Mother Tongue: Part I
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
Malabar Coast fish kofte with coconut sauce
500g white fish fillets
½ tsp turmeric
1 ½ tsp white vinegar
3 shallots, grated or minced
2 green chilies, finely chopped
2 tsp ginger paste
2 tsp dried coconut
the zest of one lime
1 tbsp garlic paste
2 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp cumin seeds
I red onion, grated
1 tsp white poppy seeds ground to a paste*
½ cup yoghurt
½ cup thick coconut milk
fresh coriander leaves
vegetable oil for cooking
To make the kofte
Cut the fish into chunks. Mix the turmeric and vinegar with a little salt. Marinate the fish in the vinegar mix for 30 minutes.
Drain the fish and process it in a food processor with all the remaining ingredients. Do this on the pulse setting as you want the fish to retain some texture; it should come away from the sides of the processor jug and form a large ball (just as dough does)
Shape into golf-ball size balls gently between the palms of your hands and then slightly flatten them so that are more disc like.
Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
You can choose to gently shallow fry or steam the kofte. Set aside when cooked.
To make the sauce
Mix the garlic and ginger pastes with a little water to make a paste.
Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a wok or a heavy based pan over a medium-high heat. When hot add the cumin seeds and allow them to ‘pop’ then mix in the onion and stir until it softens a little. Mix in the garlic and ginger and the poppy seed paste and stir for 2 minutes. Stir in the salt and then the yoghurt and stir for 1 minute.
Stir in the coconut milk. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the sauce for 10 minutes. Stir the butter into the sauce.
Just before serving slide the kofte into the sauce and allow to warm through. Serve garnished with fresh coriander leaves.
* White poppy seeds are available from some Indian grocery stores and can be difficult to find. If you can’t get any please do not substitute black poppy seeds – these are not the same thing and they make the sauce look like black sludge. The best substitute is raw cashews or blanched almonds.