Review: Sri Rao's Bollywood Kitchen Is a Feast for the Belly and a Feast for the Senses

Rao’s new interactive theater piece is presented by the Geffen Playhouse.

Sri Rao in Bollywood Kitchen, a production of the Geffen Stayhouse.
Sri Rao in Bollywood Kitchen, a production of the Geffen Stayhouse.
(© Kyle Rosenberg)

If you thought the scent of bacon frying during David Cromer's Our Town was intoxicating, just wait until you experience Sri Rao's Bollywood Kitchen. A virtual production from the Geffen Stayhouse in Los Angeles (presented in association with the Hypokrit Theatre Company), this 75-minute evening is half solo show and half cooking demonstration, and you are invited to join along in your own kitchen.

Rao, who presents the show live from his apartment in New York City, is a filmmaker and author, whose cookbook of the same title pairs his favorite contemporary Bollywood musicals with homemade recipes. The theatrical version, directed by Arpita Mukherjee, is a riff on the idea of dinner and a show: He tells us about his life and the impact Bollywood musicals had on it, while teaching us how to make chicken curry and a couple other dishes.

And man, what an excellent chicken curry that is. We've made it about four times since watching Bollywood Kitchen a few weeks ago (once changing chicken to shrimp with equally tasty results), utilizing a recipe and spice kit the Geffen provided for us in a Bollywood Box, which comes with tickets of a certain price level. Not only is the box beautifully presented, but it includes enough materials for multiple meals, and you will not regret signing up for this option.

The Bollywood Kitchen spice box
The Bollywood Kitchen spice box
(© Jeff Lorch)

Rao is an amiable presenter, and his story is really fascinating. Bollywood Kitchen is both a tale of his parents' immigration to the United States and assimilation into American life, as well as his own account of growing up gay in an Indian household in a 99 percent white community, and using Bollywood musicals as an escape from real-life worries of homophobia and racism. More importantly, it's an exploration of the role of food as a cultural hand-me-down, and how the senses of smell and taste can be as influential on retaining your heritage as a passed-down language.

The overall experience, however, feels a little bit like whiplash. Rao and director Mukherjee never seem to let the heavy moments simmer enough to make as great an impact as they can. In school, his name became synonymous with an anti-gay slur, Rao says before almost immediately turning back to check on the chicken, changing the subject entirely. If it's his own reticence to let aspects like these breathe a little longer, that's a shame; the show would be more impactful if they did.

But as a way of gathering, Bollywood Kitchen fills a much-needed hole created by the pandemic. With some members of the audience cooking alongside Rao on Zoom (another pricing level you can purchase), the experience resembles an intimate dinner party with a lovely and warm host. If you've missed that, this is the show for you.

Bollywood Kitchen runs through March 6.