Sangeeta Lakhani is currently the chef/owner of The Table. Born in India, she left her home country at the age of 16 and after some twists and turns, landed here in Columbus. In this piece, she talks about how the love of food permeates the Indian family, breaks down the aspects of regional foods, and also comments on the state of the cuisine here in Columbus.
I spent a lot of time with my family this summer. We’re spread across the continents, so unless there’s a wedding or a funeral, the extended family doesn’t come together often. This summer wasn’t particularly festive, but it reunited us, briefly.
In India, as in most cultures, food is used in celebrations and when comfort is paramount. However, Indians take it to a completely different level. Food becomes the focus to such a degree that it almost makes the event that brought you together an afterthought. Our family is not particularly big, but since there is no separation between first cousins or ones 15 times removed, or if there even is any relation whatsoever, it can amount to quite a herd. I mean, in a country of over a billion people, it’s hard to keep up.
All the elders are aunties and uncles, and anyone your age group or younger is somehow a cousin. In a setting like this, the cousins connect over the different ways we’ve all rebelled against our ultra “desi” (from the homeland) parents. We try to sneak cigarettes and scotch while the uncles gather in the living room to reminisce and extoll the virtues of the Indian work ethic and the aunties take stock of their kingdom – the kitchen. This is their own battleground – the sacred space where they judge each others kids, brag about their own, make matches, gossip about absent family members, and plan the menu for the next meal, all over never ending cups of fragrant hot chai. The back-and-forth about food seems endless, starting at breakfast and ending after dinner. In my culture, it is of the utmost importance to find out before the end of one meal what you’re going to be hungry for at the next one.
Indians, by and large, eat at home, with Sundays being the exception. Christians go to church; Hindus go to a restaurant. Growing up in Mumbai, Sunday dinners for my family were always epic affairs. My oldest memories are at the Gulmurg restaurant inside The Shalimar Hotel. There was a band that played ABBA and Boney M, my parents would grab us out of our seats and show us how to disco and jive. My grandparents would let us order all the butter chicken and roomali rotis we could eat. Oh, those divine, gluttonous moments!
My kids, on the other hand, cringe at any talk of eating at an Indian restaurant. Over the summer, though, surrounded by the aunties and uncles and cousins, they relished each bite. It made me realize that even my Ohio-raised, non-desi kids knew the difference between Indian food and Indian restaurant food. I mean, who doesn’t love butter chicken or saag paneer? But that’s not what Indians eat day to day. I am constantly approached with the token, “What’s your favorite Indian restaurant?” “What would you order at an Indian restaurant?” What I want to reply is, “Do you ask all of your Latino friends to choose between Taco Bell and Chipotle? Do your East Asian friends have to pick between Panda Inn and Mark Pi’s?”
“I would order prawn masala fry (dry, of course), or chicken xacuti, or sarson ka saag and makke di roti, kanda-batata nu shaak and puri, puran poli, gujarati kadhi… Oh, you don’t recognize those words? I’m sorry, I thought you asked me about Indian food…” would rat-a-tat-tat out of my mouth if I was being honest.
Instead, I say, “I love the lamb saag at X, I go to Y for the baingan bhurta, you know I can’t get enough garlic naan, I prefer the dosa at Z rather than A.” The truth is, I only go to Indian restaurants for the familiar smells, to see some Indian faces, to hear a little Bollywood music, and maybe exchange a few words in Hindi.
Indian food has slowly found its way into the hearts and stomachs of America, but in reality, Indian food isn’t nearly as popular as it should be. It is where Chinese food was 10-15 years ago. The majority of Indian restaurants in Columbus are North Indian, the region around Punjab and Kashmir. Historically influenced by Mughal cuisine and generally colder temperatures, Punjabi and Kashmiri foods are rich in spices and cream (hello, butter chicken!). The use of the tandoor to cook breads and meats is also typical. What isn’t typical is chicken tikka masala – also known as ‘Britain’s National Dish’, which, along with ‘curry,’ is a British invention. Indians only use the word ‘curry’ when they are speaking in English, and then only when they are referring to a dish with gravy.
Curry powder was blended by spice merchants for British families to take back home to England. Please, please don’t let me hear you say that you don’t like Indian food because you don’t like curry unless, of course, you have a gravy phobia and only eat dry foods!
If you want a taste of the North, look for dishes like sarson ka saag and makke di roti (mustard greens with an unleavened corn bread), rajma chawal (red kidney beans with basmati rice), or Amritsari fish (Punjab has a lot of rivers which make for a lot of freshwater fish).
A scant few local eateries are South Indian restaurants, and in a sense truer to the local dishes. The nuances of Southern flavors become clearer when comparing the preparation of similar dishes within the region. Regional foods from places such as Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil may have a lot in common, but have very distinct cooking methods and spice ratios. Andhra food is some of the spiciest in India. The heat from the chilis and tanginess of the tamarind pod help battle the high temperatures in the area. I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with idli sambar and dosas, but try the chak (curried vegetables), huli (a spicy sour soup with tamarind and lentils) or one of my personal favorites, prawn curry.
Sadly, between the North and the South lies an entire nation of Indians that remain unrepresented. India is a diverse country, the original land of spices that also has British, French, Portuguese, and Mughal influences in its architecture, dialects, and food. Food preparation is vastly different from state to state, but also within each state. Until you take a trip to India, though, enjoy what you can here. We do have some really good Indian restaurants in Columbus, just be aware that even in India, we have to go to restaurants to eat similar food.
Not to leave you hanging, though… in answer to your questions, when I want Indian restaurant food, I don’t have a favorite place, I have favorite dishes. I go to AAB for keema, to Amul for their lamb saag and butter chicken, Tadka for sarson ka saag and make di roti or chili chicken (dry) and haka noodles, Indian Oven for pumpkin curry, Tandoori Grill for kathi rolls, Gokul for South Indian food, and last but not the least, Banana Leaf for home cooked Gujarati food.
Now it’s time for me to indulge in another cup of chai and reminisce about all the amazing family meals of the summer.