How saag feta became a cultural amalgam
- Food writer Priya Krishna’s book reflects her migrant background
- Her recipes chronicle her family meals which fuse American and Indian ways
Fifteen minutes into my meeting with Indian-American cookbook author Priya Krishna, we are both sputtering on the extra hot chillies in the Chicken Chili Dry at Mizo Diner, a modest restaurant serving Mizoramese food in Humayunpur, Delhi. Krishna says she is out of practice. “My spice tolerance levels have gone down ever since I moved away from home—at meals with my parents, I would just casually pop hari mirch into my mouth."
Krishna’s new book, Indian-ish: Recipes And Antics From A Modern American Family, chronicles some of those meals—not fully Indian, not fully American, but belonging wholly to the Krishna family.
In her book, she makes deliberate choices to dispel strident stereotypes about Indian food. For one, the subtitle of the book—Recipes And Antics From A Modern American Family—underscores that Krishna’s family is what modern, multicultural America looks like. Also deliberate is her decision to omit translations of Indian ingredients, beyond an initial table describing them. No substitutions for hing (asafoetida) are possible and no Hindi words are italicized. This food is her normal and she wants to represent it on her terms.
In his 2017 book Curry: Eating, Reading And Race, Naben Ruthnum dissects the idea of a universal South Asian experience. He christens an entire genre of books “currybooks" that deliberately exoticize immigrant narratives by using lazy signifiers, such as food and its attendant nostalgia, to denote entire communities and their experiences. If some South Asian fiction writers rely on exotic smells and spices to explore homelands and exile, diasporic food writers in the US seem to be headed in the opposite direction. Stepping away from representing an all-encompassing, “authentic" Indian cuisine, they are using food writing as a narrative medium to tell personal family histories of being at the table.
In a disclaimer that echoes Ruthnam’s adamant claim that curry is non-existent, Krishna writes: “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CURRY—at least not the way you might know it."
When I ask her to elaborate, she says, “I hate the way that ‘curry’ has been used to reduce Indian food to a monolith, when in fact it’s this incredibly diverse cuisine! I hate when people tell me, ‘I don’t like Indian food because I hate curry’—what does that mean? People have this understanding of Indian food as some monochromatic stew, and it really bums me out that because of that word—curry—people can’t see beyond that image."
At the same time, the word “curry" has an immediate recall value. Krishna mentions how New York-based Chitra Agarwal, a food entrepreneur whose company Brooklyn Delhi creates condiments with Indian flavours, eventually gave in and called her spicy ketchup “Curry Ketchup", simply because it is what sells.
During this trip to India, Krishna is keen to explore just how diverse Indian food is, in ways that challenge her own experience of growing up in a north Indian family.
Later, when I ask her about whether she has found any exciting Indian-ish instances of traditional food in India being fused with global dishes, she turns the question on its head. “I felt the opposite, actually—I was excited by the number of hyper-regional restaurants, focusing on specific areas of the country, leaning into sourcing from India itself rather than abroad."
Krishna’s career began neither with a focus on mainstream Indian food, nor a burning need to shed light on more obscure regional food from the country, but with a book called Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks, which used ready-made ingredients available in most college dining halls to create easy recipes.
While working at the now discontinued Lucky Peach magazine, she collaborated with her mother Ritu (also a co-writer of Indian-ish) to contribute recipes such as Dahi Toast, an Indian riff on a grilled cheese, to the magazine’s Power Vegetables cookbook. The result was Indian-ish, a book about the Krishna family and their food.
Ritu is the life force that animates Indian-ish. It is her shortcut recipes, born out of her need to juggle a successful career as a software programmer and provide Indian flavours at the dinner table, that populate the entire book.
Growing up, although Priya always liked Indian food, she felt self-conscious about eating dishes that were different. Often, her sister and she demanded American foods at their dinner table, which led to inventions such as Roti Pizza—an oven-crisp roti with toppings like Parmesan and thinly shaved potatoes—becoming Krishna family’s favourites.
Much of Krishna’s work comes from navigating the occasional tension of living in a house with parents who grew up in India while being a first-generation American. Over time, she says, she came to view it as good tension that yielded dishes like saag feta. “That my sister and I and my mom and dad were products of very different cultures meant we had to find compromises in the kitchen. Those compromises were delicious, and they are the bedrock of what makes this book unique."
While tasty corruptions such as Roti Pizza and Quinoa Shrimp Pulao were allowed, some traditions were fiercely protected. Krishna’s father Shailendra makes a guest appearance in the book with a piece—“Why My Yogurt is Fabulous"—in favour of his homemade yogurt, which he has been setting, using the same culture, for over 25 years.
The book is full of these surprises—on the one hand, an adherence to rituals and traditions that have assumed personal significance, and, on the other, a playful attitude to experimentation and substitution. Even if it was initially born out of necessity, how could adding feta to saag paneer instead of paneer be a bad idea?
At a time in American cooking and food writing when ghee is being described as “lactose-free, clarified butter" and turmeric is the new superfood, Krishna’s book makes sure that the histories of those ingredients, and their place in South Asian cultures, is acknowledged, even as she imagines unorthodox departures from their traditional use.
Krishna says she was tired of Indian food being thought of as heavy or too complicated. “If there is a ribollita recipe in any American food magazine with rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage, that’s okay but if I write an Indian recipe with multiple spices, somehow that’s thought of as complicated." Similarly, the idea of Indian food being too rich peeves her. “So many working Indian people make quick, healthy meals every day. If nobody is going to dispel these myths, then I need to."