As a committed carnivore and dietary scoff-law, I love my butter chicken, rogan josh and vindaloo. And I love the fact that one can walk into any desi restaurant anywhere in the West and find one’s fix of these fulsome favourites. But it is quite tiresome that this all there seems to be to the ‘Indian food experience’ in Amreeka, Inglistan and Kaneda.
Just how irritating this is was brought home to me last week when I was visiting Ottawa. A friend had driven up from the US and we were doing the tourist thing, taking in the Tulip Festival and the Niagara Falls. Living in a small Midwestern city, my friend isn’t exactly spoilt for choice when it comes to desi food. Being a dyed-in-the-wool Tamilian, he was desperate to tuck into the South Indian fare he sorely missed. To cut a long story short, we could find only one restaurant in a remote suburb that served Southie fare. We drove over and pigged out to heart’s content on such delicacies as prawn kuttan, avial and sambaram, to name just three.
We thoroughly enjoyed this rare treat. It is not often that one can find genuine South Indian food that goes beyond the usual suspects (dosa, idli, uttapam, etc.). What goes by the appellation ‘Indian food’ is usually a narrow genre of Punjabi and Mughlai stuff, with a few Goan and Kasmiri items thrown in, if the restaurant is slightly posh or its clientele fancy themselves as connoisseurs of desi food. Entire swathes of India are not represented. When was the last time you walked through the downtown core of any city in the West and found a good Bengali or Gujarati or Maharashtrian (which are rare in Mumbai too!) restaurant?
And then there is the problem of Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurateurs having to masquerade as Indians. It’s really sad that a Pakistani chef has to dish out such silly stuff as Bombay Potatoes (which I had the misfortune to discover in London, despite having lived in Mumbai for much of life) when he really excels at halim and nihari. Equally pitiable is the plight of the Bangladeshi chef cobbling together a ‘chicken mossala’ (an East London staple, particularly around Brick Lane) instead of a delectable machh bhaat.
I suspect this is a classic example of cultural hegemony. Just as Bollywood rules the roost in South Asian entertainment, crowding out much excellent cinematic and dramatic art in India and the Indian subcontinent, the Punjabi-Mughlai genre dominates the culinary landscape of the South Asian diaspora. I have an idea about how we might break this stranglehold. While we continue to enjoy our Bollywood potboilers and sinfully toothsome butter-chicken-type food, let’s start looking beyond. Find a friend from a part of India other than your own or from a neighbouring country. Ask them to loan you their favourite movie or album and beg them to cook you a local favourite of theirs. I did this while I shared a pad with some Pakistani friends. Our Bangladeshi landlord often joined us for our pot-lucks and movie nights. It was great fun and it was an educative experience. It was as a result of these exchanges that I came to revise many parochial opinions I had long held on to. I was introduced to Mehdi Hasan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Abida Parveen and other baser delights like ‘student biryani’ and chapli kabab. I learnt that there’s a whole world beyond butter chicken.