Bollywood Kitchen | Sri Rao
Home Cooked Indian Meals Paired With Unforgettable Bollywood Films
By Sri Rao
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery By The Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Sri: I'm Sri Rao and my new book is called Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films.
Suzy Chase: You wrote in the book, "Bollywood films are a kaleidoscope of flavors, while Indian food is melodrama on a plate." Give us a short history of the Indian film industry, what we know as Bollywood.
Sri: Bollywood gets its name from Hollywood in Bombay. It's kind of a play on words nickname, so it's referred to as Bollywood. It's the largest film industry in the world. They produce something like 1,500 movies every year. They sell twice as many tickets as we do in Hollywood, not just in India but in the U.K., in the Middle East, and in Asia. It's an incredibly popular film industry, and the great thing about Bollywood is that all of the films are musicals, so whether it is a comedy or a drama, an action movie or a horror movie, whatever the genre, every Bollywood movie has three or four or five musical numbers in it.
Suzy Chase: And what I learned in your cookbook is that there are people called playback singers, and they sing the songs, not the actors?
Sri: That's right.
Suzy Chase: That's crazy.
Sri: Yeah, because they make so many musical films every year, I think it's too difficult to find enough actors who can both act and sing and dance, so what they do in Bollywood instead is that they have the actors just perform, and they have a separate set of professional singers, who are also sometimes equally famous, record the songs, and then the actors, when they're on camera, are just lip-syncing, so they're not actually singing.
Suzy Chase: So when your parents came to the United States in 1959, there were only 10,000 Indian immigrants in the entire country.
Sri: That's right.
Suzy Chase: What pioneers they were. To your parents, Bollywood movies were postcards from home. Describe gathering at the local college auditorium to watch a movie one Sunday a month.
Sri: That was a really fond memory that I have growing up. When I was growing up in the '80s in a small town in Pennsylvania, there were very few other Indian families in the community, and it was very difficult to travel internationally at that time, so we very rarely went to India. I've only been to India a handful of times in my life, but what my parents would do, because my mom loved Bollywood movies, she found some guy, some film distributor in Chicago, I believe it was, who had access to Bollywood film reels, and when they were done being shipped around the country, she negotiated with this guy to send them to our little town in Pennsylvania for $30 a shot.
And I remember going to the Greyhound bus station late at night once a month and waiting for a bus to pull up from who knows where, from New York or Chicago or some place, and out of the bottom of the bus where the luggage was, they would pull out these huge old wooden boxes which were film canisters, and my dad would carry them back to the car, and then once a month, my parents would rent an auditorium at a local college, and the five or six or seven families that were Indian that were in our community would get together and put these old film canisters onto the projector and watch a Bollywood movie together, and at the time, I didn't realize how important that was for my parents, 'cause I was just a kid.
For my parents, these were the only images and sights and sounds of home that they were able to see for years at a time.
Suzy Chase: And typically how long is a Bollywood film?
Sri: Traditionally, Bollywood films have a reputation of being really long, and the older Bollywood films were. They were easily three hours long, but these days, contemporary Bollywood films, and those are the films that I have in my book. They're all modern Bollywood films. They're much shorter and easily digestible. Some of them are ... I think on average they're probably two hours.
Suzy Chase: "You don't know Indian." That's a bold statement you wrote. What's the difference between the Indian food that we've all probably ordered in our local Indian restaurant, and the Indian food you grew up with?
Sri: It's really astonishing to me to see a menu in an Indian restaurant with dishes like chicken tikka masala and naan and tandoori chicken, because none of these are dishes that we eat at home. This is all restaurant food that's primarily from one region of India, from Northern India, but the food that I grew up eating here in America is much healthier, first and foremost. Indian food in restaurants can tend to be quite unhealthy, with a lot of cream and butter and oil, and that's not the way that we cook at home. At home, it's very healthy and fresh.
The other thing about home-cooked Indian food is that it's very simple. When my mom moved here for the first time, there were no Indian grocery stores, so she made due with the ingredients that she found at her local supermarket, and that's the way that we continued to eat growing up, and that I continue to cook for my family today, but that's not to say that this food is inauthentic. It's not. It's very authentic, but Indian food is surprisingly much more accessible than people think that it is.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, I discovered that Indian food is not hard to make from your cookbook. I don't even know where that myth got started, that people think it's really complicated and difficult to do.
Sri: Well, I think that because there are so many robust flavors in Indian food, and some of them are unusual and new to Western palettes, I think that maybe people assume that that's because, "Oh, there are so many spices in this, and stuff that I've never heard of before," but that's not the case. Like I say in my book, 75% of the recipes that are in this book, you can make with ingredients that are, I'm sure, already in your pantry.
If you've ever made Mexican food, or even if you just made a pot of chili, you probably have all the spices that you need to make traditional staples of a home-cooked Indian diet. We're talking about spices like ginger and garlic, cumin and coriander, cinnamon and cloves, which we're more accustomed to using those in desserts here in the West, but in Indian food and in Middle Eastern food, cinnamon powder and clove powder is used a lot in savory dishes because it adds a wonderful warmth, so cayenne and salt and pepper. I mean, these are all basic ingredients that most people have.
Suzy Chase: Now, this book is organized by movie with a corresponding menu. Tell us about the process of whittling down the movies and choosing the menus to go with them.
Sri: Yeah, so the whole book is set up as dinner and a movie, so that you can put in a movie on Netflix or on Amazon or iTunes. These are all movies that are available online with subtitles, and then along with each film, I pair a menu that you can serve along with it. It was really important for me to find movies that were accessible, that American audiences would enjoy, so I have romances and period epic dramas and comedies and action films, so there's a little something for everyone, and then with each of those films, I wanted to find a meal that sort of connected thematically to it in some way.
For example, one of the films in the book is a film called Lagaan, which is one of the few Bollywood movies ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, and that film is a sports drama about cricket that takes place during the colonial times in India, and it's a story about villagers in India who compete against their British colonizers in a game of cricket, and so with that meal, I paired a sort of Anglo-inspired meal of masala-crusted salmon, and a rice and lentil dish called khichdi, which is a traditional Indian comfort food, but was taken to England in the time of colonialism and turned into a British dish called kedgeree, which some people might be familiar with, and kedgeree is served a lot for breakfast or for brunch. It was a very fashionable dish at the time of colonialism. Mrs. Patmore served it on Downton Abbey, if there are any Downton Abbey fans out there like I am, and so what I wanted to do is to show the connection, the culinary connection between India and Great Britain that goes back centuries.
Suzy Chase: The film and menu I chose was English Vinglish, on page 178. This-
Sri: I love that.
Suzy Chase: I loved it too, and it's ... Okay, so it's from 2012, about a homemaker who's mocked by her family for her lack of English skills. It made me sad, and I actually didn't realize that not being able to speak English properly had such stigma attached to it in India.
Sri: That's right. There is very much a hierarchy, both in India, even in America. Those people in the Indian community who speak English well are considered to be more sophisticated or more educated, and those who can speak without an accent are the cream of the crop. My mom, for example, speaks broken English, and that's something that I personally struggled with growing up. I had a lot of shame around that, and it's something that I've come to terms with now that I'm an adult, and realizing that just because someone doesn't speak English well, it doesn't have anything to do with their intelligence, because my mom can run circles around anyone when she's speaking in her native tongue, and the fact that she, like so many other immigrants, can speak multiple languages is, even if some of them are not perfect, is really much more of an accomplishment than most of us, myself included.
English Vinglish, yes, is a story about a simple housewife in India, who doesn't speak English well, and her family doesn't really respect her because she doesn't have an identity of her own, and she comes to New York on a trip by herself, and ends up taking an ESL class, English as a Second Language, and through the course of her experiences in New York and in learning English, she forms a newfound self respect for herself, and a new sense of identity.
Suzy Chase: I was kind of hoping she'd leave that husband. Isn't that awful?
Sri: Well ...
Suzy Chase: He kept saying, "All you know how to do is make ladoos."
Sri: The other interesting thing about that film, English Vinglish, is that it deals a lot with food, and food being a part of many Indian women's identity. Both in India and in America here, homemakers like my mom, their identity is wrapped up in the food that they make every day for their family, and not necessarily having the respect of their families. It takes a lot of hard work to put a fresh, hot, healthy meal on the dinner table every day the way that my mom has always done, and the way that so many other women in America and across the world do, but not always is that validated, and so in the course of this story, she comes to realize that the food that she creates with love and with care and with passion is something to be valued, and that if her family doesn't value it, there are other people that will value it, but more important than any of that is that she finds value for herself in what she's passionate about.
Suzy Chase: Along with this film, I had a little dinner party and invited my dear friend Sabrina Dhawan over, who wrote Monsoon Wedding, and she's mentioned-
Sri: I was so intimidated when I heard that. She's so famous, and Monsoon Wedding really put Indian films on the map in many ways here in America, and I was so nervous to hear that she was going to be trying my food.
Suzy Chase: You were? I had to make it for her. She's lovely. Our children have been in the same school since kindergarten, and she is the best person. I love her so much, so she's-
Sri: That's great to hear.
Suzy Chase: She's in your book, on page 257, and I was so nervous about cooking Indian food for her, because I'd never made it before, but I made your signature chicken, string beans with peanuts, and the cucumber raita. Tell us about-
Sri: And what's the verdict?
Suzy Chase: It was amazing.
Sri: Okay, great.
Suzy Chase: I want to hear about your signature chicken.
Sri: That's great to hear, because that was exactly my objective. I want to demystify Indian cooking, and show people that even if you're not an avid home cook ... I'm not a chef by any means, I'm just a home cook, but even if you don't have a lot of experience cooking at home or cooking food that is new to you, you can make Indian food.
My signature chicken is my go to chicken dish. I feel like everyone has a go to chicken dish that they can make several times a month, that is simple enough to feed the family on a weeknight that is also special enough to serve to guests, like you did when you had your friend coming over, and so this chicken dish, I make it with boneless skinless chicken thighs, and it's quite simple, because it's only three steps, and the three steps are pretty much the quintessential three steps to any Indian curry dish.
The first step is that you saute some onions in a little bit of oil, and when I say little bit, I mean just a tablespoon. Indian food, again, is very healthy, so you saute some onions, get some nice color on them, because that first step is really important. Those onions are really creating the base of flavor for your curry, so you really want to take your time, and you want to saute those onions for a good five to seven minutes, until they get some nice golden brown, deep brown color in them.
The second step is that you add your spices into your onions, and that's really important as well for Indian cooking, because you never want to add your spices at the end of a dish. You always want to add your spices in the beginning so they have a chance to cook in that oil and in the onion so that they can release their flavors, release their essential oils, and wake up, so we add our spices. That's the second step, and again, you found that ... Did you have all of those spices that you needed in your cupboard, or was there anything that you had to go out and buy for cooking my signature chicken?
Suzy Chase: I had them all in my cupboard.
Sri: Great! See, you had them all. You had everything you needed right there to make Indian food.
Suzy Chase: I did.
Sri: And the third step is the chicken thighs, but it could have been vegetables, it could have been fish, it could have been some other type of meat or protein, and then you mix them all together and let it simmer for awhile on the stove, and that's pretty much the technique of all Indian cooking, and it's as simple as that.
Suzy Chase: Sabrina loved it.
Sri: That's great, 'cause she knows her food, I'm sure, and I really appreciate her opinion.
Suzy Chase: She made the chutney recipe from the movie Lagaan too, which was really good.
Sri: Oh great, and it's a chutney that you make in a blender. How simple is that?
Suzy Chase: One thing though, Sabrina did tell me at dinner, was growing up in Delhi, no one measured ingredients, so she said things would taste different at different people's homes.
Sri: That's right.
Suzy Chase: That's why she wanted to make the chutney from Lagaan, because she said her mom couldn't tell her how to make chutney. Did you find it was hard to get these measurements for the home-cooked meals in this cookbook?
Sri: Oh God, that was such an ordeal, yes it is, and the reason that the book took me over two years to write was partially because of that. Indian moms and my aunties are notorious for not measuring anything, and whenever you ask them for a recipe, they're like, "Oh, it's a little bit of this, it's a little bit of that. I don't know how much. Don't ask me." So I had a lot of those conversations with my mom and with my aunties, and then I had to do my own personal testing to figure out those measurements, and I even went so far as to go into the kitchen with my mom and watch her cooking, and she would pour a spice into the palm of her hand, and I would have to grab her wrist and pour that spice into a measuring spoon before she put it into the pot.
I did all of that legwork for you, and figured it all out over the course of two years, so now, people have a reference guide for how much they need to use of every spice or every ingredient when they're making Indian food.
Suzy Chase: And we thank you.
Sri: You're welcome. It was hard work, but I'm glad it was worth it.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Sri: I am on social media at newyorksri, so that's all spelled out, N-E-W-Y-O-R-K-S-R-I. I'm on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, so please do follow me, and my website is newyorksri.com, and I'm going on ... I'm currently on a national tour, so I'm hitting 12 cities across the country in the next three weeks and would love to meet folks at the many events that I have.
Suzy Chase: These are easy to make home-cooked Indian meals that I was able to pull off, so any home cook can. Thank you, Sri, for coming on Cookery By The Book podcast.
Sri: Thanks so much. This was great.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram at CookerybytheBook. Twitter is IAmSuzyChase. Download your Kitchen Mix Tapes, music to cook by, on Spotify at Cookery by the Book, and as always, subscribe in Apple Podcasts.