Across cultures, film and food are indicators of identity and home. Sri Rao, author of the cookbook Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films, writes that they are part of his bloodline.
The book is like a literary version of TBS’ Dinner and a Movie, a television program that ran through the ’90s and early ’00s pairing classic American movies and themed dinners, like Drumline, for example, with a recipe for “The Beets Go On.” It is suitable, then, for the largest film industry in the world, Bollywood, to have matching recipes as well.
Rao is not a trained chef. First and foremost, he is a storyteller. Rao is a screenwriter and one of the few Americans working in Bollywood, having produced New York and Badmaash Company for India’s prolific leading studio, Yash Raj Films. In the U.S., he has sold pilots to networks including ABC, Bravo, BBC America and Nickelodeon.
In his work, he is always trying to bridge his Indian and American worlds. Bollywood Kitchen isn’t the quintessential cookbook; rather, it is a joyous sharing of an upbringing stemming from a rich history that shaped South Asian film and diaspora.
“A lot of us second-generation Indian-Americans look at our culture through the lens of food and film,” he said. “These movies meant more for us than for our cousins who grew up in India.”
It was his mother’s cooking and the early Bollywood scene in 1980s that helped Rao get to know his relatives and connect with a part of his identity that the American landscape did not necessarily exalt at that time.
“I grew up in a community that was 99 percent white and Christian,” he said. “But every night at six o’ clock, we would have an Indian meal, as a lot of us immigrant families did.”
Though he had never met them, that is how Rao got to know his grandparents, aunts, and uncles in India.
“I was hearing stories about them and tasting their food first hand every day,” said Rao.
Rao found the process of writing meditative and tough as he waded through memory. In the forefront of his life and mind, he knew he was a child of immigrants. But it wasn’t until he wrote Bollywood Kitchen that Rao realized how monumental his family story was for both American and South Asian history.
Rao’s father immigrated to the American segregated south in 1959 from his town in Hyderabad, India. Rao recounts his father’s confusion about “Black” and “White” signage on public restrooms. There were only 10,000 Indian people in America at the time. Massive immigration from India would not be opened until the 1965 Immigration Act.
“[My dad] didn’t know a thing about where he was going or what was in store for him,” said Rao. “He came for college at Virginia Tech. He landed in New York City and didn’t even know where Virginia was. A flight attendant helped him out and told him how he could get a room at the YMCA overnight and take a bus to Virginia the next day.”
Both in the book’s introduction and our conversation, Rao waxes poetic about his early experiences with Bollywood films in his tiny Indian community. Once a month, late at night at the local Greyhound station, his parents would pick up film reel canisters packaged in big wooden boxes that had traveled from all over the world. Every Sunday, the films were shown in the community’s college auditorium with six other Indian families.
It is these two elements—food and movies—that actuated Rao’s hyphenated identity. His narrative is part of a thousand threads in the Indian-American story.
“Through writing, I started to understand the journey my parents have been through,” he said, “how important food and film were to them as immigrants, and what they passed down to me.”
In the last five years, South Asian representation and cultures have begun to sweep American media and popular lifestyles. It would be pop-culture crime to not recognize names and words like Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra, Aziz Ansari, svasana and samosa. Bollywood Kitchen is Rao’s way of sharing his blended culture with others, while revealing his acute awareness of America’s rapidly changing cultural history.
“[I want to reach] people who are interested in Indian culture already but might not even realize it. People who like to eat Indian food at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, or enjoy going to yoga or meditation,” he said. “They’re already flirting with the beauty of my culture.”
Rao wants to show his audience that it is acceptable for them to bring Indian dishes more fully into their homes in simple ways. The first recipe is a masala-dusted popcorn paired with the lavish Bollywood classic Devdas. We get to know the recipes to the same depths as the film, underscoring one of life’s most endearing triangular relationships: creativity, identity and history.
Rao opens his recipe for masala-crusted salmon with a boldly truthful line: The British stole a lot of things from India—jewels, natural resources and, of course, freedom. But one of the few perks from colonial rulership was the fusion of British and Indian cuisine. Rao paired Lagaan, a colonial force drama (and one of three Bollywood movies ever to be nominated for an Academy Award), with this original recipe.
“For Lagaan, I paired a meal that was based on a British dish known as kedgeree. I wanted people to better understand that kedgeree traces its roots back to India to kichadi, which is made with rice and lentils. The British added fish to it,” he said. “So, I created a meal that deconstructs kedgeree back to its original roots.”
Bollywood Kitchen fuses autobiography, art, cuisine and history. Living in New York City, Rao found himself having the same conversation whenever he met new people at cocktail parties. When people found out he had worked in Bollywood, they asked him for film recommendations and about Indian food simultaneously.
“I typically don’t eat Indian food in restaurants because Indian food that I grew up eating is very different from the Indian food that you find in restaurants,” Rao said.
He gave his friends a couple of recipes they could try out to taste the difference and suggestions for Bollywood films they could find subtitled on Netflix. Essentially, Bollywood Kitchen is a collection of these conversations.
“After having these conversations over many years, I decided to put these ideas together into a book,” he said. “Lo and behold, now I have a book to share with people instead of having to answer questions.”
Rao has created more than a book of recipes. There is seldom a cookbook that voracious readers can flip through for story; this one feeds the eye and imagination. One can run their thumb and forefinger over technicolor pages featuring decadent film and food stills. The narrative also unearths the author: cheeky, perceptive, honest. In Bollywood Kitchen, Rao has thoughtfully merged the vital decorum and social science required in exposés of Indian culture and celluloid.