industry we need more than one-off campaigns. Alongside policy to secure humane working conditions for workers, we need to reexamine our approach to “ethnic food”. 

As we wrote in a previous newsletter, it’s crucial to ask: which restaurants do we deem worthy of our dollars and why? And since seeking “authenticity” often disadvantages restaurateurs from immigrant backgrounds, what’s at stake when we appreciate the complex journey of the food on our plate?

Arriving in the United States as a privileged international student, I realized that I carried my own warped ideas about “authenticity” in the context of Indian food. Naive and self-righteous, the fare I encountered at Midwestern Indian restaurants struck me as simulacra– diluted, distorted imitations that bore little resemblance to the flavors and textures of my upbringing in New Delhi. But in coming to this conclusion, I had ignored the larger legacies of which I am a part. 

Through a combination of the historical forces of Partition and the contemporary pressures on many immigrants to assimilate, diverse South Asians created the food most diners readily associate with Indian cuisine. 

As Krishnendu Ray, Professor of Food Studies, writes in The Ethnic Restaurateur, more than half of nominally Indian restaurants just in New York City are operated by people from Bangladesh. Similarly, it has been estimated that 85-90 percent of Indian restaurants in Britain are run by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and more (South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies). Zooming in further, around 8 out of 10 curry house chefs in Britain hail specifically from the northeastern Bangladeshi region of Sylhet (The Guardian). 

Sylhet is an unmatched, albeit underexplored, emblem of the Indian subcontinent’s violent and precarious intimacies. It’s also crucial to the story of how Indian food circulates. 

A quick turn to history: in 1947 the Partition of India, the largest ever mass migration, ended almost two centuries of British rule. Britain not only extracted $45 trillion from India (Al Jazeera), but also knowingly fomented communal tensions through deploying the policy of divide and rule during its yoke. Eventually, the demand emerged for two separate nations to be carved out along religious lines: Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority secular India (Vox). 

A British lawyer who had never been to India drew the new borders. Sylhet, a district that was Bengali-speaking and skewed Muslim in the otherwise Hindu-majority province of Assam, became the subject of a referendum (BBC). Residents opted to join East Pakistan (Scroll). Then following Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971, Sylhet joined independent Bangladesh. 

It was enterprising migrants primarily from Sylhet who disrupted the otherwise bland culinary order of Britain as its colonies collapsed. At curry houses, they invented the genre of nominally Indian cooking– spice-scaled post-pub curries to enliven the timid British palate– that continues to shape dominant perceptions of Indian food across the globe. Chicken tikka masala, the orange-hued poster child of Indian food once praised as a “true British national dish”, likely sprung from these kitchens (The Guardian). 

Early waves of Indian restaurants in the United States espoused the curry house logic: menus typically featured the likes of chicken tikka masala and Anglicized stews, and later incorporated dishes drawn from Mughlai cooking like braises, kebabs, and grilled breads (The Juggernaut). This blended style became so central to the American awareness of Indian food that when many Bangladeshi immigrants arrived in the 1970s, they opened nominally Indian restaurants to cater to consumer interest. Instead of presenting food that reflected their heritage, they served versions of Indian food they assumed were already familiar and more approachable to most diners (The New York Times). 

It’s only in the past decade or so that a small crop of restaurants has begun resisting the generalizing label of “Indian”. And because within India culinary styles are as deeply regional as they are molded by caste and class, chefs in the diaspora are creating more regionally specific offerings– expansive buffets unfurling as gastronomic maps of an imagined South Asia are giving way to Gujarati home cooking, Bengali street food, and Malabari coastal cuisine alike (NBC). 

Still, most mainstream restaurants stick to the old formula: about 90% of Indian restaurants in New York City alone have not meaningfully moved away from it (The Juggernaut). Even as the diasporas mature, the “authentic” that Yelp reviewers demand remains static. Meanwhile, the people behind the food– with their interconnected yet distinct identities– swing wildly between invisibility and hypervisibility, becoming targets of hate crimes and racialized surveillance

Perhaps, fifty years from now, there will be a course correction for Anglicized and Americanized iterations of Indian food– as we are seeing now for American Chinese food– that will view the culinary improvisations of those early Indian restaurants with more empathy. Instead of relying on fragile nation-states as the units of our analysis, perhaps convergence will become the norm when it comes to understanding what shapes cuisine. 

Imagine a cartography of karak chai, spread out across migrant communities in the Gulf. A ghost story centered on dhal puri– split pea flatbread with chutneys sold as street food in the Caribbean– a dish first created by Bhojpuri-speaking indentured laborers that have somehow vanished from where it arose. A tender map tracing the journey between what restaurateurs might choose to savor at home– in moments of celebration– and what they serve to survive. 

In the meantime, quitting chicken tikka masala is not the solution. It’s seeing how, as bell hooks writes, “ethnicity” is treated as spice: seasoning that livens up the dull dish of mainstream white culture under capitalism. It’s supporting immigrant restaurateurs even when they present something unfamiliar or a particular food you cherish but prepared differently from what you’re used to. It’s appreciating the complex journeys– the history, politics, and personal investments– of what’s on your plate.

Key Takeaways

  • The food that many diners reflexively associate with Indian cuisine was actually created by diverse South Asians.

  • A vast number of Indian restaurants in the United States and beyond are run by migrants who trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and others. 

  • Partition spurred the largest forced migration in human history– an estimated 20 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were displaced (UNHCR).

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