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Eating India for Dinner in the Netherlands

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Haarlem

Before I moved to The Netherlands, I had seen pictures of the doughy dishes offered in the oliebollenkraam. They looked similar to bonda, a popular deep-fried snack in Madras that has often ostracised me from friend and family groups because of my distaste for it. I instantly knew I wouldn’t enjoy their Dutch counterparts, but I didn’t suffer much exclusion in the international atmosphere of Amsterdam. I was only overtly confronted by it when I visited the less metropolitan city, Haarlem. The unctuous smells emanating from the oliebollenkraam warned me to stay away, but I was convinced by my boyfriend to try his dearest Appelflaps. I didn’t appreciate it as much as I was expected to, but I imagined enjoying the filling a lot more under less doughy, less oily circumstances. Upon mentioning this, he went into a sweet monologue of remembering his mother’s apple pies; the smell that flooded the house when she made it and the warmth and comfort of eating her love. He said, “It was like eating a hug” and that idea, of flavours embodying feelings, thoughts and concepts, stuck with me as we joined her in making dinner that night.

On his mother’s culinary experiments.
Haarlem, Netherlands

Dinner with the Parents

Dinner was ‘Chicken Madras’ served with spiced rice and raita, finished with Shrikhand as dessert. To cater to my vegetarian needs, they substituted the chicken with a curried potato dish borrowed from another cookbook. Labelling a South Indian dish as authentic or not is a rather dodgy task considering that the conventions of South Indian cuisines are steered more by domestic practices than restaurants, chefs and recipe books. A dish could always be thought of as a personalised variant since it is subject to a vast range of modifications from household to household. 

Preparing ‘Chicken Madras’

However, the Madras curry bore no resemblance to anything I ate or saw at home or restaurants in Madras. Instead this curry more closely imitated the style of cooking and flavours that are indigenous to the British pubs and takeaway restaurants. It was one of the many Indian styled dishes created by the British-Indian Restaurant, that bears its roots from the times of the British Raj and is now predominantly influenced by British curry houses. 

A note on the British curry.

British or Indian?

Brigitte, the maker of this meal, introduced me to this cuisine, and it doesn’t claim to mimic authentic and regional Indian kitchens, but rather recreates Indian ingredients and flavours for Western customers with a different palate. Learning about these foods, it then clicked why I’d so often been to Indian restaurants in the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe where I’d been served dishes that were unrecognizable to me. The Mango chutneys, Tikka masalas and Jalfrezis that seemed like they should feel familiar but actually felt foreign were all part of this same British curry club. Clearly the British Indian Kitchen exported the Indian cuisine to the West, far more successfully than India itself. The conception of the dishes, including the one we would eat for dinner, took an unmistakably Orientalist approach to Indian food with regard to the colours, ingredients, flavours and odours it concocted. But, I choose to set aside that discussion in favour of an observation that interested me more. 

This restructuring of the cuisine was also useful for Brigitte in exploring the Indian kitchen because the recipes catered to cooks who only had access to Western produce and technology. Cooking and eating were a conscious activity in the household that night. It reverberated with Noë conception on art’s purpose, who defines it as “a making activity” that organises nature and culture. She explains that art acts as a research practice, and a way through which to investigate the world and ourselves. I want to extend this idea to the dinner we ate, to look at how the food paved a path for the family to explore India. 

A Not So Spicy Chilli

For example, ingredients named after the place they are most widely grown or used, allow for a better geographical-agricultural map of the food we eat. Brigitte’s suspicion that the curry recipes may not be accurate to the region that they claimed to be from was because of Kashmiri chillies, a popular ingredient in most British Indian curries. It seemed illogical to her that the kitchens in the southernmost part of India would so generously use chillies grown in the northern tip of India. Why is it such a popular ingredient in British recipes for curries across the country?

 Kashmiri chillis have low capsaicin levels, which is the chemical compound that our tongues perceive as spicy or hot, while providing a deep red colour. Since the spice component of the Kashmiri chilli is redundant in a recipe that also calls for chilli powder, I suspect that the purpose of the ingredient is to make the curry look Indian in a recognisable way.

The Spice Cabinet

The colour of this curry coordinates very closely with the pigment ‘Indian red’ which is composed of naturally occurring Iron Oxides in the red laterite soil in India. The colour provides an illustrative function. This shade of red is widely used by Hindus to symbolise celebration, joy and sensuality. Indian advertising often uses this connotation for tourists both within and outside the country. The Orientalist imagery of India (for example, in the colour palette in Darjeeling Limited or National Geographic Traveller’s photograph choices) further strengthens the ties between this colour and India.

Darjeeling Limited Screengrab
National Geographic Travellers

These pictures use the colour to narrate a story of India as one with two opposing features; it’s vibrant beauty, beaming with dark reds, mustard yellows and bright pinks that juxtapose it’s poverty, dirt or general air of ‘underdevelopedness’. This association wasn’t lost amongst the eaters. The colour of the dish contained a gravity that seemed to guide the conversation around the dinner table to float back to India inevitably. When one of the sons talked about his rugby practice, his father suggested kabbadi as a training game to help with the sport. When they were hypothesising a ski vacation for the Christmas holidays, they were also curious to know whether skiing was popular in the Himalayan ranges.

Tasting

In Eating the Ocean Elspeth Probyn defines tasting as “a perplexed activity, which is to say, it makes you on the lookout for what it is doing to you, or what it is doing to others.” The flavours of the meal lay outside the realm of flavours that the family is accustomed to. This naturally made them pay more attention to details as cooking and eating became an unfamiliar activity. It was helpful that the recipe instructions were laid out with the precision of a science experiment. The cookbook with flowery descriptions indicates how each ingredient adds flavour, allowing the cook to moderate the dish according to the preferences of the eaters. Two members of the family couldn’t handle the presence of soapy tasting coriander in their food, so Brigitte served it separately instead of adding it to the food. Yet, even its mere existence on the table was a source of discomfort for them. This melodramatic aversion to coriander didn’t rest well with the coriander lovers who, as an act of humour, threw coriander into the bowls of the coriander haters to teach them a lesson. Alas, it may have not been a taste to be acquired, as the coriander haters argued, if their distaste for coriander was scripted in their DNA; a genetic component influencing the subjectivities of taste.

Raita & Coriander

The meal was enjoyed for reasons more than just its sensory affects. The pre-established relationship between who’s giving and receiving the food shaped the family’s perception of Indian food as one that is healthy and nourishing. Brigitte’s gratification from cooking the meal also came not just from exploring and expanding her skills but in making something that would benefit her family. As university students, my boyfriend and I didn’t spend much time preparing nice meals for ourselves. His father and brothers had come home famished after a physically taxing day at the bed store and playing rugby, respectively. Sitting together around this meal after a long day, when it was cold and windy outside, with the knowledge that the food was carefully prepared not only to be tasteful according to their specific preferences but also to nourish them, brought in the meal as a part of the family. The food emanated care and love. It was just the hug that everyone wanted to come home to at the end of each of our days. While the food served that night may not have been nostalgic to the family, by these connections forged through the meal, India found a place in the family’s definition of warmth, care and comfort and consequently also, home.

Brigitte on health and spices

The rising cosmopolitanism of the kitchen precedes a vision for a compassionate future. As we allow the technologies of different cuisines to re-organise our lives, they become a more viable carrier and symbol to sustain and propagate cultural and societal variations. I write this essay because I like the idea of tasting a “somewhere-ness” to foods; remaking relations between far away places to one that is embedded in affinity.

Experience Further

This is a song by a band from Italy and the song conjures up vignettes of love-filled memories and moments between two people. The vignette that is most often repeated is in the chorus. They are eating Indian food at a restaurant, late at night and the singer is embarrassed that she finds the sauce too spicy. The fact that this love song is titled Indian Food and that it seems to be the most cherished memory in the song reiterates how food entangles itself within human relationships and comes to define experiences. This potential of food makes cuisine an efficient carrier to introduce some palatable cultural differences into the lives of people. In this case, the Indian cuisine becomes central to the two people; the flavour and its significance being carefully orchestrated for and by everybody involved.

About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

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