My first “official” date with A. ten years ago was at an Indian restaurant – Maharani.
At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Indian food. Charlotte was not very diverse then and there were only a few Indian restaurants. Truthfully, I thought the food seemed strange … cauliflower and potatoes and peas? Umm, didn’t sound yum. Not to a Southern girl who grew up on fried chicken, pinto beans, collard greens, and cornbread – and also couldn’t stand her food touching each other.
So A. ordered for us – malai kofta and palak paneer. It was delicious, and A. sent the leftovers home with me.
From that point a love affair began.
With Indian food.
(Note: At the time we met, we were both vegetarian. We would not go completely vegan for another year or two. You gotta remember, this was 2009, and vegan options in Charlotte were pretty much slim to none. This was in the days of BB, BN, BG – before Bean, before Nourish, before Gardein. So no hate, please.)
Indian restaurants were our go-tos – they were the one place back in the day you could always count on to have a solid list of vegetarian options. When we transitioned to vegan, we found that most Indian restaurants had vegan-friendly options as well. At this point we’ve eaten in Indian restaurants all over America, Canada, England, and Ireland – plus a few langar halls at the gurdwaras. Let’s just say I have really learned to love and appreciate the food – in addition to learning to cook it myself.
Which is why some of the gori stereotypes I encounter when I walk into an Indian restaurant are so freaking funny.
Stereotype 1: Ice, Ice Baby
2015: A and I pull up to an Indian buffet for lunch. We are a team: I run inside to snag a table while he parks the car. I hurtle myself into the last vacant booth just seconds ahead of an Indian couple jogging behind me. Their lips form cusswords they think I don’t understand. I flip them a universal hand gesture they do understand. A server comes by to set a glass carafe of iced water on the table.
Then A enters, in all his turbaned glory. Together, we join the line for the buffet. When we get back to the table we find the glass carafe of ice water has magically been replaced by a pewter pitcher of room temperature water! It’s a miracle! Praise God, praise Jesus, praise Allah, praise Krishna, praise Ganesh, praise the Gurus … whoever is looking out for the patrons of this restaurant.
And it’s a miracle that happens every time we eat lunch there, until the host eventually starts recognizing me. At that point we just start getting the pewter pitcher every time.
This also happens in other restaurants. For example, Jaipur, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a shopping center that has seen better days. It’s one of our local favorites – the food is good, the cook is accommodating, the host/head waiter is a sweetheart.
On our last visit, though, there was a new waitress – a young woman in flashy jeans studded with rhinestones. Without asking, she brings two pitchers of water to the table. She pours me a glass of iced water, and A. a glass of non-iced water. I switch glasses. A. is too busy watching the rainbows sparkling off her bejeweled behind to notice.
Stereotype 2: Chana Masala, Garlic Naan, and Butter Chicken
I go to a new Indian restaurant for the first time and ask the waiter for recommendations – house specialties.
“Ah, the butter chicken.”
Me: “I’m vegetarian. Also, I don’t eat dairy.”
Waiter: “Yes, ma’am, then the channa masala. It is a curry of chickpeas and aromatic spices. I would recommend the garlic naan with that.”
Me: “Uh, I make channa masala all the time at home, I’m more interested in something I wouldn’t usually cook myself. Also naan is usually made with dairy so if I order bread I’ll likely be ordering rotis. Now … is your bhindi fresh or frozen? The aloo methi – is the methi fresh or dried?”
Waiter: Blinks a few times in shock, then leans down with a new respect and starts pointing out specific items on the menu for me – the house specialties, the hidden gems. The Leek Kofta at The Blue Taj, the Aloo Palak at Bombay Grille, Bhindi Masala at Maharani and Jaipur, Masala Dosa and Sambar at Persis’ and Jyoti’s, Chili Pakora at Jaipur.
My North Indian partner patiently waits for me to order, then orders … channa masala.
When the food is delivered to our table, the channa masala is set down in front of me and he gets my bhindi bhaji. We sigh and trade dishes – we are used to this.
Which came first – the chicken or the egg?
Errr … I mean the stereotype or the Yelp reviews?
Seriously, check out the Indian restaurant reviews on Yelp and if it is written by a white person, it’s all, “The channa masala, the butter chicken, and the garlic naan were FABULOUS!”
Stereotype 3: Goris Can’t Handle The Heat
This is the one that really burns my butt. Especially since many times the food I order will NEVER burn my butt. Heck, it won’t even clear my sinuses. Waitpeople at Indian restaurants take one look at me and my very light skin and remove every wisp of spice from my order! I am not just talking peppers – I’m talking ginger and garlic and cumin and coriander. I’m convinced most Indian restaurants have separate pots of tasteless channa masala and butter chicken reserved just for white people.
Waiter (to my partner): “What spice level would you like your food, sir?”
A: “Spice level 3.”
Waiter: “Very good, sir. And you, ma’am?”
Me (drooling): “Spice level 5!”
Waiter (eyes bulging, swinging around in shock to look at my partner): “Sir!” The unspoken question is quite clear. “Are we going to cause the untimely death of your gori if we give her the spice level she requested?”
A. (smirking, used to being asked “permission” to serve me spicy foods, and knowing how much I hate it): “Yes, it’s ok. She can eat foods much hotter than I can.”
Still, when the food comes, his Level 3 spiced channa masala is always much spicier than my Level 5 spiced food. Sweat pours out from under his turban. I pout. He laughs, wipes the sweat from his face, and accuses me of whining.
Stereotype 4: Goris Really, Really Want Meat (As Long As It’s Butter Chicken)
OK, sometimes this “expectation” can work out really wonderfully when people realize their expectations are wrong. We spent a winter in Michigan and found a second home at the Crown of India restaurant in Garden City. It was a mom-and-pop place run by Punjabis that featured “homestyle” cooking. They pretty much “adopted” A immediately; once they found out I was vegetarian they went wild with delight and adopted me as well. I have great memories of hanging out in the kitchen as the owner cooked at lightening-fast speed. He’d roll up dough like baseballs, then wind back a step and underhand pitch them into the tandoori oven. There they would stick to the sides of the oven and flatten out to eventually become naan. Good times.
But, sometimes, this meat-eating stereotype is just annoying.
Of course, when I walk into a restaurant no one knows if I’m carnivore, omnivore, plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan.
No one knows, or could be expected to know, I’ve been on and off veg since the age of ten. Or that I led a veg meetup group and gave vegan cooking lessons. Or that I write a vegan blog and freelance paid vegan articles. I don’t have any vegan tatoos and I don’t wear message T-shirts. I no longer carry Susan Nichole “Love” Handbags (this used to be a secret “wink” to fellow vegans) because, quite honestly, these handbags were sh*t and totally disintegrated in my closet despite being barely used.
But … please … give me benefit of the doubt.
I walk into an Indian veg restaurant, and I’m seen as just another white, meat-eating American.
Host/Hostess: “You DO realize this restaurant doesn’t serve meat?”
Me: “Yes. You DO realize your ‘Vegetarian’ sign on the outside of your restaurant is written in English, not Hindi, right?”
Or … I’m at an Indian buffet, at the veg end, trying to discern which items are most likely dairy free before I ask questions.
A helpful server shows up. “Ma’am, the channa masala is to your right and the butter chicken is to your left. And we should have some hot garlic naan coming out shortly.”
NOTE: In case anyone is wondering, “gori” is a Hindi/Punjabi/Hinglish term that can be very inoffensive (simply meaning “white woman”) or very offensive (“honky slut”). In Indian restaurants it’s usually somewhere in between … “wimpy pale woman who cannot handle authentic Indian food.”