Monday, March 13, 2017

Indian Restaurants Seduce Modern San Franciscan Palates with Diverse and Ancient Cuisine


Indian Cuisine has a history not measured in centuries, but millennia. During the course of which it has evolved and changed through long distance trade, colonization, and international relations. And through the trade of spices, Indian Cuisine has influenced other Cuisines across the planet. Indian Cuisine has traveled far due to the wisdom of adaptation (for example: adopting foreign ingredients such as potatoes) yet has also remained unchanged in its cooking methods (such as the use of the ancient tandoori oven – perhaps the oldest type of oven ever used), to evolve into a more complex and varied Cuisine that meets the expectations (and pleases the palates) of different cultures and tastes. In a city like San Francisco, diversity is a state of being here; a state of being and a life style, and along with it the choices made on a daily basis. And the choice of "what to eat" is the communion that binds the diverse population of San Francisco, every day. Diversity is equal to "different needs." And to attract and satisfy all of those different needs, we have to offer as much culinary diversity as possible. And when the matter at hand is food, Indian Cuisine fulfills the expectations of nearly all of us.

Indian Cuisine was first known in the United States through British Colonial references, to help Americans understand the cuisines of exotic India; "curries" were the staple of the few Indian restaurants available in the United States, and the only variation among their curries were the meats within them. In the Bay Area in the 1960s, the telephone directory listed only 3 Indian Restaurants. 

After independence from the British Empire in 1947 (in a process that covered 40 years), "Indian Cuisine" began to refer to the Mughal Empire Cuisine – rather than "British Colonial Indian Cuisine" – asserting Indian independence not only in India, but abroad as well. Indian restaurant owners could finally celebrate their great cultural history, and by 1990, celebrate the opportunity to offer the authentic cuisine elements of the Mughal court (combined with other traditions across the Indian subcontinent and beyond), with the introduction of tandoori oven specialties, and later adapting to Organic and Vegetarian Movements.

Even modern history has changed the shape of Indian Cuisine.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, Indian Cuisine was easily understood and welcomed: Bay Area residents had a prior familiarity with Asian and Mexican Cuisines, for some time. Asian Cuisine (Chinese, especially due the high concentration and long history of Chinese immigrants) was "the exotic" while Mexican Cuisine provided a familiarity with foods with higher volumes of heat and spice. 

How did Indian Restaurants make Mughal Cuisine familiar? In part by following traditional Mughal Cuisine procedures for eating: like serving courses in small portions (resembling Spanish tapas) and/or adding spices on demand (since the Mughal tradition varies from mild to very spicy). Mughal Tradition was also known for its succulent buffets, and Indian restaurants made their mark by making lunch buffets available to local office workers who did not have much time to sit and dine, and who welcomed the variety a buffet can offer.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, Indian restaurants displayed on their menus a list of ingredients and cooking techniques, with references to Chinese Dim Sum and "Mexican Style Spicy Indian" (or serving Indian papadum lentil crackers with tomato chutney, which resembles the well known tortillas chips and salsa served in Mexican restaurants). They described their exotic menus with terms already known to residents of the Bay Area, to make their food accessible through the familiarity of other foreign Cuisines' specialties, already well established in San Francisco. No longer confined to curry, Indian Restaurants began to also offer vegetarian dishes (resembling the Cuisines of the southern regions of India) made with local and organic ingredients, creating hybrid menus and dishes that where often associated with other South Asian, spicy and vegetarian foods. 

Indian Cuisine adapted to the multicultural San Francisco Bay Area, embracing the variety of cultures present in the City. By doing so, expressing modernity by adopting local ingredients and tastes, yet maintaining their Cuisine traditions and procedures intact. Tandoori cooking and the ubiquitous curry are still familiar items on Bay Area menus, but we now see the addition of local Californian wines as a menu choice for customers; Indian Cuisine continues to adapt and evolve. In 2000, the telephone directory listed 16 Indian restaurants in the city of San Francisco, and 133 in the greater Bay Area.