Desi Food, in Theory

Through a posting on the Sepia Mutiny news tab, I came across an interesting "food tourism" type piece in the New York Times, featuring Krishnendu Ray, a Professor of Food Studies at NYU (can anyone think of a better discipline to be in? I can't).

Professor Ray is the author of an intriguing-looking book called The Migrant's Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households.

The Times has Prof. Ray go on a tour of a series of very different Desi restaurants around New York City, beginning with high-end fusion food in Manhattan (Angon), passing through Jackson Diner (a cross-over favorite), stopping by the Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing, and ending at a working class place in Brooklyn called Pakiza.

Ray's comments are really intriguing. First there is a general, theoretical comment about the function of the Desi restaurant as a space of cross-cultural interaction in American cities:

“The immigrant body is a displaced body — it reveals its habits much more than a body at home, because you can see the social friction,” Mr. Ray said. “The ethnic restaurant is one of the few places where the native and the immigrant interact substantively in our society.”

Interesting -- and possibly true. (Thoughts?) I think what Ray is getting at here is the fact that how we eat is both more intimate and harder to conceal than other aspects of cultural difference. In many other spheres, adaptation and mimicry can be pretty straightforward: you buy a certain kind of suit and shoes, and fit in at a workplace or school, more or less. But eating is closer to home, and the Indian restaurant in particular is a space where "old habits" (like, say, eating with one's hands) can come out safely. But, as Ray also points out, the rules are somewhat different when the Indian restaurant in question has a mix of Desi and non-Desi patrons.

On $6 for a tiny, pyramid-shaped mound of Bhel Puri at Devi, Ray says:

“We like this very clever insider joke,” Mr. Ray continued. “We are taking something cheap and from the street, and reducing the quantity, turning it into a pyramid, putting it on a big plate, and all these white guys are paying 20 bucks for it.” (link)

Heh. His bewilderment at the idea of veal at a restaurant named "Devi," as well as at the ingenious preposterousness of "Masala Schnitzel" is also worth a look. I also agree with him about the greatness of Saravanaas, on Lexington Avenue, and on a few other things as well.