He's played a charming chef in a feature film that he also co-wrote, and had his breakthrough role in an off-Broadway play about a restaurant. Yet actor-comedian Aasif Mandvi still can barely tell dosas from Devil Dogs.
"I enjoy eating Indian food, but I'm not an aficionado," says Mandvi, best known as "Senior Correspondent" for South Asia (or the Middle East, or anywhere else Muslims may live) on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." He admits to cooking only when it strategically suits him.
"I usually cook when I'm in a relationship," he says. Yes, he can turn out a basic curry, "but ultimately, I just go to my mom and say 'This is what I did. It doesn't taste right. What did I do wrong?'"
But his lack of skill hasn't stopped him from tackling food topics. Through mid-June, Mandvi, 46, is cruising the South Asian restaurants of New York with Madhur Jaffrey, the grande dame of the cuisine, sampling tandoori chicken and sticky sweet jalebis from Midtown to the boroughs in a special on the Cooking Channel.
"It's as he says, he is not a foodie, he doesn't cook, he doesn't know too much about Indian food," Jaffrey said in a telephone interview. "And that is why he's the perfect person to be on the show. He asks the questions that anyone might want to know, and I give the answers."
But just because he works a takeout menu as easily as an audience doesn't mean he lacks an appreciation for great food. For Mandvi, food — and especially the food of South Asia — can be a metaphor for personal transformation. In his 2009 movie "Today's Special" he cast himself as an Indian-American chef who only connects to his roots and culture when he takes over his parents' restaurant.
"Food represents so many things," he says, "family, love, in some movies it even represents desire, passion, sexuality."
The movie was based on Mandvi's 1999 award-winning one-man show, "Sakina's Restaurant," which he wrote and starred in. He chose the restaurant setting, he says, because he was looking for an Indian venue that all Americans would connect with.
"The film is as much about a restaurant as 'It's a Wonderful Life' is about a savings and loan," he says. "It was just a place."
Mandvi says it was "Today's Special" that inspired the Cooking Channel program — and jokes that the special "will probably inspire a Broadway musical which will then inspire another film."
Or perhaps his own cooking show? He laughs.
"Let's see, I don't know," he says. But if he did? "I would call it 'Friends.' Then people would just tune in."