View: Beating drumsticks for Indian food abroad

Instead of food fights over Twitter, a change in attitude to Indian food might come from the discovery of their health and diet benefits.

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The other way cuisines tempt those who aren’t familiar with them is by offering tweaks on dishes that are familiar to the target audience.
Mark Kurlansky is an acclaimed writer of non-fiction books on food, and other subjects. His books like Cod and Salt have inspired a wave of other such histories where focus on one product helps illuminate wider issues. He is known for his rigorous, in-depth research into unfamiliar areas.

And yet, in his recent book Milk: A Ten Thousand Year Food Fracas, Kurlansky seems to have made a startling mistake in the chapter on milk in India. In trying to show the many ways milk is used in Indian cooking he cites a recipe for “chicken drumsticks in a milk stew” as an example of meat being cooked not in yoghurt, which is common, but fresh milk.

Kurlansky cites Archana Pidathala as the source and the recipe is, almost word for word, from her book Five Morsels of Love. But the wording suggests that what is meant is moringa, the vegetable pods called drumsticks (“Pop the pod into your mouth”) and checking with Pidathala’s book confirms it – the recipe is in the vegetarian section. Kurlansky doesn’t seem to know that an ingredient as common in Indian cooking as drumstick pods exists, and simply assumed it had to refer to chicken. This could also be seen as an example of how little Americans know about real Indian food. Twitter exploded this week over a stray remark from a professor named Tom Nichols. Responding on a thread where people were asked to share their most controversial food opinions, he tweeted “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t”. Nichols said he had tried Indian food in Boston, New York and London and had never taken to it.


Nichols got some support, but many more detractors who accused him of being insular in his food choices. He responded that that he was quite open to other food cultures but, “The only two foods I don’t eat: Ethiopian and Indian. I’m pretty open about the rest of it.” He admitted he had a problem with spicy food but questioned those who seemed to enjoy getting all red faced and sweaty with it: “I just don’t believe that’s fun, its foodie acting.”

Nichols’ Twitter profile describes himself as a “noted curmudgeon” and he was posting in a thread that specifically asked for controversial opinions, so it seems rather pointless to get worked up about his tweet. But that’s not how Twitter works, as Nichols himself noted in an article he wrote after the event. “I once thought that a connected, globalised world would be a force for peace,” he said rather grandiloquently, before rueing how instead it was focused on trivial subjects and “taking inventories about what to hate”. Self-reflection is clearly not his forte.

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Pakistan cricket coach Misbah-ul-Haq recently banned biryani, oil-rich red meat meals and sweet dishes for the team. Here are other teams and what their coaches banned them from eating.

Pakistan cricket coach Misbah-ul-Haq recently banned biryani, oil-rich red meat meals and sweet dishes for the team. Here are other teams and what their coaches banned them from eating.
In 2016, football manager Pep Guardiola banned the Manchester City team from eating the Italian specialty - pizza. Pizza was blamed for weight gain of the players. After a win, it had been a Premier League-tradition for pizza to be ordered to celebrate. But the food is more of a bane than a boon, according to Guardiola.
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The Chinese Olympic team at the 2012 London Olympics got their own food and cooks as they did not want any member to test positive for doping. Suspecting foul play, they ensured that all home food is grown and cooked by their own chefs. Meat was also banned as they feared it could contain clenbuterol, a banned substance.
The Chinese Olympic team at the 2012 London Olympics got their own food and cooks as they did not want any member to test positive for doping. Suspecting foul play, they ensured that all home food is..
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In 2017, the Sri Lankan cricket team was banned from eating biscuits in the dressing room. The team's physiotherapist and trainer introduced this in order to help the cricketers get fitter. The team got out in the group stages of the Champions Trophy which lead them to emphasise more on fitness.
In 2017, the Sri Lankan cricket team was banned from eating biscuits in the dressing room. The team's physiotherapist and trainer introduced this in order to help the cricketers get fitter. The team ..
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Much like Pizza for football teams in the EPL, the basketball world of the NBA has love for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. These were banned in 2017 by the Golden State Warriors's trainer Lachlan Penfold. All sugar and junk food was removed to improve player's fitness by Penford.
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Some Twitter users called Nichols a racist, which seems excessive. Yet some of his tweets did likely, whether knowingly or not, trigger such accusations. “I can’t really even deal with the ambient smells in an Indian restaurant,” he tweeted, and for many Indians living abroad that could be painfully close to the accusations they have had to face about smelling bad. This stems partly from the fact that the strong aromas of Indian food tend to linger on the heavy fabrics used in cold climates, but the way in which this fact has been weaponised against Indians makes accusations of bad smells hard to take.

Another set of responses to Nichols’ tweet came from the army of Twitter warriors who seem to exist only to attack anything seen as anti-Indian. One wonders what their reaction might be to the statement made by economist Tyler Cowen in his book An Economist Gets Lunch, which tries to combine foodie passion and thinking like an economist. In a section on how to find good Asian food in the USA he states bluntly, “The first principle is that, on average, Pakistani food in the United States is better than Indian food in the United States.”

This might seem explosive, but Cowen offers a counter-intuitive defence. Pakistan does not have a good reputation because of “Bin Laden, drone attacks, terrori s m , Daniel Pearl , and the sale of nuclear secrets.” This means most Americans would not want to go to an obviously Pakistani identified restaurant – so their clientele is likely to be recent immigrants from Pakistan, who demand fresh, authentic and cheap food. A Pakistani restaurant in the USA tends to provide freshly made naans, food cooked to order, and flavours that aren’t modified for non-Pakistanis.

India has a good reputation and Indian restaurants can attract a wider clientele, but with less experience of our food. So Indian restaurateurs in the USA can get away with serving stale breads and reheated curries. They also have an incentive to making the food acceptable to non-Indians. In the UK this, paradoxically, involves making it even spicier for all the British people who see curry as an adjunct to beer binges and enjoy the sort of spice torture test that Nichols deplores. Only in the UK, not India, will you find the type of curry called phal, a British-Asian invention that uses the hottest chillies.

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The other way cuisines tempt those who aren’t familiar with them is by offering tweaks on dishes that are familiar to the target audience. One reason why chicken tikka masala has become so popular abroad is because it’s a slightly spicier version of chicken fricassee, the dish of chicken chunks in creamy sauce that was a staple of the quasi-French cooking that long ruled Western kitchens. In the USA, two Indian dishes that have led the way to wider acceptance are mango lassi and saag paneer — desi versions of the milkshakes, and creamed spinach and cheese that are familiar to American eaters.

Nichols’ accusations of ultra-spicy food will sound strange to many Indians, who wouldn’t think of their food as particularly spicy. But restaurant food, especially abroad, is very different — a point well made by Krishnendu Ray in his book The Ethnic Restaurateur.

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A father-son duo was arrested for conning five-star hotels in Mumbai. The two would eat and drink and make a run for it, without paying the bill. They aren’t the only people who have entered a life of crime with food as the focal point.

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“Anyone offered large quantities [of chocolate] via unconventional channels should report it to the police immediately.” That was the public service announcement that was issued in April 2018 in Germany when thieves made off with a truckload of Nutella and Kinder chocolate eggs. The stolen treats were worth more than $80,000. The police were clueless about the motive of the robbers and suggested they were after the truck the chocolate spread was stored in.

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Ramen noodles may be a cheap college staple but there was nothing cheap about this robbery. In Fayette County, Georgia, robbers stole packaged ramen noodles from a trailer park off the highway. There were nearly 3,00,000 packets of the noodle which amounted to nearly $100,000.

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Ray’s investigations into how food served in desi restaurants in the USA evolves shows that it is often made by men who put together approximations of the food made at home by their wives, but influenced by what they think customers expect (like extra spicy). And then they train other immigrant men, who are often not desi but Latino, to do the actual cooking. It is hardly surprising that this food doesn’t much resemble regular desi food.

Some variations of standard Indian restaurants are coming up in the USA. Large cities might have a few places serving regional Indian food, or restaurant owners are putting a few of the dishes they eat themselves alongside the menu they feel they must serve. Growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans abroad are resulting in small places that serve India’s considerable range of such dishes (college towns, with their increasing numbers of vegetarian students, often have such places).

Stores selling Indian products offer Indian sweets and snacks as well. But it’s still rare to find places that cook such Indian ingredients like karela or arvi or moringa. When one combines the difficulty in procuring these ingredients, which have to be either imported or specially grown, along with the fact that demand for them is likely to be low, it’s no surprise that they are rare on restaurant menus abroad — and that people like Nichols, or Kurlansky, are clueless about them.

Perhaps the real change in attitudes to Indian food might come through discovery of their health and diet benefits. Just as vegans are spurring demand for the coconut milk-based curries of South India, the wellness sector has made turmeric, a spice previously known abroad mostly as the colouring component of curry powder, into a trending product. Milk with turmeric, that staple of Indian grannies, is now being sold in upmarket cades as turmeric lattes.

Unripe jackfruit as a vegan meat substitute is another product that is becoming popular with chefs abroad, and banana flowers might be next. Moringa leaf powder is already appearing on wellness sites as a protein and nutrient packed supplements, and perhaps this might drive interest in the pods, which can be boiled to give a vegetarian stock that is full of the flavour called umami that is usually only found with meat stock. The next generation of food lovers in the USA is likely to have a very different appreciation for Indian food.


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