New Emissary

Indian Food and the West

Recent Features

New Emissary

Indian Food and the West

The world might be misinformed on what ‘Indian food’ really is. But the secret to its appeal may lie in its mysteriousness.

In this fourth in a series exploring food and identity in India, The Diplomat explores the country’s relationship with Western cuisine.

In many Western countries, Indian food has for some time been an increasingly sought after ‘ethnic’ taste that many still prefer to experience dining out or ordering in rather than cooking for themselves, largely because of the complexity of the dishes and ingredients. However, the Indian cuisine that’s served in restaurants around the world (outside of India) is actually mostly Punjabi, or at least Punjabi-inspired. (Punjab is a northern Indian state that lies on the border of India and Pakistan.) This includes popular dishes including flatbreads, basmati rice and the rich sauces that, according to author and Indian food expert Madhu Gadia, you typically see ‘in chicken curry and butter chicken and tandoori chicken.’

Punjabi-style Dominance

When asked why Punjabi-style has become synonymous with Indian food outside of the country, Gadia explained to me that it’s simply, in her opinion, because the cuisine ‘seems to be more easily liked.’ She went on to suggest that its well-established nature—it was this region’s food that was first bred through Punjabi entrepreneurs—may also have something to do with it: ‘Even in India, you’ll find more north Indian restaurants all through the country than south Indian restaurants.’

Colleen T. Sen, author of Food Culture in India, explained why in her opinion, the trend continues.

‘Say a Bengali wants to opens a restaurant in Chicago—which has happened—so he opens it. And it’s fun, but Bengalis won’t go because they’ll say “Why should we pay money if we can make this at home?” and other Indians don’t know what it is and don’t want to try it. The guy gives up and then he just either closes down or starts serving what everyone else serves.’

According to Sen, it’s this lack of interest that’s the main reason why it’s very hard for non-Punjabi ‘regional restaurants to get off the ground,’ and why the West doesn’t see as much variety in Indian cuisine as there really is.

However, she added that in New York, where there’s a larger Indian population than Chicago, there are actually restaurants specializing in different kinds of the country’s cuisine to be found—but only for those willing to do some extra searching.

Gadia concurred, saying ‘there are some great south Indian restaurants in big cities,’ and also mentioned that the limited representation of national cuisines happens with other cultures as well—‘If you look at Mexican, you only get one style of Mexican in restaurants; Italian and Chinese are the same way. We might only have one or two dishes from a specific region.’

India is a particularly vast and eclectic nation, and its food culture extends far past what those in the West might be most familiar with, or assume to be staples of its national cuisine.

The Proof is in the Poha

When I spoke to university students at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, who hail from various parts of the country, they all came up with different, mouth-watering, ideas that underscored the variety of their respective region’s native cuisines.

Arpita Kala from Uttaranchal, a small Himalayan state near Nepal, told me that people there tend to eat a lot of rice, home-grown vegetables and even flowers, such as local varieties of rhododendron. But she said that in terms of what’s made in her home, some stand-out dishes include chainsoo orbhat, a soup eaten with rice that’s made of roasted black beans, thechwani, a gravy made with ‘a round radish usually grown in the hills,’ bandhel tareko, fried pork made with ginger, garlic and green chilli paste and momos, which are steamed, or fried chicken or pork dumplings similar to what is found in Chinese cooking.

Indian Food and the West

Anjali Mangal, from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, said that her native city is famous for two foods: poha (flattened rice) and jalebi (sweet, deep-fried batter), which she described as being light dishes eaten for breakfast but available 24/7 citywide.

Nirmal Uddhaorao Raiboleis is from Maharashtra, which she told me has a large variety of cuisines being such a large state. But, in her opinion the staple food is ‘vegetable (preferably aubergine cooked in gravy) with flat bread.’ Vada pav, she added, is a local favourite, famous in Maharashtra and also referred to as ‘the Indian burger.’

Avanish Tiwary from Bangalore told me that in the southern part of India, since ‘almost everyone grows coconut,’ it’s used to flavour many foods, while Namrata Nandakumar, also from the same region, told me that, in fact, the pickles and chutneys she eats at home are often coconut based and that the most popular breakfast items are idlis (steamed rice cakes) and dosas.

Locals from regions across India are still obviously in tune with the kinds of cuisine specific or unique to their hometowns. But the idea of there being something that could be considered all-encompassing ‘Indian cuisine’ might be very much a Western construct, representing only a small fraction of the country’s assorted dishes.


And how are Indians embracing cuisines from outside the country?

The foreign market is booming throughout some parts of India, and although it’s still not widely accepted as everyday food by many, it’s definitely entered the public psyche.

While Mangal told me that people from her hometown of Indore still prefer local food over foreign food, fellow student Raibole said that in her home state of Maharashtra, she’s noticed that ‘these days, people are interested in experimenting with foreign food.’

But Ananda Siddhartha, based in Bangalore, sees a darker side to the new trend, in that he said fast food is becoming a preferred choice over Indian: ‘A problem I see nowadays is that foreign food is increasingly a part of people's diet (the middle and upper classes).’ Nandakumar, also from Bangalore, told me that while it’s readily available, foreign food isn’t ‘extremely affordable, unless one chooses McDonald's or KFC.’

Writer Gaurav Jain, who lives in Mumbai and eats out about half of the time, told me that although he used to prefer Chinese food in the past, his has shifted to Middle Eastern but is now moving again toward Thai. For Diplomat contributor Rajeev Sharma, who generally consumes vegetarian home-cooked meals at home, spicy chow mein, pizza, spring rolls and king prawns are his picks for eating out.

These emerging eating habits and preferences of urban Indians might be what Peter Scholliers, vice president of the International Committee for the Research of European Food History (ICREFH) and author of the book Food, Drink and Identity, refers to as the ‘Macdonaldization’ of food consumption around the globe. He explained to me, ‘We live in a so-called global world, which means that increasingly, people in the North, South, East and West tend to shop, cook and eat in a similar way.’

Indian Food and the West

‘This may well be the new identity of the ‘World citizen of the 21st Century,’ he added.  

So in such an increasingly globalized world, where cultural boundaries for foods become blurred and large fast food corporations have an increasingly visible presence, how important is it for Indians to keep a firm hold on their traditional dishes? This is something I’ll discuss next when I look at health and ethics surrounding Indian food.

For now, it seems that though regional food identity is strong throughout India, most don’t see in this a ‘national’ cuisine. In fact, if anything, it’s the West that sees the foods hailing from the Punjab region of the country as representative.

Interestingly, in the UK, Indian food has become so much a part of the country’s cuisine that many there see it now as quintessentially British—polls of the country’s most popular cuisines consistently show dishes like chicken tikka masala as being the most popular of any dishes, home-grown or imported.

Ultimately, perhaps India’s national cuisine is something that can only be defined by its indefinable nature. The remarkable diversity and variety of foods it encompasses isn’t unlike the country itself—and that’s what makes it in many ways so appealing. It reminds me of something Colleen T. Sen said when I asked her about there being a national cuisine for India to try to export to other nations: ‘I don’t think it would be good…because for India it would mean homogenization. Diversity is good.’

Images: Ewan Munro (top), Reuben Strayer (middle), James MacDonald (bottom).