If the perfectly engineered food juxtaposes crunchy and chewy, soft and crisp, spicy and cool, this modern meal reaches its acme as a saag paneer salad from Indikitch, a fast casual Indian restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District. At $9.50, tax included, it’s one of the area’s bargain meals and, with salad and spinach and onions, ranks among the neighbourhood’s healthier lunches as well. And, while there’s no doubt that the meal contains a multitude of less-than-virtuous oils and preservatives, these unpleasant ingredients don’t reveal the keys to the dish’s success. For that, it’s the trends that illuminate salient truths on how to transform a routine meal into a memorable dish.
News outlets of every sort routinely announce Indian food’s eminent likeability. Packed full of juxtaposing and complementary spices, Indian-style dishes present an unprecedented range of flavours in each bite. While some argue that Indian food hasn’t saturated the market sufficiently to be labelled a trend, the recent rise in Indian restaurants suggests that Indian food is increasingly accepted as a way to get one’s ethnic food fix. Thus, a budding group of Americans embrace Indian fast-casual restaurants, pre-packaged curry sauces and pillow-y naan as a means for interacting with popular contemporary flavour.
Despite its appealing flavours and growing visibility, Indian food must shake off its reputation as dirty and unhealthy to conquer lunchtime. To battle these notions, Indikitch prepares all hot mains to order in front of the customers and includes a salad on their menu. Combining New York’s chopped salad mania and India’s sauce-y curries, Indikitch’s so-called Live Fire salads seem custom designed to appeal to image conscious New Yorkers. The salad begins with a bed of chopped lettuce —romaine hearts from an off-brand bag — and shredded red cabbage. To this a lemon-y coriander dressing added, giving the salad a much-needed dose of creaminess. On top of this one of the hot, made-to-order, mains adds a chewy textural contrast and the requisite punch of Indian flavour. A dusting of crunchy chickpea chips gets sprinkled on top, completing the crisp-chewy-crunchy trinity. Fully composed, the salad recognizably belongs to New York’s health-conscious mania, but boasts sufficient tweaks to masquerade as an ethnic, desirable fast food dish.
Despite the salad’s cleverly crafted cravability, it’s blatant pandering to New York tastes complicates what it means to eat Indian in the city. Shouldn’t good ethnic eater — those astute culinary colonisers — order an ostensibly authentic meal to honour Indian food tradition? Perhaps a Feast Plate with a side of daal and carrot salad or a dosa filled with Goan fish curry. Yet, proclaiming to adore Indian food is a statement as misguided as swearing to love Italian food; regarding each country’s respective cuisine as a cohesive entity is an unabashedly foreign construction. Just as canederli and sfogliatella remain marked as Northern and Southern respectively, a more accurate picture of Indian cuisine would reflect the different sub-groups present in one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. If so-called Indian food was consumed without engaging in culinary colonialism, menus would list Punjabi tandoori chicken and Tamil uttapam. But this doesn’t happen. Consequently, representations of Indian food in the US suggest that Americans are eager to interact with foreign cuisines only when they possess recognizable elements.
Crunchy, chewy, creamy. Sweet, sour, spicy. These combinations build a magnetic sphere of attraction around a specific dish. They make irresistible crisp potato chips dunked in creamy sour cream and legendary salty-hot French fries plunged into thick-cool milkshakes. If creating a trendy food requires finding the pre-existing market niche into which a new product can fit, Indikitch presents Indian food as cravable as a plate of nachos or pile of General Tso’s chicken. In order for a dish to dominate lunchtime, it must easily integrate into the area’s culinary lexicon; it’s easier to sell a new type of sandwich to a population that already consumes sandwiches than it is to convince the sandwich-eaters to adopt the thali.
Manufacturing the aura of healthiness through salad helps. Although eating at Indikitch allows the diner to indulge their ethnic food curiosity, the salad, as a recognizable token of New York healthy, ensures culturally agreed upon virtuosity balances mouth-watering flavour. Indikitch isn’t limited to an authentic portrayal of Indian cookery because the diner already possesses an inkling that the country’s cuisine is too diverse to be elegantly articulated in through a choice of six dishes. But don’t say Indikitch’s Live Fire Salad isn’t authentic; it is. The salad is an accurate portrayal of what it means to consume a quick-trendy lunch in New York in 2015.
Image credits: Flickr via Garrett Ziegler