meIn an episode of the documentary film about Netflix’s food, Ugly Delicious, chef Padma Lakshmi was asked if he thought Indian food was the most underrated dish in the world. “Indian food is very, very varied and regional,” he explained carefully. “People who have never been to India or know a little about India will only know Northwest or Punjabi food. It’s always a vegetable or protein that floats in brown or orange or red sauce. “
For context, he has a South Indian background, but anyone who has ever gone to an Indian restaurant and asked for chicken tikka masala might feel a little hooked on this.
Indian food, like any other cuisine, is influenced by climate, topography, and agriculture, and trade for centuries. In North India, moderate climate and wheat production mean people make thick curries based on milk, beans or tomatoes and eat them with bread. In comparison, southern India is tropical or semi-tropical so food is centered around coconuts, fresh chili, curry leaves, and rice-based dishes.
However, this complex regional difference is rare in Indian restaurants in Australia. Indian food in Australia, such as Lakshmi’s assessment of North American Indian cuisine, tends to be more North Indian (or Punjabi).
The Punjabi community is among the earliest waves of Indian immigrants to Australia, and today, Hindi and Punjabi are among the top 10 languages spoken at home in Australia. This means that North Indian food is becoming standard Indian cuisine, and it will take years to change previously formed ideas.
When the married couple Vikram Arumugam and Preeti Elamaran opened their restaurant Nithik’s kitchen in Balmain, Sydney in 2013, their customers had never heard of Chettinad food. “They want tandoori chicken or naan butter,” Arumugam said.
But visitors soon learn to embrace the taste of South Indian restaurants. “Our specialty is rice or idols which are eaten with goat or fish curry,” Arumugam explained. “The food is always delicious because we use sour, coconut and fenugreek.”
Nithik’s Kitchen is part of a broader trend. Although Australians cannot travel at this time, before Covid-19, India was included Top 10 most popular travel destination for Australians, above France or Italy. Meanwhile, ABS the data estimates that Indians are now the 3rd largest migrant group in the country. There were 592,000 Indians living in Australia in June 2018, which rose 30% from 2016. Indian dialects such as Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali saw a big jump in the 2016 census, which points to the more recent South and East Indian diasporas, which carry a preference for various types of Indian food.
The proliferation of dosas – the staple of South India – is another indication of this shift. These rice-based savory pancakes are a versatile and healthy snack, and act as a base for onions, eggs, potatoes and even cheese. It’s also suitable for people who are vegetarian or gluten intolerant. You can now see sin restaurants in most cities in Australia. Dosa Hut is a special success story – it opened its first outlet in 2007, and has grown to more than 20 franchises in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.
Arumugam notes that it is much easier to get special ingredients that he uses both in his restaurant and as a home cook. “There’s always ghee in Australia, but now I have a choice in brands!”
He makes an interesting point about the proliferation of choices. Products such as curry leaves or asafoetida still require a trip to specialized traders, but mainstream supermarkets have begun to sell regional spices and curry mixtures. Buyers can now find a Bengali coconut spice mix with the more common dates for curry sauce. These previously made blends serve both new immigrants, whose regional food is under-represented in Australian restaurants, and for curious non-Indian customers who are expanding their repertoire of home-cooked cuisine.
When various Indian foods are grown in Australia, chefs have the freedom to determine their version of Indian food. Newer Indian restaurants, like Delhi Road and Gopi ka chatka both in Melbourne, it has removed regional focus and now serves street food or ‘chaats’ such as bhel puri (puffed rice with a variety of lentils and chutneys) and pani puri (crispy ball-shaped shells filled with a mixture of sour chutney, potatoes, onions or beans ) in a relaxed environment.
This shift is also evident in upscale restaurants, like sewing in Perth. Owner Gurps Bagga describes his food as regional Indian cuisine, with local Australian flavors. “Our food here is typical of South India, a little inspired by Goan and Keralan but also innovative and local,” he said.
For example, Bagga uses WA hardwood sawdust mushrooms and cooks it with garlic, dates, chili oil and truffle hazelnuts. “You can taste Indian spices but I have added my own touch to it. You can call it modern, you can call it fusion. The important thing is you think it’s delicious.”
And that, maybe it’s not the official ethos of Indian food.