Spaghetti Masala

Learning (from) recipes

by Pia Mileaf-Patel

Illustration by Julie Benbassat

published October 20, 2017

I’m planning to make a batch of dal this weekend. The fall weather in Providence makes me want to stir something over a stove. Dal: inexpensive, vegetarian, reheatable, easy. It also tastes great, with garam masala, turmeric, and cardamom pods to flavor earthy lentils. It is my Indian answer—the Patel part of me speaking—to how to feed yourself in college.

I’ve cooked with my dad my whole life. I have an early memory of sitting on the kitchen counter next to a big pot on the stove filled with deep pink beet liquid. He’d remove the beets and grate them, then toss that with punchy olive oil, salty anchovies, and linguini for this magnificent, magenta pasta. He would hold up a spoon of the dark stain until it cooled enough for me to stick my toddler finger in and apply it like lipstick. Though he is Indian, he cooks mostly Italian food, which he learned both while in school in Italy, and later from my mom’s mom, a true Italian-American kitchen idol. 

I absorbed his recipes, but never learned them. My phone calls home are rooted in questions like “How long do I cook the onions?” and are met with answers like “Well, first of all, I use shallots.” Over the summer, my dad carved out an afternoon to teach me to make dal. It was what he ate most of his early-cooking years. “I’d make a batch and eat it for a week,” he told me.

I make that dish a lot now, but I don’t always know where to source ingredients in Rhode Island supermarkets. I often drift reluctantly to the “ethnic foods” aisle. In a recent article on Epicurious, a prominent food and recipe website, questioning the position of the ethnic food aisle in a current American supermarket, the president and CEO of Goya revealed that the company relies on the existence of an ethnic foods section to ensure their products are placed in two locations of the supermarket—both by ingredient and by region. Goya, a grocery company based in Jersey City, offers 2,000 products including an impressive selection of canned and dried beans, some considered ethnic, some domestic, some indigenous to the US. In general, Goya’s products are grown within the US with a few imported exceptions like coconut water from Thailand, and yucca from Costa Rica. The example of double placement in supermarkets he offered was the potential for organic olive oil to be considered both “strange ethnic” and “nonethnic,” drawing on Goya’s roots as a Spanish importing company while trusting that many Americans today consider olive oil a kitchen staple. Therefore, Goya’s olive oil gets put in the ethnic aisle and the section with oils and condiments, getting twice as much shelf space as a comparable cooking oil without foreign connotations. It is also worth noting that supermarket-brand canned beans are slightly more expensive than the ‘ethnic’ version on offer, especially when offering low-sodium or ‘natural’ versions. This is not always the case, but it has even been noted anecdotally that the same canned beans from Goya will be more expensive in a vegetarian section of the store than they are in an ethnic section. 

I buy chickpeas in the ethnic foods section of the Warwick Stop and Shop. I eat them on toast in a recipe which isn’t out of any one tradition, because I made it up. I also eat them in chana masala, an Indian stew that my Staten-Island-Sicilian-Catholic-Lower-East-Side-Jewish mother makes from a cookbook called American Masala by Suvir Saran, an Indian-American dude who was born in Delhi and now lives on a farm in Upstate New York. Masala means mixture, after all.


In Providence, the food-filled Federal Hill neighborhood was established during an 1870s Irish Italian conflict. After the turn of the century and another wave of immigration from southern Italy, Federal Hill became the more formal “Little Italy” of Providence. Eventually, Little Italies across the US transitioned from ethnic enclaves to culinary, grocery destinations as the perception of Italian Americans were assimilated. In Federal Hill, I can get the right brand of roma tomatoes (my nonna would be horrified if I admitted I usually just buy them at  any old supermarket).

In Federal Hill, Constantino’s Italian specialty store is often referred to as “Venda Ravioli,” which is inscribed below the shop’s name on its green awning and roughly translates to “we sell ravioli.” Inside, there are several brilliant jars of Buddy Cianci brand marinara sauce, a testament to Providence’s Italian-American history. Constantino’s entices its customers with a huge glass case of Italian American specialty snacks: marinated beans, 20 types of olives, hanging salamis, cheese of all textures and origins, anchovies, sardines, garlic, parmesan—now part of a cuisine having a second fine dining renaissance. Garlic might be on every kitchen counter now, but anti-immigration articles and advertisements in the early 20th century condemned its consumption, claiming it was too spicy and therefore had the potential to increase sex drive to an unmanageable level. Garlic ended up as an unlucky vehicle for a condemnation of a people. 

Indian food is having its own restaurant renaissance, edging its way into American high-end dining for the first time. More expensive restaurants are transcending the connotation of greasy take-out that New York, my other home, has associated with Indian food. Indian Accent, a spin-off of Delhi’s hottest reservation, opened in The Parker Meridian Hotel in midtown Manhattan with a $120 tasting menu, and an $85 wine pairing to match. Curry will always be deliciously un-photogenic, but we are learning that you can use tweezers to put Indian food on a plate as well as you can French food.

By no means will a handful of expensive Indian restaurants in cosmopolitan areas erase the long-standing disrespect of Indian food in the US, or its perception as quick and unhealthy. Why, then, do we have such a double standard about “ethnic foods?” We want to enjoy them, and have accessible authentic versions, but we don’t want to spend enough money to allow chefs from marginalized traditions to achieve that level of authenticity. Krishnendu Ray, the chair of NYU’s food studies program, said in an interview with NPR that “Our culinary hunt for ‘authentic ethnic’ food can be a double-edged sword.” He elaborated that our idea of authenticity from a celebrated French chef is “his signature,” and considered worth the entrance price—authentic fine dining is an art. For ethnic food, however, we have specific, myopic expectations of what authenticity should taste like, and we don’t want to pay. 


I don’t have fresh fenugreek leaves in my kitchen, but baby spinach will match the texture if I want to make something resembling methi chicken. Smoked bacon usually stands in for salt-cured pancetta when I make pasta—and in certain dishes, although untraditional, I prefer it. Many dishes we would consider authentically Italian, or Indian were invented this way. Not to mention, the cost that importing fenugreek and location-specific ingredients in general would make it impossible to have any foreign food in the US. Perhaps that is why the most authentic—in the sense of being prepared verbatim to the original recipe—Indian food is found at such impressively fancy restaurants.

In Providence, there are four Indian restaurants I know that can curb your take-out cravings: Kabob and Curry on Thayer Street, India on Hope Street, Not Just Snacks (also on Hope Street), and Taste of India on Wickenden Street. Not one of these restaurants, however, offers food from just one region. India has disparate geographical traditions that are actualized in region-specific cooking, often influenced by religion and terrain. For example, Gujarati food is mostly vegetarian while Mughlai dishes, descended from the wealthy, Northern, Muslim Mogul Empire, feature meat (chicken and lamb) and many more spices, as well as breads commonly associated with Indian food, like naan. Goan food is fish-heavy due to Goa’s proximity to the ocean, and eaten with rice. Their curries are often coconut-based, and in a Goan restaurant, you might even find pork due to the area’s Portuguese and Burmese immigrant population. At Kabob and Curry, you can get a dish with a dollop of fish curry (Goan), a smattering of chana masala (Gujarati), and some chicken tikka masala (which was invented in the UK and is still super delicious). This plate can all too easily be scarfed down without one thought about how its geographically transcending scoops over basmati rice map out the British imperialist unification of India.

The Indian food I cook at home differs from food in India as much as it differs from something from the 24/7 Indian take-away counter around the corner from my parents’ apartment. Similarly, the Italian food I make myself differs from the Sicilian-American dishes my grandmother prepares at holidays as much as it differs from a traditional Neapolitan pizza. But in cooking myself dinner, I do not take on the responsibility of publicity and exposure. Andy Ricker, on the other hand, has received public criticism for cooking food that is not his at his restaurant Pok Pok—a well-reviewed, upscale Thai restaurant with locations in Brooklyn and Portland, which prides itself on importing ingredients and respecting recipes Ricker was taught while conducting research in Thailand.  He has also been defended publicly by several chefs of color, like David Chang, who own restaurants comparable in status to Pok Pok. There seems to be more leeway regarding adaptation in the food industry, but no consensus.

Jonathan Gold, a restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times, concluded his review of the Noma pop-up in Tulum, Mexico (a new project by the chef of Noma in Copenhagen, which is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world) with the sentence, “Beauty and conflict are often intertwined.” Chefs don’t simply prepare recipes; they also imbue them with their signature style and personality. The means to research a cuisine, practice a signature, and select an experience to present elaborately require an amount of privilege. The question lies in adaptation: it is a different scenario when considering who is allowed to adapt a cuisine and not simply prepare it. Personally, I would bristle at an Indian restaurant menu including beef by a non-Indian chef. An identical menu dreamed up by an Indian chef seems cool and innovative—almost punk rock, rejecting tradition.

Italian food, on the other hand, is cooked and adapted by Americans from many backgrounds with few objections. The CEO of Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden (the fast-casual beacon of Italian food to most states across the US), is a bald white dude named Gene. There seem to be no objections to cooks of all backgrounds cooking Italian food in a corporate sprawl. That being said, nobody is trying to convince the American public that Olive Garden is authentic by any means. Adapting Italian food as a non-Italian chef is a non-issue compared to adapting cuisines considered ethnic. Perhaps because adapting Italian food now doesn’t take creative license and artistic credibility away from immigrants preparing their own food. David Bouhadana notoriously co-opts tradition at his restaurant, Sushi by Bou. Bouhadana, who is white, trained with sushi chefs in Japan for three years and was considered an expert on preparing traditional omakase meals New York—that is, until he was repeatedly caught mocking a Japanese accent to customers at his sushi bar. His restaurant is still open, but was condemned by reigning food media, including Vox’s site, Eater, which ran the article “David Bouhadana Has a Problem, and We Need To Talk About It” earlier this year, condemning such extreme racism in the food industry as well as his own racist practices.

A few summers ago in Wellfleet, Massachusetts—where foreign food means fish tacos after mini-golf at Arnold’s Clam Shack—my father was making tomato sauce when a neighbor came by, chatted, and then commented on the smell spreading to his own cottage. “We really don’t like your food,” he said. Too spicy. He’d mistaken garlic browning in olive oil for cumin and coriander, stuff often hated on principle, but not by virtue of its taste—cumin isn’t strange when it shows up in Paula Deen’s chocolate chili recipe. My calm father offered him a bowl of spaghetti and refrained from having a fit about racism. Not today.

Tonight, frankly, I have not assembled a dinner. I had half a mozzarella stick. I’ll probably have an apple later, and maybe there’s some more cheese around. (Perhaps eating solid meals and writing on a deadline do not go hand in hand for me). My parents worry that I eat like this all the time and sent me back to school last weekend with a three-pound jar of stewed eggplant—caponata—my dad had cooked. I teased them, defended my pseudo-independence, but I am not-so-secretly stoked about the eggplant. While I’m learning to cook the way my parents taught me, and melting it into my own style and habits, there is nothing better than when someone makes food for you.
PIA MILEAF-PATEL B’20 wants to teach you how to make dal.