'Bollywood Kitchen': A Celebration Of Indian-American Cuisine

Dec 23, 2017

As an Indian-American, I don't immediately associate Bollywood films with food — mostly because the characters in many Bollywood movies are too concerned with dance numbers and melodrama to be bothered by what's for dinner. So, when I came across the new cookbook Bollywood Kitchen, I feared it might have been written by someone who knew nothing about Indian culture and only a bit about Bollywood, "curry" and naan.

Luckily, I was dead wrong. The book was, in fact, made exactly for me — a second-generation Indian-American who is intimidated by the thought of making Indian food herself. Author Sri Rao says he wrote this book based on his experience growing up in America as a brown kid.

"I was really telling the story of how I grew up and how these films connected me to a motherland I never knew," Rao says.

Full disclosure: Rao is not a chef. He's a screenwriter for American television and has produced and written for Bollywood films, too. Rao was born and brought up in Mechanicsburg, Pa., where he was one of the few people of color in town. He says, even today, his identity can be confusing at times.

A series of spices used in rajma
Josh Loock/NPR

"I feel like I'm very adamantly American in my identity, but at the same time, I appreciate my cultural roots in terms of being Indian-American," he says. "And I'm always looking for ways to bring those two things together."

Like Rao, my identity as a hyphenated American has been confusing. I grew up in suburban Georgia, craving Chik-fil-A and Waffle House. But now, as a 23-year-old living on her own, far away from home, I find myself missing mom's deep-fried pakoras and hot tomato chaaru with rice. I live near an Indian restaurant that serves dishes like chicken tikka masala (which isn't really Indian, by the way). Nevertheless, I find myself walking past it every day, just to catch a whiff of familiar smells and spices.

The book features recipes from all over India, like rajma, a bean stew from the north, and dosa, a savory crepe from the south, alongside classic American recipes like butternut squash soup and pan-roasted Brussels sprouts. That's a nod to the many second-generation Indian-Americans, myself included, who grew up with both cuisines, dipping our American grilled cheese sandwiches in Indian tamarind chutney. Rao says that's exactly the point of this book.

"We didn't have access to Indian grocery stores when I was younger, so my mom made do with the ingredients she could find at the local supermarket," Rao says.

Take one recipe, keema, which he calls "a textbook example of American assimilation." It calls for lamb, but his mom used hamburger meat along with Hamburger Helper.

"Some people have said to me, since seeing this book ... 'So, this isn't really authentically Indian food, right? This is some sort of fusion.' And I've really taken offense to that, because I feel like this is authentic Indian food." Authentically Indian-American, that is.

While sifting through recipes in this book, I stopped on mixed vegetable kura -- a dish central to my family lore. When my dad came to the U.S. as a teen, his family didn't have a lot of money. "I came to the United States with only a few coins in my pocket," he would exclaim at dinner. Because frozen bags of mixed vegetables are one of the cheapest things you can buy at the grocery store, my dad bought these bags and made mixed vegetable kura to save money and eat healthfully. Today, he makes my siblings and me eat it at least once a year to remind us that our family came from meager means.

Mixed vegetable kura has sentimental value, but it's not exactly my favorite dish. So, for my first foray ever into cooking the cuisine of my forebears, I decided to prepare a dish I actually wanted to eat: baingan bharta. This Punjabi eggplant dish is comparable to an Indian baba ghanoush. (And one of my favorites!)

My apartment was soon filled with smells of warm cumin, ginger and coriander. Afraid I didn't get the recipe right, I hesitantly tasted a bit of the bharta while it was on the stove. To my delight, it tasted just like my mom's cooking. My mom used to make this dish on school nights after coming home from work. She knows I like it, so every time she makes it, she puts a little extra on my dinner plate.

To complete the experience, I decided to pair my dinner with a movie. I chose Lagaan, an iconic Bollywood film about India under British colonialism. But, I wasn't able to sit through the 3 1/2-hour film, so I watched Stranger Things instead. Yep, it's the Indian-American dream.

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What happens when immigrants bring their cuisines to America? Sri Rao, the son of immigrants, says that both people and food adapt. He's written a cookbook of his mother's recipes. And because he is a screenwriter and producer, he paired them with the Indian movies with which he grew up. It is called "Bollywood Kitchen," and it struck a chord with NPR's Adhiti Bandlamudi.

ADHITI BANDLAMUDI, BYLINE: I don't immediately associate Indian food with Bollywood films, mostly because the actors are usually too busy with dance numbers and melodrama to worry about what's for dinner. But as a second-generation Indian-American who also grew up on Indian food and Bollywood, I connected with Sri Rao's cookbook and his message.

BANDLAMUDI: As the skinny brown kid growing up in an all-white community, I had barely ever been to India. And yet, the food and the films transported me there every night.



BANDLAMUDI: Rao's cookbook, "Bollywood Kitchen," pairs iconic Bollywood films like this one, "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai," with dishes he grew up on in small-town Pennsylvania.

SRI RAO: We didn't have access to Indian grocery stores when I was younger. And so my mom made do with the ingredients that she could find at the local supermarket.

BANDLAMUDI: Take one recipe, keema, which he calls a textbook example of American assimilation. It calls for lamb, but his mom used hamburger meat instead, along with Hamburger Helper. The book includes American recipes, too, like sweet potato fries with cumin and coriander and mango cheesecake. Rao says some food critics have questioned whether his recipes are authentically Indian.

RAO: I've really kind of taken offense at that because I feel like, no, this is authentic Indian food. This is the Indian food that I grew up with.

BANDLAMUDI: Rao says he wrote the book for two audiences, people who don't know a lot about Indian food and for people like me, an Indian-American petrified to make Indian food myself because it seems so complicated.

RAO: I had to go through that two-year process of, you know, cooking with my mom. And she would pour spices into the palm of her hand. And before she poured the spice into the pot, I would pour it into a measuring spoon so I could measure things out. And I've put that all into a book for us, you know - for - so that we can do it ourselves.

BANDLAMUDI: I'd never cooked Indian food before. But I decided to give it a try with rajma, one of my favorite dishes. In the cookbook, Rao pairs this with one of my favorite Bollywood films, "Devdas." Both the dish and the film are showstoppers, full of spice and flavor, and remind me of home. Rajma is kind of like chili. I diced red onions, chopped garlic and ginger into a paste. Then saute it all together with cumin, black mustard seeds and red chili powder.


BANDLAMUDI: Finally, I add red kidney beans to make a stew. When I was a kid, my mom made this in the winter. I'm a little nervous of my version, but I give it a taste.

BANDLAMUDI: Oh, my God. I did it. That wasn't that hard. Why did I think that was so hard?

BANDLAMUDI: But even if I messed up, Rao says it's no big deal.

RAO: If you throw in a little bit extra of something or you forget something else, it really isn't going to matter. And our moms cook that way, too. I mean, that's the thing about Indian food is that it's very forgiving.

BANDLAMUDI: Since reading this book, I'm less intimidated. I make Indian food all the time now. That'll make mom happy.

Adhiti Bandlamudi, NPR News.


ASHA BHOSLE: (Singing in Hindi).

SIMON: The great Asha Bhosle. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.