Food at the cultural divide – the burrito and the salad sandwich

There is a very poignant scene in Mira Nair’s cinematic adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake. Having recently arrived in the United States, Ashima Ganguli, finds Rice Krispies in the cupboard and proceeds to eat it as she would the Bengali snack, jhalmuri. Watching the film again, the scene reminded me of a moment of culinary awkwardness I faced years ago when I arrived in the United States for higher studies.

I will never forget my first encounter with the burrito. For those unfamiliar with Mexican cuisine (or American variants), a burrito consists of a flour tortilla wrapped around fillings consisting of rice, beans, and meat and vegetables. To elaborate further, the flour tortilla is the closest relative of the desi roti you will come across easily everywhere in North America. I had no problem eating either the tortilla or the fillings. In fact, I quite relished it. My issue was with the packaging. In India, I had grown up eating rotis alongside rice, but the concept of filling a roti with rice was very alien to me. For the longest time, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the whole idea!

If you’re from India and you’ve never come across rice packaged inside a roti, how would you feel about eating a burrito?

I am sure North American readers will wonder what the big deal is here. Well, let me pose a similar scenario. Would you eat a sandwich that didn’t have a patty, but instead had a salad inside? I am not talking about a tuna salad or a chicken salad, but a house salad. Sure you might be able to get one easily if you wanted to, but if you’re not vegetarian the thought might seem offbeat to you.

Then, it will surprise you that the most American of all establishments, McDonald’s, sells a sandwich in India with primarily lettuce, tomato, onion, and salad dressing. Called the Salad Sandwich, this entree item sells  where a large chunk of the population is vegetarian and has no problem eating a salad inside a sandwich bun.

How would a culinary creation like the Salad Sandwich do in the land of the Big Mac?

Hmmm… now there’s a thought!

Footnote: Now if you really want to taste a mainstream dish that boggles the senses, I’d recommend fried ice cream.

Burrito image:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetonveg/ / CC BY 2.0

Salad Sandwich Image © McDonald’s India. Fair-use rationale: not-for-profit commentary of product using a very low-resolution image.

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Bt brinjal bharta – a saga of lau and whylence.

I couldn’t fail to be amused. India’s Environment Minister Jayram Ramesh calls for the introduction of a genetically-modified insect-resistant crop plant dubbed the Bt brinjal and the nation goes crazy.

First, I owe my global readers an explanation. What is known in Indian English as the brinjal is also known elsewhere as the eggplant and the aubergine. In many of our dozens of languages, we lovingly refer to it as the baingan (pronounced bangin’) or the  begun (pronounced begun).

Indians have a love-hate relationship with the brinjal. On the one hand, our poets pen lines exhorting Brinjal Kumari. We don’t have Brangelina, we have Brinjalina. The brinjal is India’s most eaten vegetable – shining in bhartas and bhajis and impostors like the tomato are relegated to the second-tier as evident from the moniker vilayati baingan or “foreign brinjal” used to describe the succulent cousin.

On the other hand, some of us can’t stand the venerated veggie. Eating poorly chosen or prepared brinjals can cause throats to itch and swell in those with allergies. Some others that aren’t allergic, find the mushy consistency of the cooked product extremely disconcerting.

The Bt brinjal plant debate underscores the current khichdi. Indian farmers would definitely benefit from crops resistant to insects, a trait conferred by the modification. But there are prominent scientists who oppose the introduction including one who calls it the “single largest disaster.” (I really wish the article had elaborated. “Single largest disaster” since when? The Partition of India? The Second Battle of Panipat? Nader Shah’s sacking of Delhi?)

I propose an alternative use for the Bt brinjal. Let’s have farmers grow the crop and then use it to make insect repellents. I’ve even thought of a name for the baingan spray – Bangon. Yes, I know you will all rush out to thank me.

You’re welcome.

Footnote: Incidentally, a research paper published today by Indian scientists led by Dr. Asis Datta of the National Institute of Plant Genome Research in New Delhi describes a genetically-modified tomato strain with increased shelf life; that one barely made a splash in the papers.

© 2009-2011, Anirban