Naan on Aisle Nine
By Samir Shukla
Step aside white fluffy American bread, watch out tortillas and Italian bread. Slide over pita, your cousin from the East is here, and it is staying. Naan is one of the most popular breads that accompanies Indian food. It is that fluffy bread baked in tandoor ovens, served plain or infused with garlic, onions, mint, or other flavors, and it goes with just about anything. It has now made American supermarkets its home.
There are many breads eaten in India, most notably rotis and parathas which are eaten more often than naan, along with kulchas, fried puris, and many regional faves, including rotla and bhakhari. Put a healthy dollop of ghee onto hot roti, naan or paratha and the taste and aroma will launch you to the stars.When our family first arrived in the States nearly 50 years ago, the Desi supplies were almost nonexistent in grocery stores. Families would pool together orders and bring in shipments from India. Bags traveling with visiting family members, or with folks returning from India after a visit, were filled with spices and food supplies, even yogurt starters.
The allowable weight for international flights was always surpassed by couple pounds extra stuffed in for good measure. “Hey,” was the common thought among these travelers, “if this bag of cumin from my village, where it has the best tasting cumin in the world, busts the weight limit of the check-in bags, I’ll just squeeze it into my overstuffed carry-on. I’ll just put a hot water bag on my aching back when I get there.”
That bag of cumin or fill in the blank spice made its way across the world, somewhere on that plane, thank you very much.
Through the ensuing decades, and especially the last couple of decades, Indian food has become part of Americana food lore. It’s been a fast evolution.
Samosas, chutneys, garam masala, chai, ghee, all are commonplace. Turmeric has been anointed a super superfood. Naans are pervasive in grocery stores, taking over real estate in bakery sections and of course among the bread aisles. If you’re looking to make a quick homemade pizza, look no further than naan. It’s a perfect readymade base for personal pizzas, top off with what you like and toss it into a preheated oven for a couple of minutes. Call it naanizza.
I have always been intrigued how foods from halfway across the globe become commonplace in other places. Usually, the foods are brought over by travelers and immigrants, where some items, like naan and samosas, become as common as local fare.
Some of these items are quite similar to other local commonly eaten foods, so they catch on quicker.
Alas, Julia Child should have gone to India instead of France. The American palate would have been infused with nourishing, mouth awakening spices, herbs, breads, and Indian cooking methods decades earlier. No worries. Indian foods are making fast progress. The complex mélange, well pardon my French, of flavors and textures have made Indian food popular ethnic eats just behind Mexican and Chinese.
Heck, even the Brits, ahem, the kings of how shall we put it, bland food, have now made Indian food the most popular cuisine on that little island. Cheerio. The Brits are finally eating proper.
India has been the destination of travelers, seekers, traders and armies for millennia, and now it is spreading its food, music and cultural love all over the world without even lifting a toothpick, let alone swords.
I’m a proud American who was born in India. A country so diverse and ancient, mythical, bewildering and exotic that it may as well be a different planet. America and India are brotherly planets, albeit a young one and a much older one. I’m a happily blended alien of both worlds. It’s the best place to be, this dual flavoring.
Not only food, but all stuff Indian is infusing into the Red, White and Blue. Indian films regularly play cinema halls. They are now winning once elusive American awards. Crowds are dancing in movie theater aisles to Indian film songs. Can’t pronounce “Naatu Naatu,” well just substitute the world “naan” for “naatu” and start pogoing in the aisles.
Yoga is practiced daily by millions, as common as hitting the gym.
The lovely concoction known simply as chai will someday, if the gods are truly fair, overtake coffee as the hot beverage of choice from sea to shining sea. It’s just a matter of time and taste.
Many regional Indian foods await their discovery and will expand American palates and menus. In the near future the most widely eaten breads in India, rotis and parathas, will stand beside naan and become standard table fare for Americans.
Here’s looking forward to that tastier day. Hold up your cup of chai, and cheers.
Explore the unfathomably diverse varieties of foods known collectively as Indian food, and don’t forget to grab some naan at your friendly neighborhood food market. It’s right over there, on aisle…
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