Street Food is the Glory of Indian Cuisine: Colleen Sen

Colleen Taylor Sen was lives on the North Side of Chicago with her husband Ashish Sen whom she met at a college dance in Toronto, her place of birth. She has written six books on Indian cuisine including  Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, Turmeric: The Wonder Spice (with Helen Saberi), Street Food around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (with Bruce Kraig) Curry: A Global History and  Food Culture in India.

Colleen says it is difficult to find authentic Bengali food even in India. Married to a Bengali, her favourite comfort food is Bengali lucchi chhechki, which is very simple: “lucchis (puris made with white flour) and fried onions and vegetables with a little pickle on the side. Whenever I would visit my in-laws in India, that would be the first thing I asked for,” says Colleen.

Her husband, Ashish Sen introduced her to Indian food. “He is a true gourmet and an excellent cook. I was also influenced by his late mother, Arati Sen, who was a well-known writer. She had a widely read column in the Bengali magazine Desh under the penname Srimati, edited a journal Manjuri and contributed articles to Illustrated Weekly. She wrote a lot about food. Unfortunately, she died fairly young but during the time I knew her she introduced me to several luminaries of the food world, including the late Kundan Lal of Moti Mahal fame.”

 

Colleen says she is fortunate to have many Indian friends, some of them much younger than her, “who have introduced me to foods and places I would never otherwise visit. This includes everything from humble street food shacks known only to restaurants specializing in regional cuisines. I also enjoy driving through the Indian countryside with my husband who speaks several languages. Once in Bastar I even sampled red any chutney.”

Author of several books on Indian cuisine as well as many blogs and videos, Colleen shows us that there is more to Indian street food than picking something up when one is in a hurry shopping around. There is deep attachment, anticipation and care that goes into the Indian street food experience. India’s best chefs are getting involved in street food too, creating recipes that capture the experience of eating the tasty and tangy Indian savories.  

 Asked about if India’s true culinary talent lies in its street food, she says “Street food is the glory of Indian cuisine and today top restaurants serve sophisticated -- and expensive -- takes on dishes like pani puri and chaat.  But other countries have an equally rich street food tradition – China, Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia come to mind.  On the other hand, for cultural and social reasons, street food does not play a big role in Japan and France, for example.”

Colleen says that until fairly recently “Indian restaurants offered a standard fare: North India/Tandoori/Mughlai” food or South Indian vegetarian. It was impossible to find, for example, Bengali food even in India. Today big cities in India have restaurants serving Bengali, Bihari, Gujarati, Naga, Rajasthani, Hyderabadi, Kashmiri, and other regional cuisines. Still, there are gaps: finding Maharashtrian or Odisha cuisine, for example outside of their states.” She adds that in the United States there are very few restaurants serving regional Indian food.

Her book Pakoras, paneers and pappadums - A Guide to Indian restaurant Menus in the United States is a basic guide on Indian restaurants in the United States. She has not gone into regional variations of the title, but provides a list of places people can experience such fare. In a podcast she says that “The history of Indian food in America has been largely neglected, even though it is much older than Chinese American cuisine.”

She says the first Indian cooks arrived a decade after the founding of the Jamestown Colony in 1607 as servants to British “Nawabs” who came to America after making their fortunes. Curry recipes were featured in most 19th century cookbooks. She adds that America’s very first ‘bad boy’ celebrity chef was an Indian, Ranjit Smile, who hit the New York culinary scene in 1899 and made front page headlines with his exotic dishes and his frequent run-ins with the law. Faced with tightening immigration laws in the early 1900s, Indian farm workers in the Sacramento Valley married Mexican women and created a hybrid Indian-Mexican cuisine, including “Hindu pizza.” · In Chicago, the first Indian restaurant was the House of India (1963), followed by Bengal Lancers (1969) –15 years before the first restaurant on Devon Avenue. Listen to the podcast here: Currying Interest in Indian Cuisine From its Arrival in America to its Rise in Chicago by CulinaryHistory (soundcloud.com)

So how can Indian cooking become as lucrative as Chinese or Thai cuisine. Asked for her suggestions, Colleen, says that India’s strength is also the cause of its lack of popularity. “One reason Indian food isn’t more popular in the United States is the diversity and complexity of Indian food. In fact, can one really even talk about Indian food? There are dozens of regional and local cuisines and to make them popular, or even accessible, to diners would take a lot of education. Also, there is a common misconception that Indian food is too ‘hot’ for Western palates. I had two experiences recently with people who said they didn’t like Indian food – and then ate everything that was offered to them. (And the hottest meals I personally have ever eaten have been Thai and Chinese Sichuanese). Moreover, Americans don’t have any historical ties with India, as do the British, so India and its cuisine are essentially alien to them.”

Her book Curry – A Global History traces the journey of Curry.  The word curry has been used loosely for everything Indian. Says Colleen: “I think curry is a much-misunderstood word. The word used to have negative connotations as a creation of the British but today I see that it is becoming increasingly used even in India as a convenient way of referring to a dish with a gravy. Everyone pretty much knows what it means!”

Her book gives a “historical and descriptive account of a dish that has many incarnations. Colleen describes in detail the Anglo-Indian origins of curry and how this widely used spice has been adapted throughout the world. Exploring the curry universe beyond India and Great Britain, her chronicles include the elegant, complex curries of Thailand; the exuberant curry/rotis of the Caribbean; kari/raisu, Japan’s favorite comfort food; Indonesian gulais and rendang; Malaysia’s delicious Nonya cuisine; and exotic Western hybrids such as American curried chicken salad, German currywurst, and Punjabi-Mexican-Hindu pizza. She quotes excerpts from popular songs, literary works, historical and modern recipes, and illustrations depicting curry dishes and their preparations.

Indian chefs are at the vanguard of culinary innovation and change. But Colleen cautions that “it must be positive innovation, not just combining ingredients and techniques in a haphazard manner to create what is termed “fusion food’. Chefs like Thomas Zacharias, Pradeek Sadhu, Manish Mehotra, and the late Floyd Cardoz are part of an international network of chefs that learn from each other. Their menus feature innovative techniques, the use of local and sustainable ingredients, and elegant presentations. By the same token, chefs from top Western restaurants like Chicago’s Alinea are spending time in Indian kitchens. I believe we are seeing the emergence of a new international cuisine that incorporates the best from many traditions.”