The co-editor of a New Encyclopedia of Indian Cuisine explores her neighborhood, along Devon Avenue

The co-editor of a New Encyclopedia of Indian Cuisine explores her neighborhood, along Devon Avenue
The co-editor of a New Encyclopedia of Indian Cuisine explores her neighborhood, along Devon Avenue

Get more recipes, food news and stories by signing up for our Deep Dish newsletter.

On a recent afternoon along Chicago’s Devon Avenue, Colleen Taylor Sen stopped into the restaurant Naan on Devon to pick up a pudding-like dessert called kheer, disappointed that they didn’t have anything flavored with almonds. Across the street, she savored bihari kebabs and mutton quorma at hollow Usmania, picking out chunks of bony meat from the quorma’s brown sauce with purple-painted nails that matched her sweater and lipstick. She then stopped at the Patel Brothers grocery store to see if she could spot the owners and to pick up some spiced flatbreads called thepla to eat with yogurt for breakfast the next day. Throughout the errands and the meal, she offered running commentary—still lightly rounded by her native Toronto accent—about the origins of many of the immigrants in the surrounding West Ridge neighborhood, the businesses that had occupied various storefronts over the years, and the elaborate fabrics. and saris sparkling in the windows of the ubiquitous clothes.

Sen has lived in West Ridge since the late 1960s, and has seen it become a South Asian mecca complete with sweet shops, butchers, grocery stores and restaurants over the decades. Although the location of her home near such a place is a coincidence, it is a happy one: Sen has written six books on South Asian cuisine, although she did not start doing so until later in life.

She is now co-editor of the new Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine, which attempts to detail the ingredients, regional dishes and dishes of an astonishingly diverse subcontinent. India is the second most populous country in the world, with about a sixth of the world’s population and seven of the world’s most populous cities. It is the birthplace of four major world religions and has eighteen official languages, as well as more than 1,600 minor languages ​​and dialects. Eggplant, mango, lentils, various gourds, cucumber, turmeric, ginger, black pepper and other products are native to India’s many geographical areas.

See also  Posing a danger to children, most Chicago homes contain dangerous levels of lead paint, health officials say | Chicago News

How do you cover all this in an encyclopedia?

You simply try your best to include as much as possible.

“I’m sure people will say we left things out,” says Sen. But since there are surprisingly few comprehensive books on Indian cuisine, any attempt is welcome.

“Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t write about food [in India] from a serious point of view, with a few exceptions, she says. The best-known surveys of Indian food and its history were written in the 1990s by a chemist, KT Achaya, after his retirement; it is a happy accident of alphabetization that he is the first entry in the Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine.

But now Indian cuisine is gaining more interest and serious attention in the subcontinent itself, according to Sen, as people notice that regional dishes and food are moving from being served by street vendors to restaurants, both upscale and casual.

“Now you have all these people who are writing really amazing books; someone wrote a big book about food from Calcutta, someone writes a book about the food of Rampur, they write about Kashmir, says Sen. And she drew on those writers for The Bloomsbury Handbookwhich includes 26 contributors in addition to the three editors.

Sen’s own books include Curry: A Global History and Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in Indiaas well as a translation from Russian of a Marxist critique of Stalinism – she has a doctorate in Slavic languages.

She came to write books about Indian food by chance, after meeting two separate editors of food book series at a conference in England. She had always written freelance articles alongside a full-time job, because she likes to learn about different topics; her doctorate taught her to do research, and a lot of reading taught her to write. Her first published journalism was about chess: an avid ranked player who was fluent in Russian and knew many of the people who competed in the epochal 1972 World Chess Championship in which Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky, she capitalized on the widespread attention to the games by offer to write about them for Chicago Daily News. (She also contributed analysis to WTTW, though she disclaims her skill at chess.)

See also  Former Land Bank Authority head pleads guilty to fraud, could face more than 3 years in federal prison - Chicago Tribune

She had met and married her husband in Toronto before moving together to Chicago, settling in West Ridge because he had a job at Northwestern University. His mother was a “very prominent writer” for a Bengali magazine who sometimes wrote about food. That connection helped inspire Sen to explore Indian cuisine in both India and America in occasional articles, “maybe three or four a year,” she says.

She had an ideal neighborhood at hand for chronicling, as South Asians began to settle in the West Ridge and open businesses in Devon. The street’s first Indian restaurant opened in 1983, according to Sen’s own entry on South Asians in Chicago Food Encyclopedia, which she co-edited. A handful of other Indian restaurants and shops had existed throughout the North Side for the previous two decades, but Devon became the center of the diaspora as it grew. Mafat and Tulsi Patel opened a grocery store on Devon in 1974, then built a larger one down the street as business boomed. Patel Brothers is now the largest Indian grocery chain in the United States.

Sen has seen all this flourish around her and is an enthusiastic neighbor, aware of the joys of the commercial strip and any changes to it. She and her husband try to keep up with all the restaurants, and have different go-tos for varied desires. She likes to try the same dish at different regional restaurants — the dry grilled Bihari kebab, in the case of a Pakistani restaurant like Usmania — to note and compare iterations. One of her books, Pakoras, Paneers, Pappadums, is meant to help a Western diner navigate the menu of a South Asian restaurant.

See also  Pritzker Military Museum & Library to celebrate 20th anniversary with experiences for everyone

Sen is considering writing a book on the history of Indian food in the United States, which will necessarily also trace the history of Indian immigration to and throughout this country. While she is fascinated by food, she also wants to touch on the history of other subjects – which is why she wrote a book about the influential emperor Ashoka, who was a prominent advocate of vegetarianism through his patronage of Buddhism. Her endless curiosity seems to lead her to keep learning more, and keep distilling that knowledge into books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *