'Amrikan' focuses on American food with an Indian accent

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Rasam, a brothy, soupy comfort food, is beloved among South Indians. Photo by Aubrie Pick.

"Adaptation formed the baseline of mealtimes in my childhood household and in households similar to mine. It’s the foundation upon which Indian cooking in America is built," writes Khushbu Shah, the former restaurant editor of Food & Wine. She is a product of the diaspora, growing up in Michigan with a mother who used what she had at hand to recreate dishes from India. Khushbu honors traditions and adaptation in her debut cookbook Amrikan: 125 Recipes from the Indian American Diaspora.

Evan Kleiman: Let's start with the photo of your father on the back of the cookbook with a caption that reads, "Khushbu did not go to medical school so please buy this book."

Khushbu Shah: I still can't believe I got away with this.

I can't believe they let you do that. It's so awesome. You're a product of the diaspora. Where are your parents from and when did they arrive in the US?

My parents grew up in Ahmedabad. They're both from the same city, it's in western India, and they arrived in the late '80s to America.

Growing up in Michigan, Khushbu Shah experienced her mother's Indian dishes that featured products off American supermarket shelves. Photo by Alex Lau.

How long have Indians been in America?

They've been around for many centuries, at this point, but the main wave kicked off in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s. Even now, Indians make up the majority of all the H1 visas that come through the US.

Was there a particular flavor to each wave of immigration?

Yeah, there were definitely some distinct characteristics to each wave of immigration. The first large wave of immigrants that arrived, between the mid-1960s to the end of the '70s, often had professional degrees or came to the United States to pursue them. These people are often in STEM professions — doctors, engineers. This is where we get the cliche that all Indians are doctors or engineers and occasionally lawyers. They're mostly white-collar workers.

From there, the next wave of immigrants that arrived in the '80s and the '90s, many were still professionals but a lot of them were family members of this first wave of immigrants, so they arrived through chain migration. There started to be more diversity as far as the immigrant makeup went. 

From there, there was a third wave, which we like to call the IT generation, which started in the mid-'90s. That's where you get a lot of the tech workers who arrived in the US.

What foods were introduced by this growing population in the US?

So many things! Where do you want to start? I feel like Indian food didn't really have a presence in the US until immigrants really came. If anyone knew about Indian food in the United States, it was often via Britain, so maybe there was some familiarity with curry house classics but Indians brought a lot of their favorite homeland dishes with them. 

It should be noted that these waves of immigrants from India were often from particular regions, so there were a lot of people from Punjab and there were a lot of people from South India as part of the IT generation. With the people from Punjab and Gujarat, in particular, there were dishes like naan and samosas but also a lot of real homestyle classics like kitchari, which is rice and lentils cooked together, and kadhi. I hate to call it a stew but it is a soupy-type dish made from yogurt and curry leaves. 

They brought the cooking technique of tadka with them, which is tempering spices in a fat like oil or ghee and adding that to dishes to add flavor. You've got your dals, all your stir-fried vegetables. Then a lot of the South Indian dishes that also arrived include dosa, idli, things made from a fermented rice and lentil batter, sambar, which is a lentil soup as well. Again, I hate to call it a soup — sambar is sambar — but it's super delicious. A lot of great chutneys arrived with them. Pickles. A lot of Indian pickles known as achars also came. Indian food is so vast and wonderful and all these immigrants brought all these dishes with them. 

I think about that first wave of mostly men working in STEM who waited to bring their family and I just think of them having lonely guy meals.

Yeah, my uncle was the first one to arrive, my mom's oldest brother. He grew up in an environment in India that is essentially a desert. Temperatures in the summer can hit 120 degrees and, in the winter, it's 65 degrees at night. I think a lot of Angelenos are probably very familiar with this concept. But he went from there immediately to Cornell. Imagine moving to Ithaca. It's your first time out of India and experiencing these extreme winters and there's not a lot of Indian food around. That's how he learned to cook. He taught himself how to make some very simple stir-fried vegetables, things like that, but he didn't know how to make rotis or parathas, a lot of the flatbreads, so he'd often eat it with pita bread from the grocery store.

People are very resilient when it comes to trying to create familiar foods. Define the title of your book for me, "Amrikan."

"Amrikan" is how Indians say "American." I like to think of it as America with an Indian accent, and that's essentially what the recipes in the book are.

"Amrikan" is how Indians say "American," explains Khushbu Shah, whose debut cookbook honors the Indian diaspora. Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

I think about people adapting their foods. There are certain staples of the American kitchen that end up becoming staples of all these different pantries. What were some of those for the Indian American pantry?

Bisquick is a very surprising one.

What was it used for?

Bisquick is often used to make gulab jamun, in particular, that beloved fried donut in the gorgeous saffron syrup. It is a ubiquitous dessert across so many Indian restaurants. I like to call them "Auntie hacks." A lot of South Asian aunties figured out that by using Bisquick and combining it with dried milk powder, you could create the base for really tender, beautiful gulab jamun, which historically was made from boiled down milk, which makes this thing called khoya. That takes hours and hours and hours to make, if you're making it on your own. But they found that by using Bisquick and combining it with milk powder, it was a wonderful substitute. Quite frankly, I actually think it makes better gulab jamun.

What about Cream of Wheat?

Cream of Wheat is also a great replacement for what a lot of Indians call sooji. It's used to make things like upma, which is this very creamy porridge that people really love for breakfast. In my house, we'd often eat it for lunch or as a quick dinner when my mom needed to throw something together after a long work day. You couldn't always find sooji so they often turned to Cream of Wheat to make the upma.

Jaggery and Fennel Rice Krispie Treats emulate the popular snack, murmura laddu, found at most Indian stores. Photo by Aubrie Pick.

I really love this book. I love Indian food and I make a lot of Indian food at home. I have my own curry leaf tree. 

Oh, wow. 

I'm kind of obsessed with curry leaves, so I would love to talk about a few of the recipes in the book, starting with the lemon rasam. I think rasam is hard for a lot of Americans to wrap their heads around. They don't really understand what it is and how it's eaten. I have to say that I'm drawn to the lemon rasam because we have such an abundance of lemons here in Southern California, we should have more ways to use them. Tell us about rasam, in general, and this version, in particular.

I like to describe rasam as a very brothy, soupy comfort food. It's beloved amongst South Indians. I like to joke in the book that the human body is at least 60% water, and I'm pretty sure most South Indians would agree that their bodies are more like 30% water, 30% rasam. It's a staple in so many South Indian households and there are so many versions of it.

Is it a soup? Would we eat it like we eat soup, with a spoon?

You absolutely could. Rasam is delicious, quite frankly, in any format, but it's most commonly eaten over a bowl of rice.

So you're spooning it over the rice then you're eating the rice that's mixed with the rasam?

Absolutely. But you could totally eat it on your own. When I'm sick, sometimes I like to make a bowl of rasam because it's so brothy. It really clears the sinuses for me.

Is there a template base to making it? Is there dal in it or is it purely broth from vegetables?

There's typically lentils in it. The lemon rasam in my book uses a toor dal.

Is toor dal one of the types of lentils that is faster cooking or slower cooking?

Anything is fast-cooking, if you use a pressure cooker. That's the Indian secret to all dals. You can make dal from scratch in 15 minutes using a pressure cooker. I think Indian households are 90% of the Instant Pot consumer base. That's maybe not a fact but it feels that way. Toor dal is also known as the pigeon pea. You might find it listed that way.

Part of the beauty of this book is the combination of dishes like the ones we've been talking about and, I hate the word fusion so I'm not going to use it, but kind of a freewheeling Indianizing of other kinds of dishes. For example, Indian pizza, which San Francisco was ground zero for in the 1980s. Why do you think Indian pizza is now gaining crazy popularity?

I think as the Indian populations rise in certain areas... if you go to the Bay Area, there are so many Indian pizza chains these days. I think pizza is such a natural slate for innovation and mashing of cultures. You see it with other cultures too — mapo tofu pizza, elote pizza, things like that. It makes a lot of sense that putting Indian toppings on a pizza crust is the next foray of pizza innovation. It's also really delicious.

"I think pizza is such a natural slate for innovation and mashing of cultures," says Khushbu Shah, former restaurant editor of "Food & Wine." Photo by Aubrie Pick.

It's so delicious. What's one of your favorite combos?

I love achari paneer on pizza, so paneer tossed with a mango pickle or any of the Indian pickles that are available. There are so many out there. Put on a pizza, I feel it is one of my favorite toppings. I know it sounds maybe a little wild but one type of cheese and mozzarella on a pizza but the different textures work really well for it, too. Also, I think chutney drizzled on a pizza is a glorious topping. People swirl pesto, why can't you swirl chutney on a pizza?

You 100% can. I have eaten many of those.