Turmeric Latte and Other Culinary Cons


Turmeric Latte and Other Culinary Cons

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

When I was 13 and my father went out of town on work, I was sent to stay with my cousin M. Now M had been drinking haldi doodh every day since she was six because she was a really really skinny kid, whose parents were worried about her skinniness and decided doodh with haldi would solve this problem. (It didn’t.) When I went to stay over at her place, I was immediately put on the haldi-doodh ritual too. I’ll drink plain milk, I begged my aunt, disgusted by the grossness of turmeric milk, but she would have none of it. I then took to sneakily pouring it down the sink.

Last year, M, who is no longer a really really skinny kid, sent me a picture from Los Angeles. It was a glass of yellow milk in a fancy white cup. She was with an American acquaintance, who had ordered a turmeric latte. “Have you had it,” the girl had asked M. “It’s like a cup of sunshine!”

I could imagine M’s incredulous face rapidly changing colour to a pasty white. “Turmeric lattes” were as far away from a cup of sunshine as India was from LA.

“India has turmeric lattes? Really?” the American girl gushed, amazed by how a third-world country had beaten America to this fabulous discovery. M smiled tightly. Yes, India had turmeric lattes, alright.

Haldi doodh, dressed up in a styrofoam cup with froth, has arrived in the US as turmeric latte and met with the kind of acclaim that Indians had denied it all these years. Here there were lines for it at cafés, long detailed articles about how to make a perfect cup of turmeric latte with deep and considered arguments about which milk to use, Instagram feeds devoted to the foodgasmic beverage, and alternate recipes that called for infusion with cinnamon.

I couldn’t stop laughing. M had just been hit with a healthy dose of the gastronomic cultural appropriation that has been sweeping the US for years now.

There is so much worth marketing from India, so much money to be made, whether it’s organic spiced ghees or trendy chutneys.

Just before turmeric lattes became the must-have drink for the Americans, bone broth was the rage. Bone broth was touted as a wonder food with no reference to its much older grounding in Chinese cuisine. Just like sriracha sauce, which America now serves everywhere – from fancy Michelin-starred restaurants to tiny diners – the bone broth was the staple of South East Asian families in America forever.

The US has a complicated relationship with immigrant food. It’s a relationship that veers from mad love to abject hate. Korean cooking star Maangchi wrote in her book Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking about the time she had to go to a creek at the base of the Henry Hudson Bridge in New York City to boil her soup soy sauce because her American neighbours complained rudely about the smell, if she prepared it at home. This was before a fad and a revenue model was attached to it. This was before David Chang and Eddie Huang.

M regrets not getting on the haldi-doodh bandwagon before LA did. “I should’ve just started a café for foreigners. Then I’d sell them turmeric lattes and dosas, and tell them that the dosas are Indian crepes,” she told me mournfully, drowning in waves of regret.

I get the regret. There is so much worth marketing from India, so much money to be made, whether it’s organic spiced ghees or trendy chutneys. All it takes is a significant amount of obscurity and voila… you have on your hands poor immigrant food transformed into a moneymaking hipster fad. Just the other day, I was at a bar where I picked up one of their fancy-looking sauces, called Da Bomb or Da Death or Da Insanity or some such Da. The label warned me that it was “extra crazy spicy” made from “ghost peppers”. Ghost peppers! Whatever could that be? Then it hit me. Here in its ironic hipster costume and bottled in New Jersey was Nagaland’s own bhut jolokia. Ghost peppers, my desi butt!

Here is the thing. Americans, they can’t stop making things “da bomb”. When they felt that the excitement around bone broth was dying down, somebody introduced chocolate-spiked bone broth. These enthu cutlet Americans didn’t know where to stop and got ahead of themselves.

In fact, if we convinced them that an enthu cutlet was made with obscure ingredients, they’d probably start making them, have enthu cutlet café franchises in three months, write 10 think pieces about them in six months, create honey-mustard enthu cutlets in a year, and declare enthu cutlets dead the next year. And some girl will ask us with polite surprise, “You have enthu cutlets in India?”