How NRIs are reintroducing desi food to the masses using social media

The craving for home-style food coupled with a desire to stay connected to their roots prompted these NRIs to pick up the apron. Now, they are taking it a step further by reintroducing desi food to the masses using social media.

How NRIs are reintroducing desi food to the masses using social media
Cooking at home becomes central to their new lives, an endeavour through which they maintain a connect with their roots.

Homesickness is like a wave that sweeps over you after you leave home—an overwhelming feeling that sometimes creates an existential crisis of sorts for you. Any expat will tell you that it is a mixed feeling of longing for home, and everything associated with it. Food bears the essence of your belonging and help you jog your memory.

So the craving for home-cooked food never dies down, but actually gets stronger with time. This urge drives NRIs to cook desi because even though their minds have made the practical decision to make the move, their hearts are reluctant to follow. Cooking at home becomes central to their new lives, an endeavour through which they maintain a connect with their roots.

Again, unavailability of work-visa for spouses of NRIs that prevent them from taking up formal jobs and no budgetary allotment for domestic helps leave some expats with no other option than to wear the apron.

Also, if there are kids, concerns play on multiple levels. For one, NRI parents want their children to be aware of their culinary culture and stay connected to their roots. Secondly, to inculcate healthy dietary habits, it becomes necessary to keep kids away from processed and packaged food.

All these reasons acting together are prompting a bunch of NRIs to reintroduce desi food to the masses, and in the process bust the myth of Indian cuisine being only about spicy curries. Instagram handles and innumerable food blogs jazzed up with scrumptious recipes and stunning visuals are jostling for attention, reinvigorating people to rustle up delicacies.

These NRIs have made cooking du jour all over again following the realisation that one can eat microwave dinners, greasy takeaway food and pot noodles but only for a couple of days. Sooner or later, you will start yearning for the food that your mother, grandmother and aunts were cooking when you were growing up.

(From far left) Melbourne-based Dhanya Samuel loves cooking fish curries, Sydney-based Bhavna Kalra makes traditional Indian food, complementing it with lyrical descriptions and UK-based Niketa Nighojkar documents her culinary journey on her blog called nikfoodamour
(From far left) Melbourne-based Dhanya Samuel loves cooking fish curries, Sydney-based Bhavna Kalra makes traditional Indian food, complementing it with lyrical descriptions and UK-based Niketa Nighojkar documents her culinary journey on her blog called nikfoodamour

One such NRI is UK-based Sia Krishna. She moved to the United Kingdom in the chill of December in 2005, and started her blog in 2006 when there were not many food bloggers—especially Indian food bloggers. Gradually, she developed a strong reader base, who have been part of her culinary voyage for over a decade. What began as a quest to store her treasure trove of recipes online, from her mother and grandmother, became an extension of her life. The recipes are woven around a personal story or memory. Her blog has been a melting pot for readers who are new to Indian food and have only tasted a few delicacies in restaurants but now want to recreate them in their kitchens. There are also those who have been cooking Indian food everyday of every month, but want to explore different regional recipes of India.

Interestingly, though Krishna’s roots are down south, she is an old pro when it comes to dishing out lip-smacking aamras, pav bhaji, sarson ka saag, dal makhani, etc, and has no inhibitions in sharing them.

The same goes for Melbourne-based Dhanya Samuel, who loves cooking fish curries. Her south Indian origin has never pulled her back from embracing a typical north Indian thali with handsome servings of rotis, dal, sabzi, chole, aloo, papad, pickles and lassi. Her blog, The Spice Adventuress, is filled with desi delicacies like Lucknow-style kofta pulao, prawn curry influenced by the Konkan region of Maharashtra, and Sindhi-style grilled fish, among others.

Samuel considers Indian cuisine to be extremely healthy if it is made using locally grown, seasonal ingredients. That’s what she tries to showcase through her food and blog. The recipes published on the blog are also the food she and her family eat. She is mindful of everything she posts. It is quite easy for her to make Indian dishes as she gets “amazing produce in Melbourne that makes it so easy to make most Indian dishes.”

(From far left) For New Jersey-based Neha Pradhan, food symbolises love, and California-based Kankana Saxena focuses on fuss-free cooking in her blog
(From far left) For New Jersey-based Neha Pradhan, food symbolises love, and California-based Kankana Saxena focuses on fuss-free cooking in her blog

Then there are some like California-based Kankana Saxena who initially wasn’t into cooking but later realised that the effort was a stress-buster for her. Travelling to different places, meeting new people, eating with them and sharing stories cast a magic spell on her, and thus began her blog, Playful Cooking, years ago. Saxena focuses on fuss-free cooking in her blog. The stylish photographs do most of the talking, and she also takes the initiative to add attractive backgrounds for her dishes. From Bengali aloo dum (spiced baby potatoes), badhakopir torakari (cabbage stir fry) to chingri macher malaikari ( spicy shrimp in creamy coconut gravy) and doi mach (fish in yoghurt gravy), her blog is a delight for cooks yearning to learn Bengali cuisine.

London-based Mallika Basu shares Saxena’s love for Bengali cuisine. Basu’s blog is a fete of culinary wonders like Bengali-style fish fry, Goan-style prawn curry, macher jhol (Bengali fish curry) and aloo phulkopir dalna (Bengali-style cauliflower curry). For the vegans, she has come up with Indian recipes like mushroom potato masala, khatta meetha baingan, besan ka chilla and jeera aloo, among others.

London-based Mallika Basu’s blog is a fete of culinary wonders like Bengali-style fish fry, Goan-style prawn curry, etc., and  UK-based Sia Krishna’s blog has recipes woven around a personal story or memory

At the other end of the world in Sydney (Australia), Bhavna Kalra from Mumbai has been making a lot of traditional Indian food, complementing it with lyrical descriptions and memories related to it.

When Kalra first moved to Australia 10 years ago, she was not exactly a strong advocate of Indian food. In those days, she ate out a lot, but not Indian food. She wanted to get rid of her Indian-ness and her wish came true when she moved to Perth in Western Australia. But as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for”, sooner than later, Kalra started to long for India and that’s when she turned to food.

But, is all this cooking of Indian food just an attempt to fill the void and longing for home? Clearly not.

Homesickness or passion?
Krishna, who came from a picturesque town, Puttur, close to the coastal city of Mangalore in south India with her life packed in two large suitcases, had her mother’s handwritten cookbook, jars of homemade pickles, munchies and spice blends, a sturdy mixer grinder and a pressure cooker when she first left the country.

Desperate times call for desperate measures indeed. The West rarely gives the middle class a chance to get a domestic help. So Krishna’s cooking adventure truly began after she moved to the UK. What began as food for survival soon became a passion as Krishna rolled up her sleeves and began her kitchen experiments. She tasted success easily amid a few kitchen disasters. “I find cooking to be therapeutic and relaxing after a busy day. The aroma of herbs and spices in a bubbling pot of food calms me instantly. Cooking has taught me patience, creativity and to be mindful.”

She adds: “Nothing gives me more joy than to cook for my family and friends and watch them savour every morsel of it.”

For some, though, initially the drive to cook started with homesickness. London-based Mallika started teaching herself how to cook Indian food out of homesickness during her Master’s degree course. “I missed my family and I missed ghar ka khana so badly,” recalls Basu. She also noticed that people had a lot of misperceptions about Indian food—greasy, difficult, time-consuming and complicated. So she started writing about simple recipes to change these perceptions.

“I feel really passionate about making people enjoy cooking Indian food, using spices as part of their everyday lives. That passion drives me to this day,” she shares.

For Saxena, the draw is the sheer love for cooking and sharing recipes on the blog. Back in India, when she was single, she would keep to basic cooking and would mostly depend on takeout food. When she moved to the US, she couldn’t work because her visa didn’t allow her. “I was home all day and that prompted me to spend more time in the kitchen trying out different flavours. One thing led to another. Two months after quitting my job, I started my food blog,”she says.
For New Jersey-based Neha Pradhan, food symbolises love—pure, unconditional love, vibrant and colourful. “Indian cuisine would top the list because that is what we grew up on,” she says. “I have always loved cooking and playing around with flavours,” she adds.

There are early memories of her kitchen in Delhi. “The experience of farm to table started all the way in the early 80s for me,” she says. Now a mother herself, she wants to recreate the same experience for her daughters, who, like most other children their age, get easily distracted by quick and easy meals there.
“Fresh food is very important to me as a mother, and I feel responsible for what goes into my children’s bodies. I want to showcase Indian cuisine as a beautiful mix of indulgence and simplicity,” she says.

Pradhan’s preference for fresh food makes one wonder about another thing—the authenticity of the Indian food that one gets abroad.

Authentic Indian food
Indian food exudes a uniformity in quality despite its vast regional diversity because of its regions, people and culture. “The homogeneity of Indian restaurant food is rather surprising as well as disappointing, as most food joints don’t serve the assorted Indian cuisine, which goes beyond the rich, greasy and spicy curries, kebabs and biryanis,” says Krishna.

Saxena feels living in the Bay Area, one has the advantage to taste varieties of Indian dishes in restaurants. “Nowadays, there are also a lot of Indian food trucks that provide amazing food at great prices. The taste might not be exactly authentic but it comes pretty close to the original. Some of my favorite Indian restaurants are Rajwadi Thali, Curry Up Now, Sakoon, Amber India and Madras Café. Everest Momo and Delhiwala Chaat are two food trucks that I often visit for quick takeaways,” she says.

A handful of Indian restaurants are now catering to people keen to taste the regional cuisines, and this number is on the rise, says Krishna. “Tamarind, Chennai Dosa, Dosa n Chutney, Soho Wala and Dishoom in London and Prashad in Leeds are some of my favourite Indian restaurants in the UK. I must also mention that there are a lot of small eateries, serving Indian tasty treats at Camden market, and in the Southhall and Wembley areas in London.”

For Singapore-based Nagalakshmi Vishwanathan, who runs a cooking blog called Edible Garden, the mantra is simple yet delicious everyday recipes. She says the island city-state has “very good Indian food, especially south Indian” which, she feels is harder to find and less popular outside of India. “The awareness of Indian cuisine is also wider in Singapore and many food courts have an Indian stall, which helps!,” she says. Vishwanathan loves MTR restaurant for its dosa and variety of rice, Khansama for the parathas, Mustard for Bengali food, Indian Wok for Indo-Chinese and Vatan Se for some good paneer.

UK-based Niketa Nighojkar, who documents her culinary journey on her blog called nikfoodamour, feels that the Indian restaurants in her city (Cardiff) don’t serve authentic food. The spice levels cater to the British population, hence it’s bland for Indian taste buds, according to her. “I don’t really like any Indian restaurant in my city,” claims Nighojkar.

Melbourne’s Samuel considers Indian food to have a very poor representation in Australia. “Yes, there are plenty of Indian restaurants and takeaways, but very few of them serve authentic Indian cuisine, especially from the different parts of India,” she stresses. “ You will find extremely sweet and creamy butter chicken everywhere. Hence, the knowledge that most Australians have about Indian food is one dimensional and not very encouraging.”

Despite that, in the past two-three years, a few chefs and restaurants have begun to showcase regional Indian cuisine, including modern Indian, fusion and doing it well too. Some of Samuel’s favourite joints include The Rochester (for Kerala food in an Australian pub atmosphere), Babu Ji (for their innovative and modern take on Indian chaats and appetisers), Burger Shurger (for Indian- influenced burgers).

There are only two Indian cuisines found in Australia—north Indian and south Indian, according to Kalra. “So either you are eating naan, dal makhani, butter chicken or idlis and dosas,” she shares.

She also adds that since most of the restaurants are commercial, the food is commercially made so it never really tastes like home. However, she has eaten some great Indian food at Red Pepper in Melbourne. “They had some really authentic Indian cuisine which did not burn a hole in our pockets. I am still looking for an Indian restaurant in Sydney,” she claims.

In an Instagram post , Kalra shares a picture of a bunch of bhaturas and mentions that the version one gets in Sydney is “not really authentic and lacks the flavour and texture of the traditional variety.”

Basu, on the other hand, considers herself quite lucky to live in London, which, according to her, has the best Indian food to offer outside of the nation. But, in order to get the best Indian food wherever you live abroad, you need to have all the ingredients with you first, which can be challenging at times.

Availability of ingredients
A decade ago, the story of finding ingredients used for Indian cooking was different. In the UK for example, Krishna came across just a few small ethnic stores selling basic shelf-stable ingredients like two to three varieties of rice and flours, beans and lentils, herbs and spices where she lived. Then slowly as she started to explore the country, she found places that sold fresh vegetables and fruits imported from India, but unreasonably overpriced. “Things that I took for granted when living in India became a luxury and sometimes, non-affordable,” she says.

But things have changed. “These days we can buy almost all the ingredients, seasonal or otherwise, needed for Indian cooking at a reasonable cost as there is high demand for them from expats as well as the local population,” she mentions.

Basu says ingredients are easy to source in central London, or with a few clicks on the internet. “I often go near my house to pick up boxes of mangoes and fresh curry leaves, etc,” she says. However, she tweaks recipes all the time to make them accessible and easy to do, as long as it doesn’t affect the taste hugely. “I cook for a lot of Indians and they wouldn’t appreciate me going off-piste at all,” she claims.

The US has a strong Indian base, and so it is not surprising when Pradhan says there is an abundance of Indian ingredients. The local farmers market in New Jersey has beautiful, fresh produce. “I have seen and used regional food/ingredients here, which I did not use when I cooked back in Singapore or even Delhi,” she recalls. She reads a lot more about food now and loves the fact that she does not have to go hunting around for ingredients.

Saxena, too, feels there are numerous Indian stores in the Bay Area. According to her, she has never felt she was missing on anything—from fresh fenugreek leaves to Bengali hilsa fish, everything was easily accessible to her. But, certain things don’t exactly come fresh. “Of course, the Bengali fish in Bangladeshi stores are frozen instead of fresh but they taste amazingly good. I use them very often”, she says “Tweaking ingredients is something I like doing but mostly because I want to try something new. But thankfully, I don’t have the necessity to tweak because of unavailability of an ingredient,” Saxena asserts.

Singapore’s proximity to the country, on the other hand, seems like an advantage for its Indian expats. Vishwanathan doesn’t find sourcing ingredients in Singapore a challenge. However, she sometimes tweaks her recipes for experimenting, like the watercress and yellow moong dal and asparagus thoran she makes.

In Sydney, one gets a lot of different Indian vegetables, like bhindi, karela, doodhi, methi, moringa, small eggplants, and jackfruit, among others. Most of the dry ingredients are readily available in Sydney. Nevertheless, what you don’t find are Indian seasonal or regional vegetables. However, Perth, where Karla lived for five years before moving to Sydney, held an entirely different story for her. “I would dance if I would accidentally stumble upon fresh bhindi or the small eggplants. I have made vegetable koftas with zucchini instead of doodhi. I have cooked with a lot of frozen vegetables as the fresh ones were not readily available,” she recalls.

To make adjustments to a recipe even if the ingredients are not available is no mean feat and takes a lot of effort and imagination coupled with passion and creativity, which, in turn, makes one wonder if these passionate cooks think about monetising on their skills.

Cooking for commercial purposes?
Kalra, a project manager by profession, has recently started doing pop-ups, where she hires a restaurant and cooks for a group of 40-50 people who can enjoy a seven-course Indian degustation dinner, which is traditional but has a modern take to it. Kalra wants to shatter the stereotypes revolving around Indian cuisine. “I am hoping that I can introduce people to what Indian food really is and that it is not just chicken tikka masala and a naan,” Kalra states.

Saxena, on the other hand, is open to the idea of opening a restaurant someday. Currently, she is working on a project of delivering her recipes through a meal kit company. Vishwanathan, who has a full-time job in the digital media, has no plans to let go of her current career as of now. “Cooking is my interest, and blogging is a break I take from my day job. I love doing just that,” she says.

For Krishna, as of now, there is no plan to cook Indian food for commercial purposes or open a restaurant. “I am content to cook for my friends and family,” she says.

Sometimes, the thought of opening a pop-up restaurant does cross her mind. “It’s still in the pipeline, and may or may not happen due to my busy schedule,” she admits.

Samuel would love to open an food joint to showcase pan-Indian cuisine to everyone in Melbourne, just like Kalra. As of now, she conducts cooking classes.
The passion of these Indian cooks reminds you clearly that you can take an Indian out of India, but you can’t take India out of an Indian!

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