Theater Review: Bollywood Kitchen, a Virtual Production from the Geffen Playhouse

Photo Credit: Hartman Benzon Media

Since the pandemic forced the temporary end of in-person theater, Geffen Playhouse audiences have performed magic tricks, solved puzzles, and investigated a cold case, all from the comfort and safety of their own homes. The latest Geffen Stayhouse offering brings new meaning to the phrase “dinner and a show.” In Bollywood Kitchen, based on filmmaker and chef Sri Rao’s cookbook of the same name, participants learn to make an authentic Indian meal, structured around stories about Rao’s immigrant parents and their love of Bollywood films.

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

Directed by Arpita Mukherjee and produced in association with the Hypokrit Theatre Company, there are multiple participation tiers for the experience, depending on the level of interaction you want. For $175 per household you can be a part of the show, cooking on Zoom alongside Rao, with the opportunity to ask him questions. You also receive an autographed copy of his cookbook and the “Bollywood Box.” For $95 per household, you are not on camera during the show and simply watch a livestream, but you still receive the beautifully-designed box. Inside are all of the non-perishable ingredients you need to make the recipes—7 spices (in a quantity large enough that you’ll have plenty left over), basmati rice, and accoutrements for popcorn and a dessert. For $40 per household, you receive only digital recipe cards, and have to track down the non-perishable items yourself. And all participants are responsible for purchasing the perishable groceries from the provided grocery list in advance of the show—not counting a few basic items I already had in my kitchen, this step came out to about $40, for recipes designed to serve 4 people.

Photo Credit: Kyle Rosenberg

It is not required to cook during the show. You could easily opt to prepare the meal beforehand and eat it during, or to simply hold onto the ingredients for whenever is most convenient. But for the most authentic experience, and to benefit from Rao’s cooking tips, I chose to cook along with him. If you decide on this option, there is some preparation they recommend you do in advance—primarily chopping your veggies and preparing the cucumber raita side, which is best served after a few hours in the fridge. Once the pre-show begins, you can listen to Bollywood music while moving on to the next steps, preparing the rice and a spicy popcorn starter. This critic is not super comfortable in the kitchen, as evidenced when I partially burned the popcorn, but miraculously, things managed to go uphill from there.

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

Once the show begins, Rao walks the audience through mixing a cocktail (a quite delicious spiced version of a Moscow Mule) while setting the scene. He bemoans how “Indian mothers don’t write down recipes,” and how he had to pick up on his own family’s cooking secrets over time. Rao describes his parents’ arranged marriage, their traumatic immigration experience, and circumstances that forced them to be geographically separated for a long period of time. Intercut with his stories are clips from Bollywood cinema, which is a clever tactic to give both the audience and Rao himself a chance to tend to the food. At times, monitoring multiple pots on the stove gets in the way of giving his performance your full attention, but Rao’s script is smart about it, saving the more emotional pieces of the narrative for moments when you’re waiting as the flavors simmer. Rao, a gay man, also speaks openly about growing up in Pennsylvania and struggling to feel accepted as both Indian and LGBT.

Photo Credit: Kyle Rosenberg

There are two options for the main course—Rao’s signature chicken curry, or a vegan chana masala. While Rao cooks the chicken on camera, he offers instruction for both, which was helpful as I opted for the veggie dish. He also works in fun cooking facts, such as that coriander and cilantro come from the same plant, and tips for making Indian cuisine. Typically, measuring spices as we are encouraged to do for the show would be considered blasphemous, and onion, garlic, and ginger are “the holy trinity” of ingredients. He also stresses that Indian recipes are very forgiving, which offers some encouragement if you’re concerned about a particular step.

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

For the final part of the show, you make dessert, chocolate chai affogato, which is essentially spicy tea and hot cocoa poured over ice cream. I ended up making it once the live stream concluded as I had run out of empty sauce pans, but it was a delicious way to end the experience. And while guidance is not offered for any dietary modifications, I found it easy to swap out some ingredients in the dessert, the raita, and the popcorn for dairy-free alternatives.

The theme of the show is the importance of smells and tastes to our lives and the powerful role they play in memories and relationships. Considering we are in the midst of a global pandemic that notoriously affects these two senses specifically, this sounded unintentionally a bit foreboding. But by the time Rao’s own family story takes a sad turn, it will tug at your heartstrings, no matter how preoccupied you might be by the stove.

Overall, Bollywood Kitchen is a unique and entertaining quarantine experience. Doable for those with any level of cooking expertise, it would make for great family bonding or an at-home date night. And once the show ends, the real fun is just beginning, as you still have your delicious home-cooked meal to enjoy.

Bollywood Kitchen runs through March 6th. The running time is 75 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 4pm and 7pm PST. To purchase tickets, click here.


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