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Jan 6, 2010 01:34 PM

Is There Yet an Indo-American Cuisine?

It is now common practice to differentiate between Italian food and Italian-American food.

Likewise, there seems to be a discernable difference between Chinese food and Chinese-American or Americanized Chinese food.

Are we yet to the point where there is a distinct Indo-American cuisine? I have heard, for instance, that chicken tikka masala is a westernized (if not Americanized) Indian dish, but don't know if there are any others.

Anyway, I'm just curious to know what you lot think about this.

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  1. I beleive tikka masala was invented in the UK, which had Indian colonies, so you would be right on that account. I only eat Indian food at a place where mainly people from India eat and they are very authentic. I am curous too though. I know there is an Indo Chinese place near me that makes an Indian version of Chinese food. It is really good, but nothing like Americanized chinese.

    9 Replies
    1. re: sisterfunkhaus

      I am not so hard lined or limited. I would eat at virtually any restaurant that was decent. I truly enjoy eating at this little Bangladeshi restaurant for their 2.99 bowl of biryani 2 or 3 times a month. I am the only westerner that I ever see. Then, on occasion, I enjoy this fast food plate of tikka masala that I have them make extra spicy and is a pretty decent plate for lunch, although it costs 8 bucks.

      Pretty sure Chicken Tikka Masala was 'invented' in the UK. I have read many various articles on the subject, one states the original was made with a base of tomato soup. Try asking who first concieved a hamburger and watch the frying pans fly.

      Incidently, my favorite chili aficionado and Texas historian, the late Frank X. Tolbert, attributes the hamburger to a gentleman in Athens, Texas. I need to ask his daughter about this.

      1. re: DallasDude

        Have you been to Pasand in Richardson at the corner of Coit and Campbell. Amazing!!!

        1. re: sisterfunkhaus

          I have. Pretty nice, gone downwards in recent times, but still good.

          1. re: DallasDude

            Haven't been there is quite a while. I never go for the buffet as I am not too much of a buffet girl. We have quite the local Asian- Indian population, so it's not too hard to find good Indian where I am at.

      2. re: sisterfunkhaus

        Certainly correct that "tikka masala" was invented as a defined dish here in the UK. The usual story goes that a customer was in an "Indian" restaurant in Glasgow and had ordered chicken tikka. S/he then asked for a sauce to go with it. The chef quickly made something akin to "butter chicken" sauce and it's since become the most often ordered dish. I tried it once and found it bland and somewhat sickly - nothing at all like the sophistication of a well made murgh makhani.

        Food adapts with immigration. I've never eaten Indian food in America so have no idea how it might be different from here in the UK. However, I have eaten in Chinese restaurants in America and the dishes and, moreover, the general taste of the food is different from here in the UK. Even when the restaurants are supposed to be basically Cantonese.

        1. re: Harters

          The best Indian meal I ever had was in a little hole-in-the-wall in East London in the late eighties--more variety, much more creatively spiced (and no tikka masala or butter chicken). US Indian places really tend to dumb down the spices even if you ask for hot. I have found, however, that if you ask them to "spice it like you'd eat it" it works out pretty well.

          And it's weird--I've never seen butter chicken on the menu of any American Indian restaurant but it was all over the place in Canada. The Brit connection?

          1. re: MandalayVA

            I get butter chicken here in Texas. It's pretty good.

            The thing about Indian food is if you don't get it spicy enough, it has no flavor. I know people who go, ask for it mild, then complain about the flavor. I think people don't understand that the spices that make it hot also add a lot of other flavor as well. I'll have to try the "spice it like you'd eat it" because it's hard to get it hot enough for me.

            1. re: sisterfunkhaus

              I always thought butter chicken and tikka masala were the same thing--they taste the same to me anyway.

            2. re: MandalayVA

              The Indian restaurants in the US that I frequent are more than willing to kick up the spice if you stress forcefully enough that that's the way you want it.

              Interestingly enough, the blandest Indian food I ever had was at an Indian restaurant in Basseterre, St. Kitts.

        2. Every supermarket in Manchester NH sells fresh packaged "Naan". It's pretty good, but I think the company that makes it also sells the fresh packaged "pizza flatbread" in the next aisle.

          1. Yes, the US based typical Star of India Palace restaurant is based on the similar model as the UK Anglicized Indian food. It is a restaurant genre of food loosely based on Mughlai and Punjabi cuisine. It tends to be mildly spiced, creamy, and contain food coloring in some of the main dishes. Favorites of this genre would be saag paneer, butter chicken, and chicken tikka masala. It has already been discussed above that chicken tikka masala is a British dish. Butter chicken and saag paneer are both "authentic" dishes, but are made quite differently in homes than in restaurants. In restos butter chicken contains food coloring, and both dishes are made with a lot of cream. Interestingly, this genre of food has made its way back to India and home cooks now prepare restaurant style dishes at home as a novelty. But I think non-Asian people who have only eaten Indian food in typical Indian American or traditional British Indian restos are very surprised if they ever eat in an Indian home. Same if they go to a specialist regional type resto which mostly caters to Indian-only customers. The food is spicier, depending on the region is often saltier and oilier, and has no cream, there are lots of interesting vegetable dishes, etc.

            The original proprietors of Indian restos in the UK were mainly Punjabis. I imagine that this is why the typical resto menu formula is based on that cuisine and spread to the US that way. In the UK, there are still many of the original restos still owned by Punjabis, but there are also a lot of Bangladeshis, especially from Sylhet, dominating the Indian-for-non-Indian customer genre of resto. They are not serving Sylheti food, they are following the same Punjabi/Mughlai formula. It is the same thing in the US. Unless they are purposely doing regional cuisine or serving in an Indo-Pak neighborhood community, the owners can be Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, often some of the cooks are Latino, but they are all serving the resto-formula food, not "authentic."

            I happen to like some of the creamy stuff sometimes. It is just another genre of food, just like American Chinese or what have you. If it taste good, that's all that matters, as we say often here.

            11 Replies
            1. re: luckyfatima

              Hopefully not too OT a question: Do you know why so many more Punjabis made their way oveseas than Indians from other parts of the country? (I'm wondering if it has something to do with partition.)

              1. re: cimui

                This isn't true anymore about Punjabis being the main immigrant group of Indians, was at one time. I think the question would be why that particular group dominated the resto industry at that time, too. I don't know why, though. Nowadays Indians from all over make there way abroad. Above in that post, I was including Pakistani Punjabis as Mirpuris whose city is technically in Azad Kashmir, but culturally, linguistically, culinarily are a type of Panjabis. They are a big group in the UK, too.

                1. re: cimui

                  Not true. There have been outmigrants from almost every Indian sub-group, and Punjabis may not be the largest group. (Though Punjabis are among the earliest South Asian immigrants to the US, dating from the late 19th century, to places like California).

                  One of the largest outmigrating groups is Gujaratis (of all religions, each with a different sub-cuisine: Hindu, Muslim, Jain, etc.).

                  Gujarati communities are found in the US, in East Africa, Australia, and many other places. Punjabis and others are found there too.

                  Other (often non Punjabi) streams of outmigrants are found in the Caribbean, Mauritius, Malaysia, and other places with plantation economies. Many of these communities originated in rural Bihar/Eastern UP states of India and also the South (especially Tamils to Malaysia, Burma, Sri Lanka).

                  All these trends WAYY predated partition (which was in 1947), beginning from the early 19th century. Partition brought about more movement within the subcontinent than outside it.

                  After US Immigration Reform in 1965, non-Whites were finally allowed to legally immigrate, so many educated professionals from all parts of India came to the US.

                  Re the OP's question: you mainly seem to be addressing restaurant food, which many people have commented on already.

                  Re home cooking, I can say that the huge surge in the availability of convenience foods (frozen and canned ingredients) has made it easier for desis to cook their own regional recipes without much need to adapt, and also to learn each others' dishes (e.g. Punjabis cooking Bangla food, Banglas cooking South Indian food, and so on).
                  You see more adapted dishes in home cooking in Eastern and Southern Africa.

                  Cimui: you're right about the desi food plate at home being more thaali style (small side dishes arranged around the rice or roti in the center) rhan the restaurant concept of ordering one big entree.
                  However, if you eat in a buffet, you can arrange your choice of dishes thaali style.

                  Re 'courses" it's true that these are a more Western concept, but parallel notions are not unknown in desi food: e.g. in the South, in your thaali you would do:
                  1. Rice with rasam (plus sides)
                  2. Rice with sambar or other thicker dal dish (plus sides)
                  3. Rice with yogurt / buttermilk (plus sides)
                  4. Dessert..

                  For Northern Indian thaalis, you could do:
                  1. Rotis + sides
                  2. Rice + sides
                  3. Dessert.

                  These are sort of like courses, though not really the same thing.

                  You would never eat rotis WITH rice as I've seen so many Westerners do (e.g. report using rotis to "sop up the curry and rice").

                  1. re: Rasam

                    Very informative, thank you, Rasam, Harters and luckyfatima! I really enjoy geeking out on info like this.

                    Nowadays, there are a number of s. Indian restaurants in NYC (in the East 20s), as well as a well-known Gujarati sweets store / cafe (Sukhadia's). But probably in the U.S., generally, Punjabi food is still more common.

                  2. re: cimui

                    "Do you know why so many more Punjabis made their way oveseas than Indians from other parts of the country?"

                    I don't know if this is the case. In the UK, our national census doesnt break down ethnicity in such detail but the last census showed a population of about 1 million with Indian backgrounds, 750K with Pakistani, 300K Bangladeshi and 250K "other asian".

                    Although immigration has been continuous, there have been "groupings". In the mid-19th century, it was mainly Bengalis, who had been employed in the navy. After World War 2, there was further immigration to work in the textile and heavy manufacturing industries. And, of course, when Uganda expelled the asian community in n1972, many held British passports so came to the UK. There's now comparitively little primary migration.

                    1. re: Harters

                      Yes actually Rasam is right about Indian global immigration...but in terms of Punjabi immigration from both India and Pakistan in the UK:

                      "The largest subgroup of British Indians are those of Punjabi origin (representing approximately two thirds of direct migrants from South Asia to the UK), combined with Pakistani Punjabis they number over 2 million "

                      and somehow this wave of Punjabis into the UK in the 1950s defined the Indian resto industry and that genre of Indian cuisine found in restos. Somehow this also spilled over into the US because you find the same type of formulaic menu and dishes.

                      1. re: luckyfatima

                        "somehow this wave of Punjabis into the UK in the 1950s defined the Indian resto industry and that genre of Indian cuisine found in restos."

                        I don't believe this is accurate. As above, all the evidence in the UK is that the the "Indian" restaurant business is basically Bangladeshi in origin (and, in particularly, Sylheti).

                        That is not to say, that there were not Indian restaurants here before that.The country's oldest known restaurant is Veerswamy in London, founded in 1926. However, the significant growth in "Indian" restaurants is from the late-1970s onwards.

                        This link may be of general interest to folk wanting to know more about the growth of "Indian" restaurants in the UK from the very small numbers prior to 1960 to the many thousands we have now. Unfortunately, it doesnt discuss how poor many of the offerings are.

                        1. re: Harters

                          Harters, I have been to Sylhet. Believe me, they are not selling Sylheti food or Bangladeshi food in the typical Bangladeshi owned UK Indian resto...not even close. It is still Mughlai-Punjabi influenced food. Those Bangladeshis were new immigrants and took over that niche as a "merchant" class once the original Punjabis became more establish and their kids didn't keep up the restos. Those original early Bengali immigrants you mention before Independence were scholars, not resto owners. The Sylhetis much more recent. There are some Sylheti restaurants and many other regional South Asian restos abound...true, you can get Sylheti food. But the typical Indian-for non-Indian resto still has a standard Punjabi influenced menu even when the owners are Sylheti. The whole shift in merchant class background but keeping up the same menu formula isn't unique. It is the same with original Cantonese owned Chinese shifting to other Chinese, or like how fish and chip shop ownership was in certain places dominated by immigrant Eastern European Jews but then shifted to the next wave of immigrants. There is no butter chicken in Bangladesh. Sylheti food is like tiny anchovy-type fish stir fried with greens in a mildly spiced, water gravy, lots of fishy flavors in everything. Sylhet did have a Mughal and later nawaab culture, so you do indeed find some of the same dishes as in the rest of North India/Pakistan like kabaabs, pullao, biriani, etc., but they are prepared in a different way, i.e. you could instantly tell that a biriani is Bangladeshi-Sylheti type. If you don't believe me, I give you a challenge, go to Banglatown or any Bangla neighborhood and eat in a restaurant that sells Sylheti food. Then go and eat in your typical Sylheti owned Indian curry house with butter chicken and creamy curries and onion bhaji balls and fluffy naans and all. See the difference for yourself.

                          1. re: luckyfatima

                            "they are not selling Sylheti food or Bangladeshi food in the typical Bangladeshi owned UK Indian resto...not even close!"

                            Correct. I doubt whether anyone in the UK would suggest that they were. With very few exceptions, I doubt whether anyone would recognise a distinct regional background to the cuisine in our "Indian" restaurnants. I think it would be pretty much impossible in most of the country to find a restaurant claiming to cook Sylheti food. It has been Anglicised out of any recognition, which is why the eating experience is usually not very good.

                            1. re: luckyfatima

                              I really just need to start a thread about Bangladeshi food.

                              Harters, LuckyFatima is right that about the formula as the food being served isn’t typical Bangladeshi food, but I disagree that Bangladeshi food is not even close to what is served in those restaurants. There may not be murgh makhani, but there are tons of dairy-based dishes and a lot of Mughlai influence. Bangladesh is a Muslim country and Islam made its first appearance in the 12th century. Kormas, roasts marinated in yogurt (Bengali roasts are delicious btw), and lots of coconut milk dishes (spiced with traditional Mughlai spices - cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, etc.) in the southern states. I think a lot of people forget that Bangladesh was the Indian state of Bengal before 1947, East Pakistan before 1971, and the Hindu-Muslim conflicts pushed Muslims from all over South Asia into Bangladesh over the centuries. If I put a korma from Dhaka and a korma from Lucknow next to each other, a person from Bhopal is going to be able to recognize both as korma.

                              LuckyFatima, the dish you were served - choto maache (literally "little fish"… I think the fish are commonly known as whitebait) - is a dish that is served all over Bdesh, not only Sylhet and to be completely honest, I’m kind of surprised you were served that as a guest in someone’s home as it is something of an economical dish. Further, although there is a very distinct lack of dairy products used in every day Sylheti cooking (definitely less ghee in traditionally rich dishes), it is very sad that you were served food with "water gravy, [and] lots of fishy flavors in everything." Bangladesh is a giant delta so there is a lot of fresh-water fish eaten, but “fishy flavors” are not characteristic of Sylheti food. It is true that shrimp is used to flavor many vegetables dishes throughout the country, but typical Sylheti variations that pop into my mind are the use of shatkora (dried, bitter citrus - an acquired taste) in protein dishes, star anise in meat dishes (also found in other northern Bdesh states), more variation in the use of legumes (whole beans in particular), shutki (dried fish… often with those beans I mentioned), the use of the naga dorset for flavoring and heat… Otherwise, the dishes typically eaten are very similar throughout the country. The variations come in amount of spicing and the timing of the different stages (e.g. bhuna, etc.). My S.O.’s family is from the Rajshahi district and calls Sylheti food “masala-light.”

                              Btw, "onion bhajis balls" are authentic Bangladeshi. I have fond memories of making them with my mum for dinner parties throughout my childhood.

                    2. re: luckyfatima

                      "In the UK, there are still many of the original restos still owned by Punjabis, but there are also a lot of Bangladeshis,"

                      Some 90% of British places are owned by people of Bangladeshi origin - about 12,000 are members of the Bangladeshi Caterers Association. The remainder are mainly made up of Punjabi or Gujarati owners

                    3. Interesting question! I don't know of any dishes that are specific to Americanized Indian food (i.e. no equivalent of egg foo young), but like sisterfunkhaus and luckyfatima noted, there were a few that developed to suit British tastes (and in certain areas, Portuguese tastes) during the colonial period. In addition to chicken tikka masala, there's also mulligatawny soup and kedgeree.

                      I guess something could be said about the setup of the meal, too. My impression is that home-cooked Indian meals tend to involve a variety of small dishes and are often eaten thali style with a lot of different pickles, chutneys and raitha. At restaurants in the U.S., people tend to order one big "entree" rather than several small dishes, with no accompaniment other than bread and/or rice. Hopefully someone will set me straight if I'm wrong, but I think the idea of courses more generally is also a U.S. / colonial one. My impession is that Indian meals are served all at once with something soupy and sometimes something sweet served alongside the savory 'mains'.

                      1. Oh, just thought of something: Does anyone know if kati rolls (paratha wrapped around a filling and eaten like a rolled sandwich) originated in the U.S. or in India? In NYC, there's a small restaurant called the Kati Roll Company that sells these. Very good.

                        Also, there are fusion dosas, which I'm not sure exist anywhere other than NYC. Hampton Chutney makes these with fillings like sundried tomato, arugula, portobella mushrooms and goat cheese, served with pumpkin chutney and the like.

                        Maybe these are the beginnings of an Indo American cuisine.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: cimui

                          Kati rolls are definately Indian-Indian.

                          There are all kind of dosas, too but the fillings you mention are very innovative and one certainly wouldn't find those 'trendy' maybe that is some special Indian-American fusion. That said, you can eat dosa with a meat qorma. There are Chinese inspired "spring dosa" which have cabbage and bean sprouts and stuff inside like a spring roll. I think these fancy dosas you mention are part of a new type of Indian haute cuisine, fancy high end stuff. You will find these types of restos in India, too, but I don't know that they have goat cheese and all, that is very fusion.

                          1. re: luckyfatima

                            Definitely sounds like non-traditional dosa fillings have been on the up-and-up in India for a while (since at least this 2003 article from The Hindu):

                            The fillings at Hampton Chutney are almost more Californian cuisiney than anything else, though.

                            This restaurant in Michigan serves all sorts of crazy dosas, too:, including:

                            Schezwan Paneer Dosa with "Schezwan sauce" & shredded paneer rolled in dosa & cut in pieces

                            Mexican Dosa with lettuce, black beans, onions, cheese & sour cream

                            Dabeli Dosa with dabeli stuffing mixed with ground nuts & onions, & cut into pieces

                            Stuffed Noodle Dosa with Chinese noodles stuffed in dosa and cut into pieces

                            Fascinating re: the Chinese inspired spring dosas!! If I made them for my FIL, whose favorite food in the world is masala dosa, I think he'd be a little bit appalled. Might be a funny April Fools joke. :)

                          2. re: cimui

                            If we are bringing up NYC restaurants, might not the Indian restaurants qualify as Indo-American? I don't recognize their sweet vindaloo, banana malai kofta or creamy and nutty rogan josh as Indian. Perhaps they are a regional cuisine I had never encountered before, though I doubt it since the masalas are off. Either way, these restaurants, with bananas in their malai kofta and pineapple and cashews in their jalfrezi seem to me to have their origins in catering to New Yorkers in search of the exotic.

                            1. re: JungMann

                              1. that sounds seriously yuck! :)

                              2. where?!

                              3. while we're on the subject of unusual offerings at nyc restaurants, indian taj (on bleeker) has "potato croquettes" -- i guess you could call them aloo tikki or batata vada -- filled with goat cheese. pretty delicious, actually.

                              4. and then there's the whole subject of places like tabla. mostly, the menu has only the barest hint of indian influence, but there are a few dishes there that are more credibly indian. is this cuisine indo-american?

                              1. re: cimui

                                1) It was.
                                2) That seems to be the case with all of the restaurants I've tried. I specifically remember the "fiery vindaloo" at Spice Cove tasting distinctly like cinnamon and condensed milk. The fact that it was pink should've been a clue that it was going to be bad.

                                I will have to try my hand at making something similar to those croquettes. They sound tasty. And while we're recollecting Indo-American restaurants, we ought not to forget the late Elettaria. The crab rangoon samosas and papadum cod definitely had one foot in NY and the other in the subcontinent.

                                1. re: JungMann

                                  I'm having a bit of failure of imagination trying to wrap my mind around a condensed milk vindaloo. Were the sour elements still present? Sounds so abominable as to be rather fascinating (in a Heart of Darkness sort of way).

                                  Moving on to happier thoughts...

                                  Adrienne156, just took a look at Junoon's website ( and it looks much more like the kind of thing I'd like to see become Indo-U.S. food. I wouldn't mind trying those cheddar fofos!

                                  1. re: cimui

                                    The vindaloo was actually sweet! There was definitely cinnamon and clove, but the garlic and vinegar that really make the dish were nowhere to be found. In fact it tasted remarkably similar to the rogan josh I had down the street. It seems like a lot of established Indian restaurants in NYC rely on warm and sweet spices and fruit to concoct their versions of Indo-American.

                                    Junoon, however, looks like the type of inspired American-born Asian cuisine I could heartily endorse. The tandoori salmon sounds like the Desified gravlax recipe I was trying to come up with for Christmas.

                              2. re: JungMann

                                That sounds absolutely revolting. I second Cimui - what restaurant is that?

                                In the Bay Area in the past couple of years I've noticed more and more higher-end [Indian] eateries that are concentrating on quality ingredients, local sourcing, and then pricing their offerings accordingly (Neela's in Napa, Junoon in Palo Alto). Small plates are also becoming more popular. I haven't been back to South Asia since 2005 and didn't eat out extensively even then, so cannot say if this style of contemporary [Indian] is international or more localized shift. You can definitely see the Californian-influences...