Culture | The proof is in the paneer

How immigration and host countries affect the development of cuisine

The incorporation of traditional recipes into the mainstream of a foreign country results in a distinct and tasty evolution, as each cuisine shapes the other. Despite my hometown being one of the less ethnically diverse in England, Indian cuisine dominated not only the food scene, but the culinary variety of my childhood. Friends would give out homemade mithai at Diwali, the smell of chicken korma (or a certain interpretation thereof) would waft through school corridors, and Saturday nights in front of the television were characterized by heaping plates of curry, sauces mixing together, encouraged by peshwari naan overloaded with sugar and almond paste.

Whenever immigrants arrive in a new country, the most tangible thing they bring is their home cuisine. Since India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947, immigrants have been coming to the U.K. in a steady flow. This peaked between 1965 and 1972, meaning that many Indians currently living in the UK are second- or third-generation. Indian cuisine has been such a strong presence for so long that it is now a recognized and fundamental element of British food. (I should mention now that although I’m using the term “Indian food” – as is the habit throughout Britain – this umbrella term really includes a wide array of influences and dishes from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the entire Indian subcontinent.)

This is evident in every supermarket freezer aisle and argument over where to get takeout. I searched for “curry” on the website of supermarket giant Sainsbury’s and got 160 results. I was struck by the apparently endless amount of ways to interpret “curry” – I was offered a tin of Heinz curry beans with sultanas. But perhaps a more salient example of adaptation is tikka masala – the U.K.’s most popular restaurant dish, so widely interpreted that no one knows the particulars of the original recipe. That is, if there ever was an original recipe – speculations of its origin range from the Indian region of Punjab to Glasgow, to seventies Soho, London. The only common ingredient in its countless variations appears to be chicken: I have had dry, saucy, spicy, mild, yoghurtey, and tomatoey versions. But I suppose, with a name as vague as “mixture of spices,” this is understandable.

The Indian dishes most popular in the U.K. pretty much all come from the north-eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, which is responsible for favourites such as samosas, palak paneer, korma, and raita. But coming to Montreal, I met more unfamiliar territory. Indian food here consists of  Parc Ex and samosa sales – and both outlets are very different from what I was used to. Samosas here cater to the North American craving for deep frying. Restaurants themselves are ruled by thali: a mix plate of a couple different dishes, in portions that can really only be described as morsels, offering a taster of different styles in a manner too restrained for my appetite.

But before I had Indian food in Montreal, I tried it in India, when I accompanied my father on a work trip. Despite only staying and eating in hotels – the neuroses of my father coupled with a hotel bill covered by a host conference meant I had to shy away from street food – the experience was vastly different. Instead of thick, creamy sauces with huge chunks of meat, sauces were thinner and more flavourful – the spices fresher, more exactingly prepared. One evening, in Bangalore, I escaped a dinner-table discussion on the subsidiarity of law and the obligation to obey, and found a law student who gave me a panipuri from a stall within the hotel’s gardens. The stall owner poked a hole in a ball of dough with a thumb stained by years of handling spices, and loaded the cavernous inside with water, tamarind, chili, the spice mix chaat masala, potato, onion, and chickpeas. Without exaggeration, it was the tastiest thing I have tried in my life – that indescribable balance of flavours is something that has been lost in the commercial Indian food options in the U.K., which have learned to cater to milder British taste buds.

Food is making the world smaller. When people move between countries, they take with them the most personal and necessary thing: how to eat. This is so wrapped up in culture, upbringing, and a sense of home that it is hard to shake off the traditions of your nationality’s cuisine. But the influence of host countries on imported traditions is unavoidable.  Far from being detrimental to food, this phenomenon has resulted in a wider variety.  Each country does another country’s cuisine differently, and you’d be surprised where the real gems are found – Italian food in Malaysia is far closer to the original than Guido Angelina’s. Basically, if you’re at all interested in culinary evolution, just try out everything, everywhere.


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