First published in Divine Issue 38. Nov 2004/Jan 2005

Tandoori, tikka, korma, kheema. Tandoori, tikka, korma, kheema. What passes for Sydney Indian food has the weary familiarity of a rickety bullock cart treading the same dusty path year in and year out. It need not be. The Indian sub-continent supports as many regional cuisines as its recognised languages. The real image of sub-continental cuisine is that of the shape of the country itself, a richly adorned elephant’s head, sparkling with unusual gems and delicate traceries of silver and gold thread. While most Indian restaurants in Australia stick with the British Raj to the broad forehead (the central and northern states), you won’t appreciate the full splendour unless you also take in the ears ( Pakistan and Bangladesh ) the hefty trunk (the southern states of Goa, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu), and its pendant nose-ring ( Sri Lanka ).

Perhaps part of the problem is that Australia doesn’t have regional cuisines. We’ve begun to value regional and local credentials for individual products – King Island cheeses, for example – but single items do not make a regional cuisine. Regionality is defined by whole cuisine shifts in taste, preparation, presentation and consumption. At its most basic, it comes from geographic and climatic differences that produce variations in indigenous plants and animals from which to build a cuisine. Virtually nothing of what we eat in Australia is indigenous. Our tables are dominated by foods of migration, and as migrants from a particular country are dispersed across Australia so their food is dispersed. We are increasingly likely to find the same foods wherever we travel in Australia . That isn’t so in India . I remember the disbelief of a French couple on finding that the village café out of Kovalum in Kerala had not heard of samosas. Gus D’Souza, owner-chef at Pyrmont’s Viva Goa tells of northern Indians who themselves have never known that Goanese food is different.

Jaiprakash Margasahayam has been satisfying diners with his southern Indian all-vegetarian food since 1998 at Woodlands Family Restaurant, first in Liverpool and now also in Parramatta . The main differences between Northern and Southern Indian food, he says, are the use of rice instead of wheat, using every bit of the coconut (oil, milk, flesh), using tamarind and lime for sharpness in flavouring, and in the spices and flavourings. The latter is nowhere more evident than in the styles of rice served at Woodlands –tamarind, sesame seeds and curry leaves (tamarind rice); y oghurt, cashew nuts, green chillies and mustard seeds (curd rice); turmeric and lime, with a garnish of mustard seed, curry leaves, and roasted lentils (lime rice). Like the others I spoke with for this story, Jaiprakash substitutes vegetable oil for coconut oil these days, partly for health reasons – coconut oil is high in bad cholesterol – and also because of its strong flavour, though he retains it in dishes like avial, a mixed vegetable dish that must be finished off with a dressing of coconut oil and curry leaves. Southern food, he adds, is often a lot wetter, for example the sambhars (thin lentil and tamarind/tomato based broths that are often distinctive to particular localities) that are an essential accompaniment to the idli (steamed lentil flour dumplings) and dosai (riceflour pancakes). Southern food is also generally not deep fried or baked as some northern food often is. Steaming and shallow frying are more common.

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Regionality can also be affected by other than physical factors. Being a strict Hindu, Jaiprakash will never serve any form of meat. When he began people tried to dissuade him. ‘They said, 99% of Australians eat meat, how come you are taking such a bold step and opening a vegetarian restaurant’. His decision paid off, not just in the popularity with an Indian and Australian clientele, but with Woodlands winning the 2003 Restaurant and Catering NSW award for best metropolitan vegetarian restaurant.

At Viva Goa, on the other hand, Gus D’Souza happily admits that the vegetable dishes and the paneer peri-peri on his menu are ‘a concession to my north Indian wife’. Vegetable other than potatoes and tomatoes were virtually absent from his family Goan Catholic Peri-peri is there because Goa for the last 500 years has gone about creating a true fusion of already existing southern Indian food and flavours with those of its Portuguese colonisers. The menu reads like a short course in the top ten hits from Portugal circa 1400, with a sub-continental tweak. Peixes Calangute are redfish fillets with cloves and chilli, crumbed with semolina and fried. Sorpotel is roast pork cooked in a chilli and garlic sauce and a dash of feni, a cashew nut based liquor (the cashew nut is native to southern India ). Ale Belle is a dessert of a fennel pancake stuffed with date and fresh coconut topped off with ginger preserve (a Chinese spice trade influence) and vanilla ice cream.

Sri Lankan food is also influenced by its Portuguese and Dutch colonisers. At Janani, lampries is always on the menu. Okay, so I’m biased, but I defy anyone to show me a rice dish superior to this 400 year old take on Indonesian rijstafel; rice cooked in stock, traditionally accompanied by a complex mixed meat curry, spicy meatballs, vegetable curries and sambols, all wrapped up and baked in a banana leaf. Sri Lankans love arguing about what exactly should be in lampries, the differences again demonstrating how much regionality in food is also about regional identity. So, the lampries that comes out of the Jaffna Tamil background of S.A.Karunaretnam (‘it’s okay just to use the initials’, he insists) is different to that served up by Singhalese backgrounded Sunil Ranasinghe, owner-chef at Sunil’s @ Thornleigh. Jaffna Tamil food on the whole is again subtly different to Singhalese food. While Singhalese meals are built around boiled rice or the oily translucency of a godamba roti, a Tamil daily diet would be unthinkable without dosai and idli and their sambhar and chutney accompaniments. Singhalese curries also invariably use rampa (pandanus leaf) and sera (lemongrass) as flavourings. Tamil curries, like southern Indian curries generally, don’t. But the two come together in their use of tamarind, dried fish, coconut milk and fresh coconut, and the two classic rice flour dishes hoppers (a bowl shaped pancake with the most delicate laced edge) and string hoppers (thin rice vermicelli made into a mat and then steamed).

Regionality is about identity and it’s also about authenticity. Like his peers, Zahid Ali, owner-chef at Faheem’s Fast Food, stresses this. Self-taught, he continues to collect recipes and techniques on his visits to his home in Pakistan . Also like the others, he is passionate about the need for freshness in the food he makes and about using different spice combinations (masalas) to emphasise the distinctiveness of each dish. They are critical of much of what passes for Indian food in Sydney as being made days in advance from a limited palate of masalas not ground fresh each week or each day when necessary.

Pakistani food shares much in common with that of northern India , tandoori cooked meats and breads being popular. But there are essentially Pakistani dishes too; haleem (lamb and lentils slow cooked for 8 hours till they merge into something wonderfully and entirely different), nihari (lamb again, this time cooked for 6 hours till you can eat it with a spoon) and katta kat (an offal eaters’ delight of brains, liver, and other tasty bits chopped fine and mixed with spices and chilli, the name coming from the sound of cleavers in action).

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At Himalaya , so revered is chef Mushtaq Ahmed by his Pakistani customers that they call him ustad, teacher/master. Here, the only clue that there are Pakistani specialities is a single line on the menu, or the surprise you get when your neighbour customer is clearly having something that doesn’t appear to be listed. It’s a strategy used by other Pakistani restaurants, too. Encourage custom by what looks like a standard northern Indian menu; suggest that they try some of the specials, and hope they like them enough to ask for them again. It’s working; Australian diners in the know are avid for the charga chicken, a whole chicken skinned, covered in a turmeric and spice mince, with a spiced rice stuffing, the whole of it the cooked in the tandoor. Ustad is also a master sweet maker and makes the best ras malai bar none in Sydney , and I’ve tried many of them.

When Guy D’Souza first began cooking only Goan dishes, it wasn’t unusual for his customers to accuse him of conning them that the food was Indian. Some walked out. The heartening news from all of them is that while in the beginning their customers were mostly from their communities, anywhere from 75% to 90% of their customers now are other Australians. ‘They all like the spiciness of our food’, says Zahid, ‘and they really like the chilli. Often they have it hotter even than we do’. ‘They don’t always know the right names for the food’, says Jaiprakash. ‘Vadai (a deep fried lentil cake typical eaten as a snack) they call a ‘lentil doughnut’. At Himalaya , those who can’t remember the word charga ring and ask for ‘the special chicken’. But no-one cares about that. Their businesses are growing rapidly. Janani tripled its space in a year. Faheem’s jumped overnight from a 15 seater to a 60 seater.

So, next time you think Indian, get out of the rut and explore a regional cuisine or two. Elephants never forget and you won’t either.

Restaurants mentioned in this article:

Viva Goa . 2 Scott Street , Pyrmont. Ph: 02 9566 1311

Woodlands Family Restaurant. 238 George St , Liverpool . Ph: (02) 9734 9949 AND Shop 4 & 5, 55-67 George St , Parramatta Ph: 9633 3838

Janani. 32 Burlington Rd , Homebush Ph: (02) 9763 2306

Sunil’s @ Thornleigh. 280 Pennant Hills Rd , Thornleigh Ph: (02) 9481 8241

Faheem’s Fast Food. 196 Enmore Rd , Enmore. Ph: (02) 9550 4850

Himalaya . 1/205 Great Northern Rd, Five Dock. Ph:(02) 9712 2726

Some do’s and don’ts when eating regional Indian food

* Respect those who would prefer you not to drink in their establishments for religious reasons.

* If samosas aren’t on the menu, don’t ask for them. Try a vaddai or pan roll or a cutlet. If samosas are on the menu, try something different anyway.

* Be prepared to wait. Dosai, idli, hoppers and such are made to order. If hungry, see above.

* A lot of this food is made for eating with you fingers. Dosai, idli, hoppers are all made to be torn up and used to soak up the wet curries, sambhars and chutneys. Give it a go and taste the difference. It’s polite to wash your hands first, and no-one is going to be upset if you use your left hand too.

* Always ask what vegetables they have fresh on the day. It’s a great way to be introduced to food like okra (bhindi), bitter gourd (karella), breadfruit, jak fruit and other Indian and Asian vegetables now readily available in Sydney .

* Ring in advance and tell them if you there are things you don’t eat. They want you to try their food and will often go out of their way to prepare something special for you.

* If you are uncertain how to eat the food you order, ask the floor staff, or another customer who knows. These are people who take delight in other Australians trying their food and will do everything they can to make the experience a good one for you.

* Oh, and anyone on an Atkin’s diet should stay away.

Copyright (C) 2004 Paul van Reyk