When I meet new people, my ethnicity is often a topic of conversation. I stand out in a crowd, and people are curious as to where my dark complexion, thick hair, and bushy eyebrows (help me) come from. I respond each time, explaining my Indian heritage – my parents came from different regions, but I was born and brought up in the United States.
Undoubtedly, curry will soon become the topic of conversation, and I’ll receive questions like “do you like curry?” to more exclamatory statements such as “Oh my gosh, I love curry, you’re so lucky you get to eat it every day!” (which in reality is not true, because the only person in my family who can cook true Indian food well is my grandmother, so I settle for mediocre Indian takeout once every couple of weeks).
Sure, “curry” is a form of Indian food, but summing all of Indian cuisine into that one word completely ignores the complexity, diversity and history behind the food, and takes a rich culture and diminishes its value, summing it up in a five-letter word. Indians rarely even use the word curry when talking about any of their dishes (fun fact: I learned the word curry from my American friends, not from my family or other Indian friends).
If nothing else, north and south Indian food are two specialities all their own; each state within them often has regional specialization as well. North Indian food is more meat-based, whereas south Indian food tends to be primarily vegetarian. South Indian food is much spicier than North Indian food (I learned this the hard way; even though I have both sets of genes, I still have to ask for a zero spice level at Indian restaurants).
Americans tend to only get exposed to North Indian food, which is what is served in most Indian restaurants in the U.S., and assume that all Indian food is spicy- I mean it has spices in it, right? (Another fun fact: spices does not equal spicy. The spice is just an added kick in some regions/dishes – beware of peppers in food; they’re a lot less innocent than they look).
More often than not, I’ll soon get asked “do cows really just walk the roads in India?” (hint: yes they do), or “aren’t cows sacred in India? Is that why everyone is vegetarian?” Yes, cows are sacred to Hindus, one of the largest religious groups in India, and vegetarianism is strongly suggested by the religion. However, each individual makes his or her own choice on the matter, and there is a smattering of both Hindu and non-Hindu, beef-eaters, and non-beef eaters/vegetarians that make up Indian eaters.
In my experience, Americans will talk about how “white” an Indian is or how they must not be very involved in their culture if they see one eating meat, which is far from true. There’s also a misconception that all Indians are vegetarian. While vegetarianism is recommended by Hindu teachings, it has become more of a cultural belief in India, something adopted by some and ignored by others.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as stereotypical “Indian” cuisine, not even “curry.” There are breads, meat dishes, paneer dishes, rice dishes, vegetable dishes, delicious deserts (#SpoonTip: try a warm Gulab Jamun if you have the chance), and so much more, all of which are equally and uniquely Indian.