As someone who consumes far too much frozen food from Trader Joe’s, I have some fairly strong opinions about the heavily processed heart-disease-ridden fodder I choose to shove down my pie hole every day.
Among the more controversial of these opinions is my unwavering support for Trader Joe’s chicken tikka masala. At $3.99 and 360 calories, the item is a sufficiently cheap and satisfying substitute for my lack of culinary ability. More importantly (and perhaps more contentiously, at least with my fellow Indian Americans), I believe the item is fully authentic — to Indo-Anglo Californian cuisine, that is.
The precise origins of chicken tikka masala are shrouded in mystery, with some citing Punjabi chefs in India and others crediting Bangladeshi immigrants in Scotland. A popular story describes an accidental invention: A British patron’s request for a less dry chicken tikka resulted in the addition of tomato-cream gravy, and — voilà — chicken tikka masala was made. Regardless of chicken tikka masala’s actual origins, its impact on British culture is undeniable. It has been called the national dish of the United Kingdom due to its incredible popularity in the country, and the meal has been used by politicians as an example of the U.K.’s rich multicultural heritage.
Given that chicken tikka masala is a quintessentially British dish, it seems odd that Trader Joe’s would advertise the product as “Indian” — even going as far as to cite an “Authentic Indian Recipe” on the box art. Is there a reason for this discrepancy? Is there something about the word Indian that makes it inherently more attractive than “British?” Would the tagline “Authentic British Recipe” not be equally enticing?
If your answer to that last quasi-rhetorical question was a resounding yes, I don’t blame you.
Popular discourse has cemented the idea that certain foods — and by extension, certain cultures — are more “authentic” than others. Diasporic cultures in particular are seen as illegitimate; most of the local “Indian” restaurants I’ve eaten at have advertised their food as “authentic Indian,” even though “authentic Indian-American” or “authentic Indian-Californian” would be more accurate descriptors. The underlying issue is that our notions of authenticity stem from flawed notions of cultural purity.
We believe that Indian food in America should somehow be divorced from its American context — that a $2.00 samosa being served on the corner of Channing Way and Fourth Street should somehow replicate an experience in a foreign country thousands of miles away, and not reflect the complex web of multinational histories that culminated in its creation. Ultimately, this belief in “real” and “fake” cultural food is as harmful as it is ridiculous. It reduces culture to a commodity that can be narrowly defined and trademarked, and it dismisses the incredible diversity, beauty and downright deliciousness that can be found in diasporic cooking.
Every “ethnic food” in the United States can trace its origin to a diasporic community with a complex history. Frequently, these histories are steeped in the politics of exclusion, marginalization and oppression. Black American soul food emerged from the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Any discussion of American Chinese food is incomplete without an analysis of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the systemic ghettoization of Chinese American communities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. To survive, diasporic communities had to make do with unfamiliar ingredients and adapt their cuisines to Western tastes. The foods that resulted from these cultural fusions are direct products of the grit, perseverance and resistance of marginalized peoples. When evaluating the authenticity of these foods, we should judge them on their own merit and not arbitrarily compare them to their nondiasporic counterparts.
As a case in point, I look back to the meals of my childhood. My mother immigrated to the United States from India to study engineering, not to cook. As a result, the food she prepared for me was often more functional than it was traditional: pressure-cooked dal and rice out of a rice cooker, rajma with tortilla chips and Maggi noodles with freshly-chopped cilantro. None of these meals were anything like the food I’ve eaten in India, but I would never call them “inauthentic.” They were entirely authentic to my mother’s experiences — honest expressions of her love for me.
The truth is that culture is messy. It’s greasy. It sometimes comes with sweet and sour sauce and way too much cheese. But in spite of its messiness — in fact, because of its messiness — culture is beautiful. Food prepared with love and care will always be authentic to the people who make it.
So, yes, Trader Joe’s chicken tikka masala is nothing like the typical chicken tikka you would get at your average Punjabi dhaba. It’s a California grocery store’s take on an Indian-inspired British dish that has become a staple of Berkeley students on a budget. But maybe, that’s all it really needs to be.