But before I could love them, I had to undo a lifetime of expectations and anxieties about Indian food
I have rarely shied away from shortcuts when it comes to cooking. I love a jarred pasta sauce, a frozen dumpling, a rotisserie chicken dressed up with some quickly roasted potatoes. At this point those things barely register as shortcuts; they’re just ingredients.
By this logic, I should have had no problem embracing Brooklyn Delhi’s simmer sauces, which turn making Indian curries and stews into a minutes-long process. But I did. While I loved the brand’s achaars and chutneys — things I rarely make — the simmer sauces seemed, I told myself, unnecessary. I knew how to make korma on my own, homemade, the way it should be — a burden I would have never placed on weeknight ravioli. I felt deeply that the sauces, and the curry powder mixes and jars of ginger-garlic paste that my Didu tells me to buy, were not for me. I had more to prove.
It’s not like it’s hard to make Indian food. I will maintain this to anyone who insists there are too many spices, too many unknowns, and yet has no problem using six different flavorings to make a chili. “Indian food” is already too big of a category to deem “easy” or “hard,” a dosa requiring different skills than a biryani or a macher jhol. But if it is hard, it is because cooking is hard. Browning onions, measuring spices, and braising meat takes time and energy, which sometimes you don’t have and sometimes you do have but would rather spend on something else.
Brooklyn Delhi’s sauces, made by chef and author Chitra Agrawal, are as close as you can get to homemade in a jar. They’re vegan concentrates of spices, onions, nut butters, and coconut milk. And while you can use them as-is — dump one jar into a pound of sauteed protein or veggies, let simmer, et voila — Agrawal explicitly encourages you to cook. The sauces are mild, so you can adjust your own spice levels, and on her website Agrawal features recipes like saag paneer using her coconut cashew korma sauce, or butter masala mac and cheese with her tikka masala sauce. They’re just another ingredient.
And yet, I remained reticent. Before I could love the simmer sauces, which I do now, I first had to undo a lifetime of expectations and anxieties I had absorbed about Indian food, and accept where I stood in my own culture.
Every time I write about my mixed-race identity, I stumble into narratives and tropes that don’t quite fit, in an effort to relate. It’s because I worry my truth is not relatable. Having a white mom descended from colonizers who’ve been here for 400 years, and a dad who came here while there were still racist laws that kept most Asians out, at an age when most of his growing up would be done in America, means that the stories of the “second-generation kid” never really applied to me. I didn’t grow up in a traditional Indian home, whatever that means, hiding my short skirts and my lipstick from my exacting parents. In a multicultural city and school, I wasn’t made an outcast for my thick arm hair or my “weird” name. I wasn’t forced to go to temple or masjid instead of being at the movies with friends. I was never expected to be a doctor.
Growing up was hard, but it wasn’t hard because I was Indian. My life didn’t look fundamentally different from that of my peers. Except from other Indians and Indian Americans. Seeing another Indian kid at school made me feel like a dog seeing another dog on TV: I knew we had something in common, then felt immediately apprehensive of that connection. Whereas conversation would flow freely with friends of various other backgrounds, around other Indians, even family, I was stilted and confused. I was expected to know things I didn’t know, relate to experiences I never had. I’d be met with a puzzled or pitiful look when I admitted that something they thought was universal hadn’t happened to me. I’d walk away feeling like this part of me was a transplanted organ, something that for all intents and purposes was mine, but also not really — it could be rejected any day.
I became hyperaware of how doing anything vaguely connected to Indian culture would look to other Indians. Would it look like I was faking it until I made it? Would it seem like I was playing dress-up in things that weren’t mine? Would they believe I belonged?
Cooking, however, eventually became a place where I figured I could prove myself. As a young adult I already spent my time watching the Food Network and reading food media, absorbing that freshly ground black pepper was a must over the pre-ground stuff, that “authenticity” was the be-all and end-all of cuisine. And I just really liked Indian food. Of course I should learn how to make the best, truest versions of it on my own.
So I learned to toast my own spices and stand by the pot and stir onions until my arm hurt. I made my own paneer and garam masala, soaked rice and lentils for idli batter, and never resorted to a premixed spice blend for masala chai. This is how it was done, I thought. And even if I wore the wrong thing to a family function, or couldn’t understand Bangla, or an auntie referred to me as “American,” which of course is true but somehow stung, no one could doubt that I was doing this right.
And yet even then, there was doubt. One day I asked my Didu how to make paratha, and she told me she’s bought it frozen for decades. My cousins expressed surprise that I made dal at home — they’d had too much of it growing up, and preferred takeout of literally any other cuisine. And I realized those spice mixes and simmer sauces in the aisles of the Indian grocery were there for a reason: Everyone else used them. “For Indians in the middle class and below,” it is “just not true” that everyone grinds their own spices or makes everything from scratch, the food blogger My Annoying Opinions writes about curry powders, spiritual cousin to a simmer sauce. “By and large the only urban kitchens in which all/most spices are ground freshly are those of hobbyists, the rich, or ones in homes where free domestic labour is available (usually from women).”
And there I was, the upper-caste hobbyist, caught up in the second-generation anxiety over authenticity, feeling disconnected from my heritage and thinking that the only way to be Indian, to do it right, was to do everything on my own. Despite the fact that every other Indian I know uses simmer sauces and spice mixes. On some level I knew this the whole time, but I justified it by insisting there were different rules. Of course they can take shortcuts and cobble meals together and throw tradition to the wind, I thought, because they’re “really” Indian. I’m not, because I’m only half or I grew up here or I didn’t have the right struggles and cultural touchstones. Using something premade would just confirm what everyone already thought about me: that I’m a fraud.
A few years ago, I went to a dinner Agrawal hosted to celebrate her Brooklyn Delhi simmer sauces being launched on a wider scale. Every dish we were served was made with her products — coconut dal, tofu tikka masala, tomato rajma — and everything tasted at least as good as anything I could make. I wasn’t shocked, per se, but a truth that had been flitting around my ribcage finally settled. Authenticity was a trap. I was putting myself, and my people, into a box, trying to define myself by what I should make and not what I could. I needed to let myself out.
My life has not looked like the lives of most Indian Americans. There’s a lot I haven’t experienced and don’t know. But my identity doesn’t live in cumin seeds and parental disapproval. Trying to let go of the idea that there is some singular way to be Indian has given me an easier time seeing my culture and choices as things I legitimately enjoy about myself. I like the way Indian gold looks on my skin, and the way my Kali tattoo hugs my ribs. I like taking Hindi lessons, texting Didu “Aap kaise hain?” and understanding what she says in response. And I like being able to throw some frozen shrimp and peas and a jar of golden coconut curry in a pot just as much as I like spending an evening rolling out my own roti. Neither makes me more or less of anything. As if they could.