When Cultures Combine in the Kitchen

By Aruna Jain
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When my brother was a teenager, he decided that macaroni and cheese was ridiculous.

After spending his early years living in India and regularly eating foods such as roasted corn on the cob seasoned with masala and lemon juice, he found plain American-style mac and cheese unacceptably bland. One day, he suggested that my mother fry up some sliced vegetables and add a few standard Indian spices to make a sabzi (vegetable mixture) to round out the dish.

The result -- fried onions, green or red bell peppers and tomatoes with crushed red pepper, turmeric, salt, lemon juice and garam masala, combined with boxed macaroni and cheese -- has been dubbed Indy-Mac by my mother and is a family favorite. [Recipe: Sabzi for Mac and Cheese]

The dish is one in a long list of impromptu recipes created by family members and friends that fuse ethnic spices or flavors with traditional American fare.

Such recipes have inspired the multibillion-dollar "fusion food" industry, which offers such retail inventions as curry croissants and McAloo Tikkis in India. The likes of Tofu Tindaloo and Wild Mushroom Dosa fill the menus of upscale fusion restaurants such as IndeBleu in the District. And chefs around the world have specialized in fusion food, writing books and opening restaurants based on the concept.

There is a distinction, however, between the popularly known fusion food and the concoctions created on the fly by new or first-generation immigrants, argues "American Masala" author Suvir Saran, a chef-restaurateur who boasts his own version of macaroni and cheese.

"Fusion takes place in a retail environment where a chef is playing around," independent of his or her background, Saran told me recently. It "doesn't denote what often happens when people are cooking food from around the world out of a sense of need." For immigrants, "it is their identity at that period of time. . . . They put these flavors together with a sense of place, a sense of purpose."

Fusion or not, that sense of place and purpose is captured in the opening scene of Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling immigrant novel, "The Namesake." In it, a pregnant Indian woman in Boston named Ashima longs for a specific snack from the old country. Lacking the right ingredients, she improvises using Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts to create a rough approximation of bhel puri, a popular Indian street food.

The scene illustrates what my mother, who immigrated to the United States in 1969, and many others like Ashima did to assimilate into a new food culture. She would fashion masalas, or spice mixes, and other dishes out of what she could find at the local grocery in her small Ohio college town.

Now, she routinely melds Indian flavors into whatever she cooks. One dish she proudly calls Indo-Mex Tacos mixes salt, mango (amchur) powder, turmeric and garam masala in the pinto beans used for tacos. It is a big vote-getter in the family recipe book.

Practically speaking, all this mixing and matching is ideal for those among us who are comfortable in the kitchen. For people like me who are culinarily challenged, there is an added appeal: simplicity.

My family members routinely offer sarcastic congratulations when I successfully make chai, a spiced tea. (Common gripes: "Where are the spices?" Or, "Did you even let it steep?") It is also worth noting that during the few times my mother instructed me in the kitchen, she sighed. A lot.

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