Something Old, Something New
What exactly is Indian food?
I ask myself this question often. Perhaps I should find this surprising, considering I’ve spent most of my life eating Indian food and most of my adult life trying to understand it. But I don’t. What I do find surprising is that so few other people ask themselves the same question. Most people have a pretty firm idea of what Indian food is. It’s often an idea formed by eating in restaurants or at home, perhaps from reading cookbooks, or from traveling through India, or maybe even living there. I’ve known a great number of fantastic Indian cooks, and yet, no matter the heights of their capabilities or the depth of their knowledge, the confounding fact is that each of them represents just a pinpoint in the kaleidoscopic entirety of the food of India. Needless to say I include myself squarely in the middle of this company.
It’s hard to be pithy when describing a country of over a billion people. You can drive fifty miles in any direction in most parts of India and encounter a completely different language, way of living, and cuisine. Growing up in Bangalore, my family lived less than half an hour from the border with the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. A quick drive across state lines and you would find yourself in a completely upended world of food, language, and culture. The signs hanging above the small shops along the highway promptly change to Tamil, there are suddenly stalls everywhere selling kotthu parotha, flaky and tender flatbreads that get chopped up and cooked matzo brei–style with eggs, green chiles, onions, and spices. And yet, despite the differences between the two states, they’re both irreplaceably Indian, each contributing a valuable portion to the grand melée of Indian cuisine. When you can see such a variety of food and life on a short stretch of interstate highway, it makes you realize the hubris in trying to condense the diversity of food experiences in India into something compact and manageable.
A few months ago I was travelling around Karnataka, the South Indian state that is home to Bangalore. I spent my days meeting with home cooks, farmers, restaurant owners, vegetable sellers, and shop owners—collecting recipes and talking to people about food. I grew up in Bangalore and travelled around the state a fair amount with my family as a child. Still, I was taken aback by the novelty of what I encountered. The variety and intractability of the responses I got were so beguiling that I still have a hard time putting them together in any kind of coherent manner.
In a way, this is unsurprising. Karnataka covers an area just about the size of South Dakota, but is much more densely packed—with a population of 64 million (at last count in 2014), it is roughly 75 times more populous than the Mount Rushmore State. It encompasses landscapes as varied as the montane rainforests of the Western Ghats and the dry thorn scrub forests of the Deccan Plateau, not to mention the hectic construction site that is Bangalore today. If this seems prodigious, then consider that it occupies just one-seventeenth of the landmass of the country and holds just one-nineteenth of its inhabitants.
But it isn’t just the geography of the country that fosters variation. Culture, both in its traditional cast, and in the ways in which it is changing, exercises its own influences. Internal immigration—between neighboring states, faraway states, within states, from countryside to metropolis—is also affecting the way that Indians eat and think about food. It’s deceptive to think of these changes as new, too. This traffic of people, ideas, and cuisines has been going on in India for longer than the country has even existed in its modern form.
The more I try to summarize what I learn about Indian food, the more it evades me. It’s a maddening but scenic pursuit—like clutching after minnows in a flashing stream. The thing can seem so firmly within my grasp until suddenly, in a bolt, it’s gone.
And the more I talk to people the deeper the complications get. Not only do cooks have strong opinions about their own food, but about everyone else’s, too. One day I might learn a new dish from a housewife from the northern Karnataka coast near Gokarna, a blasted, copper-red countryside baked in an unabating sun, the next I’d hear from a contentious neighbor in Bangalore that the same dish wasn’t from Gokarna at all, but was a treasured and age-old recipe from Mangalore, a steamy, tropical port further south along the coast—and that the recipe I’d gotten was wrong anyway!
By the end of my trip I started to rather enjoy the contrariness of cooks, protective of their regional specialties and often rip-roaringly funny in their riffs on the food and drink of their neighbors. A young baker sitting outside his shop in the handloom textile town of Bhoodan Pochampally in Telangana asked me if I had tasted the local toddy, the fermented sap that tappers collect from different varieties of palm in the south of India. I said that I had tasted toddy in Kerala, where my father’s family is from. His ridicule was explosive, and one of the most genuinely mirthful displays I’ve ever seen. He could barely stay upright from laughing so hard. He shook his open hand in my face, to show how empty my cred was as a toddy connoisseur. “Aaaaallll glucose!” he said, breaking into English, between laughs. The toddy in Kerala may be sweet, he said, but it lacks distinction! Though I’ll reserve judgment on the relative merits of Telangana and Kerala toddies, I’m pretty confident that there’s a kindred character camped out by some roadside bakery in Kerala, telling tales about the failings of the toddy in Telangana. I can just see the two of them meeting—I actually think they’d rather get along. After a while you realize that these barbs are almost never spiteful, just one of the more colorful gestures of pride of place. And rather than inhibit my understanding of Indian food, the multitude of opinions soon began to enhance it.
In the midst of all this flummoxing variety and culinary contretemps, there are also newer questions to contemplate. Even as I try to pin down what the average Indian eats, I see it changing before my eyes. Indians are travelling more than ever, and are, more than ever, exposed to food and ways of living from all around the world. This access has been a godsend for many, bringing with it new opportunities for millions of people. But it hasn’t arrived without complications. In the rush to embrace the new and the cosmopolitan, many Indian cooks forget that they have their own unique and deeply rooted culinary traditions. I still find it distressing to see how many young people in big cities in India are more eager to eat a doughy, overloaded pizza from an American fast food chain than to eat anything remotely traditional. But novelty has its own flavor, and it’s hardly my place to judge anyone else’s attempts to experience things more widely, to taste more freely from what the world has to offer.
I also don’t judge because I find myself in the same situation as those pizza-loving kids crammed around a table at a Domino’s in the old part of Bangalore—I want to taste everything! But I also want to explore the ways in which traditional Indian cuisine still flourishes in many parts of India. The aim of this site is to combine these two impulses—to travel, and to be at home. To delve deeply into those aspects of Indian food culture that are becoming harder to see, and to also be outward-looking, with an eye to other cuisines, and to the other aspects of how we eat that every avid and conscientious eater should consider.
An Indian-American friend once recounted to me her frequent consternation as a child at her mother’s attempts to do madhuve (the Kannada word for "wedding") with her school lunches when she was growing up in Virginia. Boring old weekday sandwiches would get spiced up with Indian leftovers or doctored with fragrant Indian spices. As a child I would have found this impulse to marry cuisines equally embarrassing. Now, though, I see the inevitability (and the importance) of drawing ones influences together, of trying to put all the stories that go into our food on the same plate.
My hope is that readers of Tiffin will get some sense of the stories that exist beyond every plate of food that they eat or cook. To this end, the site will feature interviews with home cooks, farmers, restaurateurs, and writers, as well as recipes, travel essays, and short notes on ingredients and techniques. And I hope you’ll join in—as readers of the site and guests at one of our Tiffin Club dinners, of course, but as partners, too. If you have an interesting family recipe that you’d like to see featured on Tiffin, or know an interesting person that would make for a great story on the site, drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you!
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say exactly what Indian food is. I do think, though, that one can only get closer by embracing the fact that it is constantly changing—across geographies, but also across time. It may be too late to see it in its Edenic state, but it’s never too late to throw the windows wide open and take it in for what it is, a complex and inventive marriage of ingredients, terrains, cultures, and histories.
If this site can evoke even a narrow glimpse of the glorious diversity of food in India, that’ll be answer enough for me. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing what delicacies the future holds. I hope you’ll read along with me.