Recently, I had an unusually exciting Friday night. While frantically switching between recipes for chicken curry and chocolate chai affogato, I smelled something burning. The culprit: the paper tabs on the Lipton tea bags that I’d added to a pot of boiling water for the chai. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to let them dangle over the side—as evidenced by the fact that they were on fire.
Crisis was, fortunately, averted. On my laptop screen, a dashing fortysomething was completing the same tasks without breaking a sweat. I was watching “Bollywood Kitchen,” an interactive performance co-produced by the Geffen Playhouse, in Los Angeles, and New York’s Hypokrit Theatre Company. The man onscreen was Sri Rao, an Indian-American screenwriter and the author of a 2017 cookbook of the same name, which collects his family’s recipes and pairs them with Bollywood films.
Two nights a week, Rao, broadcasting live from his sleek Manhattan kitchen, makes a few dishes from the book for a remote audience that’s invited to cook along. There are three tiers of tickets: the first provides streaming access and recipes, the second adds a Bollywood Box, containing most of the necessary nonperishable ingredients, and the third includes the opportunity to appear on camera yourself, and to chat directly with Rao.
As a second-tier participant, I was delighted to find, in my Bollywood Box, tiny plastic jars arranged in a cardboard version of a masala dabba, a traditional Indian spice tray, and neat stacks of carefully labelled plastic bags. There was also a shopping list and a schedule, for getting your mise en place ready before curtain. I spent a meditative, if surprisingly exhausting, afternoon chopping onions, chicken thighs, and cilantro, steaming basmati rice, mincing garlic and ginger, and grating cucumber, to be folded into yogurt, with cumin and chili powder, for raita.
I was lulled into momentary relaxation, at the beginning of the show, with an extremely delicious cocktail called a Mumbai Mule (vodka, ginger beer, and fresh lime juice, punched up with ground coriander and cumin and shaken over ice) and an excellent bowl of popcorn. Per instructions, I had popped the kernels in a provided paper bag in the microwave, then coated them in butter, lemon juice, salt, cumin, paprika, coriander, chili, and garlic powder.
As he cooked, Rao spoke dreamily of his childhood, in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and of his early passion for Bollywood musicals and the portal they opened to India, from which his parents had emigrated, interspersing memories with film clips. In my kitchen, all was copacetic until he started on the curry. How was the oil in his Dutch oven already shimmering? How did he get his turmeric-dusted chicken to brown so fast? What did I do with that baggie of coconut powder? The next thing I knew, I was twenty minutes behind, tea-bag tabs ablaze.
That this distracted me from Rao’s monologue didn’t much matter. The strength of “Bollywood Kitchen” lies more in the format than in the theatrical content. Though Rao’s impulse to tell his family’s story seemed heartfelt, and I was mesmerized by the film clips, the connections he drew between the two were vague and the show’s themes were generic. I wondered if his best material was left untapped; not only is he a lifelong mega-fan, he’s also the only American-born Indian to write a major Bollywood film, “Baar Baar Dekho,” from 2016.
Still, there was comfort in the communal cooking, and in the food itself. If ashes ended up in my chai—brewed with cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, cardamom pods, and fresh ginger—they went unnoticed; the finished tea, with milk and cocoa powder whisked in, was perfectly calibrated for the sweetness of the vanilla ice cream I poured it over. The chicken was plump and brightly flavored, and gave me something to look forward to the next day, when it tasted even better. (“Bollywood Kitchen” tickets, $40, $95, or $175.) ♦