Growing up in an Anglo-Indian family in America, I always knew that my parents’ language was a mosaic. For one thing, my mum speaks with a heavily Anglicized Indian accent. My father, his Mumbai accent eroded by three decades of living in the U.S., now has what I jokingly refer to as “no accent.” Both grew up in India and took Hindi as a second language in school, much in the same way that I took Latin – only, as my dad regularly reminds me, far more useful. So, along with the basic language skills normally acquired by any child, I quickly developed an additional radar which probed the origins of my parents’ diverse words and phrases. Some were a sort of Hindi shorthand: “chalo,” meaning “Come on, it’s time to go,” marked the end of any outing, and was inevitably accompanied by a significant nod in the direction of home. “Don’t talk rubbish!” is still one of my mum’s famous no-nonsense lines, probably inherited from my very English grandmother. Fervent declarations like “You can do anything you set your mind to” and “The American Dream is a product of hard work” were hard-won additions to my dad’s vocabulary from his earlier years as a new immigrant to the US putting himself through college. But, to tell you the truth, I was never quite sure where “cutlets” fell on the map.
Cutlets (also called potato chops), much like my family and their language, resist any attempt at tidy or singular classification. At the same time, they are probably the most eloquent culinary expression of the culture in which I was raised. For starters, they are quite literally multilayered, prepared by rolling bhagi (ie. any Indian spiced or masala vegetable dish) into tennis ball-sized rounds, covering them in a layer of mashed potato, rolling them in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, and shallow-frying them until they brown. Usually, the bhagi in question consists of peas, carrots and corn prepared in a masala of turmeric, cumin, coriander, and other spices. My parents, like many Anglo-Indians, are Catholic, so there is actually a meat option which substitutes kheema, or spiced beef, for the vegetables.
There was always something wonderfully satisfying about rolling the meat and veggies into a smooth ball and patting them into their potato shell – probably because it was a lot harder than it looked! This made it all the more gratifying on the rare occasion that I got it right. Watching my mum prepare them, hands smooth and skillful, is one of the most distinctive memories of my childhood. The facility with which she shaped the little oval cakes and lined them neatly on a tray, ready for frying, belied how devilishly hard it was to get them to stick together in one piece. Often, the potato would crumble in my hands; or I would spend minutes painstakingly filling cracks in the surface until my cutlet had ballooned to twice the normal size, and venturing through the potato to get to the filling would have been as possible as drilling far enough into the ground to reach the earth’s core.
This is a pretty apt metaphor for a hybrid culture like mine. In the US, there is a common practice, if you’re a minority, of prefixing modifiers to your cultural and national identity. This might seem curious to the rest of the world, but to a nation of immigrants, I think it has always come naturally because it’s an acknowledgement of unity in diversity which does justice to both. Still, “Anglo-Indian-American” has always sounded precarious and unwieldy, a leaning tower of loosely tied affiliations piled high and about to tip over. And, if the truth be told, I’ve always thought of myself – when I do think actively about it – as just American. Rather like cutlets, the principle of mixed cultures, of which there many in America, is simply that they cohere without needing to be placed into a tidy box, analyzed, or dissected too much. This is the beauty of cultures combining: they give rise something multilayered that is not reducible to the sum of its parts. What results is new and wonderful, a culture that has a singular way of expressing itself and its own distinctive flavor.
Anglo-Indian Beef Cutlets
1 lb ground beef
½ cup frozen peas
2-3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion
1 large tomato
½ tsp cumin powder
½ tsp coriander powder
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
2 lb potatoes
salt/pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten well
- Slice the onions and fry them in the vegetable oil until they are a light, pale brown.
- Cool and transfer to food processer along with the roughly chopped tomato, cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger and garlic. Blend until fine.
- Transfer mixture into a heated pan with a tbsp of oil and cook for 10 minutes, adding water whenever dry and stirring often to prevent mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- Add 1 ½ cups of water and the ground beef to the mixture, breaking up the beef with a fork and stirring to incorporate. Add salt to taste and let the ground beef cook.
- After 10 minutes, add the frozen peas. Cook until extraneous water has evaporated. Set aside to cool.
- Boil the potatoes and peel them. Mash them well with salt, pepper, and a seasoning of your choice (we use Italian seasoning).
- When both the potato and beef have cooled, shape the cutlets by patting a little more than a tablespoon of potato into the palm of your hand and flatten. Over this, put a tablespoon of the ground beef mixture. Take another tablespoon or two of potato, flatten it, and use it to cover the beef and seal the potato on all sides with the ground beef in the middle.
- Shape and pat the cutlet in your hands until slightly oval and flattened in shape.
- Dip in beaten egg and coat with bread crumbs.
- Shallow fry until golden brown on either side.
- Serve with salad and/or fresh veggies of choice.
V.M. Braganza is a PhD student at Harvard where she specializes in the study of Renaissance women writers and critical race theory. Her writing has been published in the LA Review of Books. She loves indie films and The Gilmore Girls. Find her on Twitter at @VanessaBraganza.