50 years on, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian cookbook is useful metric for America

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL June 11, 2023
The US has a taste for curries but not as much as it should, says Pew study
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Photo by Taylor Kiser on Unsplash

As Madhur Jaffrey’s book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, marks its 50th year,  it has become a useful metric of Indian cuisine in America.

The time elapsed between publication of the signature cookbook gives us some sense of how much has changed for Indian cuisine in America as well as how much remains to do.

As Aimee Levitt recently pointed out in Eater, Ms Jaffrey’s 1973 book “wasn’t the first Indian cookbook in this country (the US), but it was the one that caught on”. Unsurprisingly, Knopf will release a special  with an introduction by Yotam Ottolenghi.

It will be a moment of celebration, as well it might, though a recent Pew Research Center study found that  Indian and Filipino restaurants are two of the most underrepresented cuisines when compared to their respective population sizes in the US.

Even so, Ms Jaffrey’s accomplishment was to go to a place few US-based writers had properly before.  Indian food in the early 1970s was exotic and unknowable to America. Until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed restrictions against non-white, non-European immigrants, the US had hardly ever encountered Indian food (or people).

Indian restaurants were few and far between and the ones that did exist were highly missable. The Eater piece has Ms Jaffrey explaining in the cookbook introduction that New York’s Indian restaurants were generally run by sailors who weren’t really cooks and didn’t want to serve any region-specific food. Instead, she wrote, they offered “a generalized Indian food from no specific area whatsoever”.

An Invitation to Indian Cooking looked to change that equation by offering recipes that were simple. Without seeking to be an authority on all Indian food – how could any book capture so broad, diverse and varied styles – Ms Jaffrey’s book introduced Americans to Indian food and gave them some  sense of familiarity with it. The idea was that they could move on to more complex dishes, if they wanted, or just stay with old favourites. Ms Jaffrey  worked out substitutions – canned tomatoes for fresh; pumpernickel bread for chapatis.

The end result is that enough Americans acquired enough of a taste for Indian food. So much so that half-a-century on, Trader Joe’s, according to this Thrillist survey, carries the following rather good examples of Indian food:

  • Spicy Chakri Mix
  • Korma Fish Curry
  • Vegetable Biryani
  • Paneer Tikka Masala With Spinach Rice
  • Malabari Paratha
  • Tandoori Naan (Shelf Stable)
  • Basmati Rice
  • Palak Paneer
  • Butter Chicken With Basmati Rice
  • Vegetable Masala Burgers
  • Tandoori Naan

Thrillist is rather less keen on some other iterations of Indian food at Trader Joe’s. That said, distinctly regional variations of Indian food could be said to have some recognition in the US right now. This is the reason the new Pew report is a bit of a shock. We’ll look at that next.