Robert Smith
Special to The Union

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May 7, 2014
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COMMENTARY: The ineffable Indian cuisine

We often think in monolithic terms about other cultures and their cuisines.

The Indian culture is a perfect example of one that defies generalization. Today India has over 1.2 billion people on a land mass of 1.2 million square miles. That’s about 1,000 people per square mile.

Compare that with the U.S., where we have just 84 people per square mile.

With all those people in India, one can easily deduce there is vast diversity across the land.

In fact, there are several hundred languages spoken there, but Hindi and English dominate.

There are many religions, too, but Hinduism, (80 percent) and Islam, (13 percent) are the major ones. Hindi people are more likely to be vegetarian, while Muslims eat most meats, except pork.

The deep imprint of colonization and trade on the cuisine of India shatters any crystalized notions about “real Indian food.”

While chai tea is inseparable from any picture of India today, tea was introduced by the Brits as a work-around to China’s monopoly on it.

Potatoes, tomatoes and chili peppers were brought to India from the New World by the Portuguese, who excelled not only at trade, but also at finding the best territories around the globe to cultivate desirable crops for export.

India’s easy access by sea, its climates and low labor costs made it ideal. Just try to imagine Indian food without potatoes or spicy peppers — boring.

The cultures around India also exerted their influences on traditions and food.

The North, where wheat is a staple, was influenced by the Mongols and Chinese. Southern India was more affected by its neighbors in Southeast Asia, so rice and coconut are more prevalent.

Curries are a major part of the diet throughout India, but they vary widely. A curry is a complex mix of spices and other ingredients.

Each mix varies according to the type of dish, varies from region to region and from household to household.

The myth of curry in a can on a market shelf is a western invention and a drab substitute for custom curries made with fresh, vibrant spices.

Every village in India has colorful spice carts where household cooks buy them fresh every day.

But a little thing like feeling unfit for the challenge of defining Indian cuisine — an imposing and fearsome tome in my mind — wouldn’t keep me from diving headfirst into cooking it.

Growing up in NYC, frequenting “Little India” on the lower East side, I was seduced at an early age by its deep complexity that approaches a spiritual level of alluring mystery.

Traveling to India only enhanced my infatuation.

The Old 5Mile House is ecstatic to bring you some fine examples of Indian cuisine this May.

While some dishes are clearly marked “spicy” on our menu, many of them will serve you up that level of complexity without taunting your tolerance for heat.

If that’s not enough adventure for you, we’re introducing a whole new section of wild game on our regular menu sometime around mid-May.

This trend to lean, healthy, exotic meats has not escaped us.

Come, Get Wild @the5, with dishes like Elk osso buco, wild boar Bolognese, pheasant with morel mushroom sauce, Bison Bourguignon, wild boar chile verde and more.

Robert Smith is the chef owner of the Old 5Mile House where they serve roadhouse food from around the world.


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The Union Updated May 7, 2014 10:37AM Published May 7, 2014 01:02AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.