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Mother Tongue: Part ICharmaine O'Brien

Mother Tongue: Part I

licorice allsort temple Kawardha

I am often asked for recommendations for 'good places to eat Indian food' in Melbourne and Sydney. This essay (in several parts) is a lengthier version of the response I usually provide as a preface to providing the requested information...

Try this experiment next time you fancy some Indian food. Take any Indian restaurant menu you might have at hand, or randomly download one; let’s call this Menu A. Now call or visit a different Indian restaurant from the one that issued Menu A— let’s call this Restaurant B— and place an order from Menu A with Restaurant B. It is most likely that Restaurant B will unhesitatingly fulfill your order though the items you requested came from the menu of another Indian restaurant. While conceding that this could be handy on occasion, what is far less appealing is that it demonstrates that the Indian food on offer to Australians in Indian restaurants is a uniform selection of ‘India’s greatest culinary hits’ – twenty or so dishes that have come to represent the cuisine of India outside that country.

Contrast this with my experience of eating in India: Whenever I talk with an Indian about their local cuisine they inevitably start the conversation with a statement that goes something like this: ‘You know Indian food is not just one style; it is different across states, regions, religions, castes, villages, and in each home it is also different’. They will then repeat their version of this statement several times throughout the conversation to ensure I grasp this vital point. To prove I have understood this injunctive let me paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi: Indian food is not just tandoori chicken, roghan josh, vindaloo and saag paneer; it is the food of more than one billion people with almost as many variations.

Journalist Chandoh Seengoopta describes the food typically served in Indian restaurants in Britain as ‘greasy and over-spiced ‘and says that it ‘inadequately represents the ‘complex cuisine of India’. In his opinion: ‘It’s a scandal that one of the world’s finest culinary traditions is represented by such crude concoctions ‘. ‘Scandal’ is probably too strong a word for this state of affairs(although Seengoopta is a Bengali and they take their food seriously) and many of you may be perfectly happy with the food you get in your local Indian restaurant (possibly because this is your only experience of Indian food). You might also be thinking ‘what does it matter anyway, its only food?’ Certainly there will be no dire consequences if we continue to stick with acceptance of standard Indian restaurant fare. What we might miss out on though is an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the complex and diverse ethnicity and history of the people of India that is expressed in their regional cuisines, and we will most definitely miss out on eating some fabulous food. So let’s accept that it is worth asking the question: ‘Why are we consistently presented with such a small taste of India’s culinary bounty? ‘In an attempt to answer this question I will argue that it is our, foreign or outside, expectations of Indian cuisine that have largely contributed to this situation. To do that I am going to take you on a historical journey to explore how these expectations might have been arrived at.  I will also offer suggestions as to how we can improve the situation by broadening our understanding of Indian cuisine.

Next: Part II


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