I was asked to submit a proposed chapter to a book on food and culture in Australia. This is a version of what I submitted, but it was rejected. Ah, well, I still reckon it’s a good read.
I ate just two meals in Chennai. It was, quite simply, the most extraordinary Indian food I had ever eaten. Both meals were at the hotel and I can only imagine how good the food would have been as we traveled and discovered great little restaurants.

Neil Perry[i]


I have never seen Neil Perry on a Friday night at Faheem’s Fast Food in the Inner-West Sydney suburb of Newtown. That is where I head a couple of times a month after an early movie, just in time for the mid-evening sitting crush of mostly Muslim families, couples and singles, and a fair smattering of local Anglos, hoeing in to plates of haleem, nihari, chicken and chick peas, brain masala, katakat, biriyani, and yes, tandoori, naan, butter chicken and mango chicken.[ii]

There is no mood lighting, no incense, no sitar music, no Rajasthani mirror-work doodads, no travel agent shots of the Taj Mahal or camels, or women with nose-rings. There is a tv high up in one corner that sometimes shows Bollywood movies and Star TV Hindi soaps but it isn’t really being watched by anyone and it isn’t loud enough for ambience. There are some disdainfully obvious sprays of garish plastic flowers falling out of non-descript wall sconces. The lighting is white-bright, bouncing whiter off white tiles that cover the floor, walls and chrome cafeteria furniture. You can watch the cooks make tandoori bread and meats behind the front counter, but they aren’t doing anything flash; just getting on with the humdrum of sticking marinated stuff on skewers and then putting same into the blackened hole of the tandoor. Anyway, you can’t stand there too long; you get in the way of people placing take-away orders, paying the bill or hunting down the order that has gone a tad astray.

There is a fridge from which you can grab a coke or other carbonated soft drink, or help yourself to a mango lassi or a pre-made paan in its green or red-striped triangular silver-foil package. The crockery is basic white; mass produced for easy replacement. The naan comes in a shallow plastic sieve which inevitably means you get crisp charred crumbs all over the unclothed table-top. It is an all male service staff so no saris, just casual clothes that are often the worse for wear, and one or two in a jacket and pants outfit that looks like any fast food outlet uniform. It isn’t licensed and there is no BYO; it is a strict Muslim establishment and all alcohol is forbidden. All meat is strictly halal and promoted as such on the restaurant signage. There is a tap and a small sink for you to wash your hands, an encouragement to use your fingers to eat.

And any night of the week it serves some of the best South Asian food I have eaten in Australia or South Asia; and I have had plenty, including from great little small restaurants in Chennai.[iii]

You won’t find Faheem’s in the 2005 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide (GFG).[iv] You won’t find it in the Restaurant listings in the Sydney Yellow PagesÒ[v] You will find it in the 2002 SBS Eating Guide (SBSGuide) and Sydney Eats (formerly Cheap Eats).[vi] You won’t find Zahid Ali, self-taught chef and owner of Faheem’s, fronting a lifestyle program on free-to-air or pay television.

Faheem’s Pakistani/Punjabi table, like other South Asian restaurants, is a site of contestation through which South Asian cuisine in Australia is constantly consciously and unconsciously being constructed. It is at once a site of flow in a transnational space of the Pakistani diaspora (a subset of both the wider South Asian and the Muslim disaporas), an ethnosite within which ‘Indian’ ethnicity is constructed in Australia, and a gastrosite in which ‘Indian’ food is constructed in Australia.

Food as counternarrative

When I began some years ago to review and write about South Asian food in Australia, it was for selfish reasons. I was frustrated with the limited variety of what’s generally on offer as South Asian cuisine in Australia. I’m a Sri Lankan Burgher, and South Asian cuisine is my cuisine preference. I wanted the chance to eat from its vast table, not in order to confirm an identity, but because it tastes so damn good! I wanted my friends and colleagues to have that opportunity also, outside of my cooking.

But as I began to write this chapter, another reason emerged to make as much claim on my effort. Lakha and Stevenson observe that ‘varying discourses in India and Australia strive to forge the idea of a unified Indian culture and community which cannot be sustained in the face of diversity and contradiction…[and this is] associated with the discourse of multiculturalism in Australia which adopts an essentialist view of culture and equates ethnicity with culture…[which is] unable to account for the complex and diverse ways in which identities are forged’.[vii] The intent of the search for essentialism is not always benign, however. Lakha and Stevenson point to the deployment of essentialist views in current militant Hindu nationalism in India. Closer to home, Turner, reviewing incidents between 2001 – 2003 where ‘Muslims of one kind or another were described in ways that denied them membership to the Australia community’, argues that ‘Australia is now a community overwhelmingly defined by the necessity of exclusion, and increasingly marked by the revival of nostalgic, even sentimental, refutation of the pluralism that informed the ethics of multiculturalism’.[viii]  He goes on to say ‘The process to which Muslim-Australians are now subject are not typical of the processes required to manage assimilation, accommodation, or inclusion; they are those required to manage exclusion.’[ix]

As a South Asian I share these concerns. Turner suggests that the way to resist these tendencies is to ‘to produce new forms of cultural history out of this situation…to find new stories and counter-narratives to present to the public.’[x]

Can food provide new stories and counter-narratives of the kind Turner thinks necessary?

‘Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are’, said Brillat-Savarin, and studies of food and foodways since have explored the ways in which food and identity construct each other, both at the individual and the social level.[xi] Food is ‘a prime constituent of human relations (and) conveys social meanings.’[xii] Food is ‘mobile, multivocal, and polysemic; it moves from one group to another, it expresses different voices, and it can take on different meanings depending on the intention of the consumer’. [xiii]  I would add here that the different meanings also depend on the intention of the producer.

Ethnocised food is a contested category in this regard. I use the term ‘ethnocised’ and not ‘ethnic’ here deliberately. I take ethnicity to be socially constructed, dependant ‘on a set of consistent actions that permits others to place an individual in an ethnic category.’[xiv] The construction of ethnicity is only possible when there is some other cultural /social / national group against which it can be defined; a South Asian is not an ‘ethnic’ in South Asia. However, ‘groups in control are never ethnicities; they use ethnic distinctions to organize social and spatial marginalities, and to legitimize a sort of negative integration of minority groups’.[xv]

On the one hand, commentators on ethnicity and multiculturalism caution against a too easy acceptance of the positive role of consuming ethnocised food arguing that as with other cultural exchanges, perceived reciprocity, the ‘ethnic’ sharing food and the host culture accepting both the food and the presence of the ‘ethnic’, is not an equal exchange.[xvi] Moreover, ‘The choice of a restaurant and of dining companions is a way of making a claim about the social order, or accepting it or contesting it.’[xvii] On the other hand Narayan has argued against such pessimistic views of the exchange, suggesting that ‘a more carnal relish may sometimes contribute to appreciation (of the other, the ethnic) in ways as powerful as intellectual “understanding” ’.[xviii]

I am sympathetic to both views and the view that ethnicity is fluid and negotiated between the ethnocised group and the mainstream culture. However, I am more hesitant than enthusiastic where the ‘carnal relish’ is embedded in a problematic narrative. I suggest below that one of the enduring narratives that construct South Asian food in Australia has been British colonialism as it was practiced in South Asia. As such, I see what I am embarking on in this study as a very preliminary investigation of the extent to which South Asian food as constructed in Australia produces counternarratives to this. More powerfully, I want to explore to what extent it achieves what Kwasi Wiredu terms ‘conceptual decolonization’ a divesting of ‘modes of conceptualization from the colonial past that cannot stand the test of due reflection’.[xix]

Authenticity: A word of caution

As much as ethnicity, I take authenticity to be ‘a locally constructed folk idea’ whose ‘objects that are said to represent authentic experience may become sites of contention… [it] is mutable and contingent’. [xx] Hence in what follows I don’t make any pleas for authenticity in South Asian cuisine. I do, however, consider how authenticity is mobilized in the construction of ethnocised cuisine by both the ethnocised and the host culture.

Transnational spaces and ethnosites

Ethnicity needs spaces in which both the ‘alien’ and the ‘host’ cultures engage in the practices out of which it is constructed. I take the position that ethnicity is constructed within the conjuncture of the transnational space of the migrant community and the geographic and social spaces of a host country. Voigt-Graf has developed a terminology for a geography of transnationalism that I work with here. Transnational spaces are the sum of the nodes and flows between cultural hearth, new centre and diasporic nodes. A cultural hearth is the country, region, or place of origin of migrants and their descendants. A new centre is a country where migrants and their descendents have lived sufficiently long to regard it as their home. A node is a country, region or place that is linked by flows, where the latter includes people, products, money, ideas, cultural goods and information. A diasporic node is a country, region or place where migrants have settled long enough and in sufficiently large numbers to have created a permanent presence as a community. Transnational space is the sum of the nodes of a migrant diaspora and the flows between them. It is shaped by social activities and in turn shapes them. Transnational spaces are comprised of sub-spaces defined by transnational activities, of which the two significant for the present discussion are economic and cultural spaces.[xxi]

Within both economic and cultural spaces are specific sites at which the migrant community and the host community interact. Following Turgeon and Pastinelli, I use the term “ethnosite” for these, sites which ‘evoke[s] the relations multicultural societies maintain with their immigrants….[xxii] There are a number of ethnosites through which to explore the construction of South Asian food – cookbooks, lifestyle magazines and television programs, the home kitchen among them. The focus of my exploration is those at which ethnosites and gastrosites most directly intersect – ethnocised restaurants and restaurant guidebooks.

Gastrosite: A neologism under construction

The ethnosites I work with are also sites through which Australian mainstream culture constructs what ever is encompassed as Australian cuisine. For my purposes, I am going to call them gastrosites, an ungainly and uneuphonious word but chosen for its resonance with ethnosites.

Australia as a diasporic node in South Asian transnational spaces[xxiii]

It is necessary for my later discussion to give here and overview of South Asian migration to Australia. Literature on food unsurprisingly links immigration of a community from one country to another as a major, if not the major factor, in the development of distribution points for food (ingredients and meals) of that community in the host country.[xxiv]

I have presented the pattern in Table 1. with notes on the geopolitical events in Australia and South India that defined the pattern.

Table 1. South Asian migration to Australia

Period Geopolitical eventsSouth Asian migrant communities
1788 – 1947This period covers the establishment of White settlement in Australia and encompasses the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901). Under this Act, introduced at the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia, intending migrants to Australia had to complete a 50-word dictation test from an Australian customs officer in a language left to the officer’s discretion. The intent of the Act was to exclude non-Whites from migration, a practice that became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’.1800 and 1860 – mainly men from in and around Bengal as hired labourers by British who had lived in India and were now settling in Australia. A small number of Afghanis, Pathans, Punjabis, Sindhis and Baluchis (all North Western Indian peoples) formed the core of the 600 cameleers identified in the 1901 census. Towards the end of this period some 200 Anglo-Indians also arrived as labourers.

1860 – 1901, the trend for domestic labourers continued, as well as agricultural labourers who became hawkers and peddlers. These were mainly male Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims.  Singhalese and Tamils from Sri Lanka in small numbers migrated during this time to work on coffee and sugar plantations, the pearling industry and as domestics.

1901 – 1947, effectively no South Asian immigration.

1947 – 1966Independence for India, partition of East and West Pakistan; independence of Sri LankaFrom India, mainly of Indian-born British citizens and Anglo Indians. From Sri Lanka, British citizens and Burghers  – English-speaking people of mixed Dutch, Portuguese and European and Sinhala/Tamil descent.
1966 – 1990Dismantling of the 1901 Act beginning with the Holt Liberal government in 1966 and ending with the declaration by the 1973 Whitlam Labor government of a racially blind immigration program and a policy of multiculturalism.

Civil war in Sri Lanka.

1979 invasion of Afghanistan by Soviets.

1987 coup in Fiji.

Indian migration from a wider regional spread and now mainly middle class professionals and students. Continuing migration of Sri Lankan Burghers. Refugee influx from Afghanistan. Indo-Fijians with Gujarati and Tamil ancestry.
1990 – 2005Surge in globalization with India becoming a centre for off-shore services of other countries and of information technology.Influx from Karnataka, Southern India, centered around urban professionals from the Bangalore information technology sector.

Continued migration from other parts of South Asia, including Pakistan, under wider immigration policy including family reunification.

In the 2001 Australian census two questions were used to identify peoples cultural/national identity; one asked for birthplace, the second asked for declared ancestry in an attempt to capture a broader definition of identity. The second therefore includes some people not born in South Asia but who nonetheless in some way identify as South Asian. Interestingly, having this category allowed a number of people to respond on the basis of their regional identity within India. On the basis of ancestry, then, the numbers of people from South Asia in Sydney was as follows: 66,100 Indian; 16904 Singhalese; 680 Pakistanis; 6230 Bengalis (mostly Bangladeshis); 3427 Tamils; 1918 Anglo-Indians; 1814 Nepalese; 767 Punjabis; 326 Sikhs; 67 Pathans; 31 Malayalis; 7 Marathis; and a further 2045 who only identified as South Asian.[xxv]

Turgeon and Pastinelli, while finding that the numbers of ethnocised restaurants in Quebec had grown substantially between 1951-1971 did not find that the growth was linked to specific patterns of immigration, but had increased at a faster rate than other restaurants.[xxvi] They did not, however, consider whether the range of food produced in the ethnocised restaurants had changed over time, a question which is important when considering the construction of an essentialist South Asian cuisine given the wide range of regional cuisines on which to draw. I undertook a sidetrack preliminary study of the pattern of immigration from South Asia from to Australia from 1800 – 2005 and recipes for South Asian food in small selection of cookbooks printed in Australia over that time. The findings, are persuasive that as the range of South Asian regions from which the migration population was drawn spread as outlined above, there was a shift from a principally Raj-oriented construction to a more pluralistic one. I discuss this further below.

Ethnocised restaurants: the economics of the exotic

‘In fact, food and nation are so commingled in popular discourses that it is often difficult not to think one through the other.’[xxvii]

The majority of ethnocised restaurants – their geography, menu, style of service, selection of staff, décor – are constructed by two primary forces; the economic realities for their owners, and the complex factors governing their selection by consumers, with the latter comprising both those from the ethnocised community and those from the host and its other ethnocised communities where they exist.

Literature that considers the production and sale of ethnocised food from the perspective of the owner/entrepreneur consistently shows that for the migrant, the decision to enter the sector is an economic one and not one based on conceiving of food as a way to facilitate understanding and appreciation of their culture by the host community. Owners are ‘ “cultural entrepreneurs” who use their ethnicity as a “vital part of their stock in trade”…the scarcity of the experience contributes to its marketability’.[xxviii] They may do it ‘for the simple reason that society asks for “authentic” cuisine prepared by authentic ethnic people, and, at the same time, society provides immigrants with the opportunity to start small businesses, to attain a certain level of autonomy, and to become part of the culture of work’.[xxix] For many, food production is a result of ‘blocked access to desirable alternatives resulting from discrimination.’[xxx] None of the six owners interviewed by Turgeon and Pastinelli were restaurateurs in the home countries.[xxxi]  Lu and Fine found that most of the owners of Chinese restaurants they studied had college degrees of professional experience before entering the business.[xxxii]

Ethnocised food is marketable and profitable. De Vita points to the ‘substantial margins’ to be made in the grocery market from the sale of ethnocised foods.[xxxiii]  Food Engineering described the expansion of the ethnocised restaurant market in the United Kingdom from ‘small eateries in ethnic enclaves to ‘popular restaurants and even chains of restaurants.’[xxxiv]

However, there are problems. The sector is highly competitive and marked by high turnover.[xxxv] Many ethnocised enterprises in Australia as small businesses which cannot depend on an ‘enclave economy’; the migrant community they arise from does not have sufficient members to provide a long-term viable market based on their consumption alone.[xxxvi]

Turning to the other part of this problematic dyad, the literature offers a range of views as to why the non-ethnocised in Western cultures such as Australia choose to eat in ethnocised restaurants. A common theme sees the consumer engaged in idealized, vicarious, adventure travel, a form of ‘a form of internal tourism’, with elements of ‘authenticity’ and ‘exoticism’.[xxxvii] Participants in some studies report a multicultural agenda of ‘cultural blending’, ‘cultural enrichment’, ‘otherness’ or ‘true foreignness’.[xxxviii] There is also for some an overtly political agenda of showing that they are ‘cosmopolitan and tolerant’. [xxxix]

Monteiro looked at the factors influencing decisions of patrons choosing to dine specifically at ‘Indian’ restaurants. [xl] Important factors for the entire sample were quality of food, taste of the food, and hygiene and cleanliness, in descending order of importance, while availability of vegetarian choices, availability of new items, and cultural familiarity were the least important. Quality of food and taste of the food were the only two significant factors on which respondents of other ethnic origin had higher expectations than those of South Asian origin. Those of South Asian origin had higher expectations on hygiene and cleanliness, cleanliness of restrooms, employee friendliness, value for money, efficient service, spicy food, atmosphere, price, vegetarian choices, availability of new items, and cultural familiarity.

On a reading at this level the findings appear to be at odds with the other studies reviewed here. However, looking more closely at the responses given to the open questions in the study, the common themes do emerge. On the basis of word count here, the factors participants identified were atmosphere and music (26%), flavour (17%), vegetarian possibilities (17%), taste (16%), spicy/hot (11%),  and cultural experience (11%).[xli]

But the desire for ‘true foreignness’ or ‘internal tourism’ is not open-ended; the experience must be ‘simultaneously exotic and familiar: distinguishable from mainstream cuisine (and thus desirable) yet able to be assimilated as edible creations’; they want ‘food suitable to their taste…..they rejected foods that were defined as ‘unpleasant’ and well outside their experience [my emphasis]. [xlii]

Owners of restaurants marketed as ‘ethnic’ have to engage in a number of strategies in order to attract and keep their market share. Here, Lu and Fine identified naming practices, locational segmentation (more ‘exotic’ Chinese restaurants in ‘Chinatowns’ and areas of cultural and artistic capital, more ‘Americanised’ restaurants in suburbs and working-class neighbourhoods), the use of familiar ingredients (‘American’ vegetables in contrast to ‘authentic Chinese vegetables’), and meal formats, and service time (with ‘Americanised outlets prioritising speed).[xliii] Saker and Brooke identified segmentation into and ‘upmarket’ sector (targeting non-ethnic clientele and using selective above and below-the-line promotion) and a ‘local’ market where owners competed on price and quality with others in the area.[xliv]

Restaurant guides: Gastroroaming or gastrostreaming?

Restaurant guides have been a part of Western food culture since at least 1803, the first publication of Grimod de la Reynière’s Almanach des Gourmands.[xlv] Mennell argues that guides, while generally being seen as written by an elite for an elite have had a ‘democratising function’ in shaping taste, disseminating the standards of the elite more widely.[xlvi]

Chossat and Germaud go further, pointing to evidence of a ‘strong and significant statistical link’ between the prices a restaurant charges and the rating it gets in the most influential guides.[xlvii] Their study of descriptions in French guides found direct relationships between higher ratings and whether the comments noted diversification over specialization; good technical skills of the chef; praise for flavour combinations, simplicity, delicacy; sophistication in preparation; whether the food is ‘personified’ by the chef named; and that the chef or restaurant is seen to be part of gourmet cuisine history.[xlviii]

I consider these in relation to the descriptions of the restaurants that are listed in the GFG and the SBSGuide again with the intention of exploring how these criteria further construct South Asian food.

Chicken tikka boom boom

I turn now considering how the strategies employed by South Asian restaurants in Sydney construct narratives of South Asian food. The investigation is based on (61) menus of South Asian restaurants in Sydney. I have also looked at a small amount of additional material from other regions in NSW and from capital cities in two other States (2 from Hobart, Tasmania, and 4 from Adelaide, South Australia). For the Sydney restaurants my search strategy was to collect menus of all restaurants listed in the 2005 GFG and the SBSGuide as representing the opposite ends of the continuum of guides in which South Asian restaurants could be listed. This was further supplemented by collecting additional menus from restaurants in the same local areas as those in the primary base.

I not only wanted to read the broad narratives from these menus, but also to see whether differences in national identification, market segmentation, and nomination by the GFG generated different narratives.

Of the 74 restaurants 62 identified themselves as Indian, 3 as Pakistani & Indian, 6 as Indian & Sri Lankan, 2 as only Sri Lankan, 1 as Nepalese.

Using a combination of categories suggested by de Vita’s work, I allocated restaurants to six market segments – residential enclave (18 – from Inner Western and Western suburbs in Sydney with high numbers of South Asian residents); business enclave (12 – all from one suburb that is the focus of the financial and information technology sector in Sydney); ethnocised restaurant enclave (5 restaurants within 300 metres of each other in an Inner City suburb where the local residents were mainly young urban professionals not of South Asian ancestry); local (45 – restaurants which depend on local residential and business trade, this includes the 12 business enclave restaurants) ; gourmet (5  – these are restaurants that position themselves and are positioned by food reviewers in Sydney as ‘fine dining’). The six restaurants outside Sydney are classified as local.

Twenty one South Asian restaurants are listed in the GFG, all under the single heading of ‘Indian’. Nineteen of these were in the study sample. Forty eight South Asian restaurants are listed in the SBSGuide; 36 listed as Indian (21 of these are in the study sample); 7 listed as Sri Lankan (5 in the study); 2 listed as Pakistani (both in the study); 3 listed as Nepalese (1 in the study). Seven restaurants listed in the GFG are not listed in the SBSGuide.

Naming strategies

Lu and Fine suggest that naming practices are ‘designed to …generate an exotic hyperreality’.[xlix] This is true of the restaurants here. Few simply declare themselves as ‘Indian’, or ‘Sri Lankan’ in their main title. Instead, they use place/region names (Bombay Heritage, Oh! Calcutta, Ajmer, Malabar, Nilgiris), ingredients (with two further exoticising by using non-standard spelling – Qmin (cumin), Zaaffran (saffron), personal names that would suggest ‘easternness’ to a non-South Asian consumer (Adil’s, Akhi’s, Abi’s, Manjit’s, Surjit’s), South Asian icons (Taj, Maharajah’s Palace, Blue Elephant), recognizably South Asian style of cooking (Tandoori Palace, Dakhni) and words which may hold no resonances for non-South Asian consumers but promise a generalized exotic (Hotel Saravana Bhavan, Maya da dhabar). This observation is true across all the market segments identified.

What is interesting, though, are the silences in the main and sub-titles; what they don’t point to. All three restaurants that are owned by Pakistanis and target themselves below the line to that community say they are Pakistani and Indian. Partition and the on-going tension between the two countries symbolically have no place in this new mutually transnational space, Australia, where the media and politicians constantly urge migrants to leave their civil/communal conflicts to their home countries. Sub-titling also divides India and its cuisine neatly into North and South; there is no place for more refined regionalism. The sub-titling is useful, however, in alerting non-South Asian consumers to an India below the Raj and cultural highspot line (Mumbai through Delhi and Agra to Calcutta). Most would easily read northerness from main titles – Calcutta, Bombay, Ajmer – they would find it harder to place Nilgiri, Malabar or Comorin as Southern regions.

So, from names alone, the overall narrative is exotic, but allows for a widening of the understanding of the diversity of the exotic, albeit this is limited.

Meal format

Only five restaurants break entirely with the Westernised practice of dividing the menu into entrée/appetizers/starters, mains and desserts; none of those in the GFG do so. Dividing the menu this way is a significant shift from the way food was and is still eaten in South Asia. In general, South Asian food divides up into something more like snacks (samosas, pakoras, chaat, behl puri), substantial meals (rice/’bread’ and curries, dosai either plain with sambhar or stuffed with a vegetable masala, baryonic) and sweets, but there is no expectation that a full meal ought to include all three elements in the Westernised sequence. That practice evolved jointly under the growth in France of the modern restaurant and the adoption of service a la ruses, the form of service in which each diner is given an individual serving with the elements of each particular course.[l]

It is a structure that presents specific challenges to formalizing South Asian food. The challenge arises where the individual ‘dish’ is intended as the complete meal – dosai, biriyani, and thalis being examples here; in the use of chutney’s, pickles and raitas and the like as accompaniments; in the variety of ‘breads’. Restaurants often deal the first of these challenges by quarantining these in to separate areas of the menu with a haphazardness of placement before, during or after the entrees and mains that betrays the confusion about how to incorporate them into the Western structure. The strategy is also used for the accompaniments, though here it is easier to settle them into the menu format by placing them usually at the end.

‘Breads’ present a further challenge because of their variety. Menus in non-South Asian restaurants do not ordinarily list various kinds of breads. For South Asian food it is inescapable. There is no generic word for ‘bread’ in any South Asian language, despite the conflation of the word ‘naan’ with the idea of ‘bread’ I suggest in many non-South Asian diners food framing. Rice also presents a challenge first with biriyani, where meat or vegetables are cooked in with the rice, and then in the varieties of other flavourings used individually – coconut, saffron, lime, tamarind. Sri Lankan food and that from Tamil Nadu makes for further problems with forms of starch foods that are virtually classes in themselves – pittu/pootoo (fresh grated coconut and rice flour steamed in a tube), stringhoppers (rice flour made into a vermicelli like mat), idli (steamed cakes of fermented rice and urud dhal eaten with sambhar, a thick spiced vegetable ‘soup’ (another problematic category). Most ‘breads’ and rices are quarantined under their Westernised categories and generally corralled along with the accompaniments at the end of the menu and before desert, which at least signifies that they are savoury (though Kashmiri naan transgresses here by being stuffed with sultanas).

Those that break entirely from the form are rare, however, and are either in the residential enclave segment, or target themselves below the line to a particular community.

So, the narrative from meal formats is one of small revolutions within the hegemony of the three-course meal. Consumers must at times eat differently, constructing the idea of a meal differently, if they are to eat diversely.


If the desire for ethnocised food is a desire for difference in taste as is suggested by Monteiro’s subjects, to what extent do South Asian restaurants provide for this in the ingredients they use?

(a) Vegetables and fruit

Lu and Fine found their restaurants limiting their choice of vegetables to ‘ “American vegetables” – carrots, snow peas, green peppers, broccoli, and mushrooms’.[li] The South Asian restaurants in the present study work with a wider range, though the majority of the vegetable still fall squarely within the bounds of what’s acceptable in most Western cuisine – potatoes, peas, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach, beans, pumpkin, tomatoes. The common Eastern-identified vegetables are lentils (but most often only as a dahl), chick peas, and eggplant/aubergines, the last two of which I suggest have been ‘Australianised’ not through South Asian but Middle Eastern cuisines.

Beyond this, two opposing trends are evident. The first is a small movement for inclusion of more ‘alien’ fare. In restaurants in residential enclaves and some of those in the GFG okra/ladies fingers is in the process of becoming ‘Australianised’. But in both cases it is the only one of a possible range of more ‘alien’ vegetables that. Still excluded are bittergourd/kerala, snake beans, gourds, melons, and leaf vegetables other than spinach (water spinach/kankun, for example). The other trend evident in restaurants in the GFG is for introducing ‘gourmet’ vegetables – oyster mushrooms, asparagus and celeriac being examples.

Fruit and sugar as ingredients are much less in evidence than would have been the case until the late 1960’s if the parallel evidence from cookbooks of the periods of the pre-multicultural Australia. Recipes in these cookbooks, with very rare exceptions, are for generic ‘curries’ using prepared powders and, more rarely, pastes, turned into a sweet and sour concoction with the inclusion of apples, sultanas and sugar, on the one hand, and a squeeze of lemon or a little tamarind on the other.[lii] Dried fruit remains on most menus in Kashmiri/Peshawari naan (to which I want to return later), and vegetarian koftas, which appear on menus across all markets, as does mango chicken (of which I also have more to say later). At the same time, the use of unripened fruit – green bananas and pineapples – is rare, though they are both present in Southern Indian and Sri Lankan food in situ.

(b) Spices

There is little variation in the range of spices used, with some justification. Cardamom, chilli, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek seed, garlic, ginger, pepper, and turmeric are the most commonly used spices in situ also.

(c) Meats

All but one restaurant offer the same basic range of meat; the exception being the only purely vegetarian restaurant in the sample. Chicken, beef, mutton and lamb are standard. Pork is absent from restaurants on Indian/Pakistani dishes except in the one restaurant that specialises in Goan food, which is not unexpected given that the majority of owners are Hindu or Muslim with the one having a prescription generally against eating meat and the other a prescription against pork. This may explain why while most of these menus offer vindaloo, invariably ascribing its origins to Goa, they don’t offer pork vindaloo though this is the origin of the style. Pork does feature in Sri Lankan enclave restaurants, which has a similar Portuguese influence in its food.

Restaurants in the gourmet market are also likely to offer a greater variety of poultry – quail, spatchcock, duck, part of a trend within the gourmet market generally, and so a deliberate positioning strategy.

More recently goat meat has begun making its way onto menus in a limited way and most often in enclave restaurants or local restaurants marketing below the line. It would be interesting to know whether non-South Asians order it. Offal appears only on Faheem’s menu (brain masala and katta kat – a dish of finely chopped liver, kidneys, heart), though liver and tripe are popular Sri Lankan curries in situ.

Overall, the story from meat parallels that of vegetables where most of what is on offer comes from animals that are central to Western meat dishes and would appear regularly in non-Asian domestic meals.

(d) Seafood

The range here is most often limited to fish or prawns, with rare excursions to calamari and octopus. Crab only appears as a standard on Sri Lankan or South Indian residential enclave menus. Again, it’s persuasive that what is on offer is what is seen as consumer-friendly, though I would have expected calamari to have been more present given that it has been thoroughly Australianised through its popularity at barbecues.

(e) The narrative from ingredients

The narrative here is generally one of a domesticated exoticism with some wildness in enclaves and at the gourmet end, generated by a differences in the balance between the economics of the ethnocised food market and the criteria of gourmet dining. At the enclave level, the owner can afford to be ‘truer’ to the community palate because they can count on enough business to maintain their profit margins; they may even be able to trade on this to attract customers from community members outside the enclave as does Janani, a Sri Lankan enclave restaurant which gets a significant trade from Sri Lankans in other distant suburbs.[liii] At the local market level, owners must attract a majority non-community consumer population, and so engage in the kinds of practices identified by Lu and Fine – working with ‘Australianised’ vegetables and only gradually introducing new products.[liv] At the gourmet market level, owners respond to the underlying valorisation of novelty, sophistication and culinary history/authenticity.


This pattern continues in the individual dishes on the menus. The majority – those in the local market, business enclave, and ethnocised restaurant enclave – share as much as half the menu items, and they are ones that would most spring to mind if non-South Asian consumers were asked to nominate dishes they identify as ‘Indian’  specifically – tandooris, tikkas, kormas, vindaloos, rhogan josh, butter chicken, mango chicken, kofta, aloo mattar (peas and potato), saag/palak paneer (spinach and Indian cottage cheese), dahl, samosas, naans.

Restaurants targeting the gourmet market are much less likely to have these dishes on their menus, and when they do, they name and describe them in ways that position them as ‘gourmet’ versions of the dishes. Zaaffran offers tandoori neha described as king prawns glazed with rose petal, mustard oil, cardamom, coriander, yoghurt and cheese (paneer). Oh Calcutta! Offers tandoori murgh described as grainfed spatchcock seasoned and marinated in yoghurt, herbs and spices. In the former, the rose petal, and in the latter the grainfed spatchcock clearly signal a gourmet intention.

Restaurants in Indian residential enclaves will also have some of these – butter and mango chickens, tandooris, and vindaloos – but they will usually take up less than a quarter of the menu items. Interestingly, restaurants in Sri Lankan residential enclaves often will also have tandooris, naan and butter chicken. Clearly these dishes are here to offer an alternative for non-Sri Lankan consumers unfamiliar with the cuisine, and even perhaps to attract them to the restaurant for purely economic reasons. The three Pakistani/Indian restaurants also offer these and mango chicken. While tandoori and naan are a staple of Pakistani cuisine, however, butter and mango chicken are not.

In fact, butter and mango chickens are prime examples of dishes invented by South Asians solely for the non-South Asian customer. They do not exist in the cuisine in situ; there is no listing for either in either of Achaya’s definitive volumes on Indian food, nor in any of the over 30 South Asian recipe books developed for the regional market that I have collected on travels in the region.[lv] Here, and in the use of cream in savoury dishes like koftas (for which there is also no historical reference in Achaya nor contemporary references in regional cookbooks), and in the multiplicity of fillings and embeddings in naan that move it towards an Indian ‘pizza’ cheese (including  parmesan in one restaurant), garlic, vegetables – I argue can be seen the continuation of the construction of South Asian food within the narrative of the British Raj. That construction was characterised by a gradual sweetening and regulating of the spicing of the range of preparations to which the members of the Raj sat down at table.[lvi] It was also in this narrative that curry powders and pastes were invented, supplanting the practice of hand-grinding spices as needed.[lvii]

Proportion of vegetables to meats

It is also the narrative which I suggest leads at least in part to the imbalance between meat and vegetable dishes on the majority of menus across all the market segments. ‘The British in Calcutta’, says Burton, ‘ate huge amounts of every sort of meat, even pork and beef, both roast and curried’.[lviii] In all but a handful, the proportion of vegetable dishes to meat dishes (counting both entrees and mains) was never more than 50:50 (gourmet and residential enclave markets), with some as high as 30:70 (local and business enclave).

This is doubly curious. Firstly, most Indian restaurants are Hindu owned. While not all Hindus, following religious proscription, are strict vegetarians, there is proportionally more vegetable in most Hindu diets, and certainly in most cookbooks produced within India.[lix] Secondly, surveys of the food industry show an increase in the consumption of vegetarian dishes in restaurants in recent years.[lx] Only two restaurants were strictly vegetarian, of which only one, Woodlands, markets itself as such.

Descriptions of dishes

It is to the Raj we also owe the word ‘curry’, where the Tamil word kari meaning quite a specific spiced sauce eaten with rice has been generalised to the whole class of South Asian food, and by extension to Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Burmese preparations.[lxi] It is not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that cookbooks begin to use a wider range of terms with kofta and vindaloo as early breakaways.[lxii] In the most recent compendium of Indian cooking published in Australia, the range of terms for ‘curries’ has expanded considerably, with only four entries indexed under the generic term.[lxiii]

This broadening is paralleled across all market segments in the description of dishes, where a variety of vernacular names are now used for both particular dishes and for styles of cooking, for example, navrattan, pasanda, kharai, dhansak, avial, poriyal, dhum. The practice continues in the willingness to use vernacular words for the main ingredients, for example jingha (prawns), saag/palak (spinach), brinjal (eggplant), rava (semolina), dahi (curd), bakra (goat). The practice is haphazard, with few settling on one style, and these being as likely to be in the residential enclave as the gourmet markets.

At the same time, the descriptions of dishes become more expansive and begin to borrow the terminology from Western menus and restaurant guides. For example – channa batura is ‘leavened huge plain flour bread. Puffed, served with chick peas curry cooked in delicately spiced medium sauce’; lamb sagwala is ‘diced lamb delicately cooked in a medium curry sauce with puree of spinach’; goat curry is ‘melt in your mouth cubes of goat on the bone in rich tamarind curry sauce’.[lxiv]

The language here is poised between conceptual decolonization through the use of the vernacular, and a re-colonisation through the use of Western taste criteria.


Haphazardness also characterizes the extent to which menus reflect the range of regional cuisines in South Asia.

Sri Lankan restaurants fare best in this across all market segments in which they appear – residential enclave, business enclave, and local (significantly, there are no Sri Lankan restaurants yet within the gourmet market though one new restaurant in that market, Flying Fish, which in keeping with the current Sydney gourmet valorisation of the ModOz fusion style is trading to some degree on modern interpretations of a small number of Sri Lankan chef. Overall, it is true to say that Sri Lankan cuisine is not notably regionalized, though there are some dishes that are identified with the Jaffna Tamil or the Burgher communities.

Pakistani cuisine, on the other hand, is absorbed within the overall Northern Indian domination of South Asian food that is characteristic of the majority of the local and business enclave markets in the study. There are differences that become evident in the three Pakistani/Indian restaurants, particularly in dishes that are influenced by Muslim dietary practices, but outside of Faheem’s, the number of distinctive dishes is small.  Under this cyclopean gaze, Goanese food is stripped down to a generic fish or prawn curry and bastardised versions of vindaloo, except in Viva Goa, the only restaurant that acknowledges the marriage of Portuguese and indigenous Goanese ingredients and cooking styles; the rest of the Malabar is reduced to a generic prawn curry most often; and Tamil Nadu is Madras curry or nothing.

I argue that this is doubly a continuation of the Raj narrative. Firstly in that until the growth in migration of indigenous South Asians to Australia, the non-South Asian Australian consumer’s understanding of South Asian food was inevitably shaped by Australia’s position first as a series of colonies of Britain and then as an Anglo member of the British Commonwealth, as is evidenced by cookbooks during the years till the late 1960s. Secondly, the greater migrations of South Asians to Australia until recently has been from Northern Indian states that were within the Raj, and migrants wanting to enter into the South Asian ethnocised food market shaped their menus both to satisfy the taste and ingredients expectations both of their own communities’ and non-South Asian Australians.

That change is underway is clear from the number of local market restaurants putting dosai and idli on their menus, the foods most easily characterisable as Southern Indian, and the growth in all markets of restaurants either specialising or prioritising Southern Indian food. There is a clear link here, I suggest, between this and the newer migration from this region.

Conclusion: Narratives and counternarratives

‘The importance of colonialism must also be noted, since much of what happens in the world today – including our knowledge about it, and the ways we use that knowledge in consumption practices – bears the mark of colonial activities and legacies.[lxv]

‘White Australia, while always a nation of immigrants, underwent a major demographic transition in the second half of the twentieth century … What had been a predominantly British settler population whose cultural nationalism was solidly based on British folkways (especially language and food) was transformed.’[lxvi]

The construction of South Asian food in Australia is from the evidence of menus and cookbooks an evolving one, as it must be. No cuisine is static. As the production, preparation and distribution of food involves economic and social transactions, so the construction of a cuisine will be subject to forces of change and forces against change. The construction of an ethnocised food market is subject to forces constructing ethnicity, the economics of small business, and those constructing tastes.

This study shows that at this time in Australia, there continues to be an uneasy and somewhat haphazard conceptual decolonisation that is developing alongside of Australia’s disengagement with its history as a British colony formed in the years of British imperialism in South Asia, the broadening of the source communities of South Asian migrants and their creation of complex transnational spaces, and the on-going dialogue of multiculturalism. There are emerging counternarratives of the kind that may mitigate the ‘refutation of pluralism’ and the ‘management of exclusion’ for which Turner is concerned.

[i] Neil Perry, The Australian Way, QANTAS , May 2005, .

[ii] Throughout I will not use the convention of italicizing or placing in quotation marks the names of dishes and ingredients that may be unfamiliar to the general reader. As will become clear, this is in order for me to enact in the context of ethnicised food the process I describe later as ‘conceptual decolonisation’.

[iii] In keeping with developing practice, I use the term South Asia to mean the countries of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

[iv] Matthew Evans and Simon Thomsen (eds), The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, Penguin, Melbourne, 2005.

[v] Yellow Pages Sydney 2004 Telstra Corporation.

[vi] Maeve O’Meara and Joanna Savill (eds), The SBS Eating Guide to Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2004. SBS is the Special Broadcasting Service, the free-to-air television service in Australia with a Federally legislated charter to program multicultural and multilingual content. I have been a reviewer and associate editor of the sections in the Guide on Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan food in the past three editions; Kerry Boyne and John Newton (eds), Sydney Eats 2005 Universal Magazines, Sydney. I was a contributing reviewer to this edition on a range of cuisines including South Asian.

[vii] Salim Lakha and Michael Stevenson, ‘Indian identity in multicultural Melbourne. Some preliminary observations’. Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol 22, no 3, 2001, p 252.

[viii] Graeme Turner, ‘After Hybridity: Muslim-Australians and the imagined community’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol 17, no 4, 2003,  p 413.

[ix] Turner, ibid., p 414.

[x] Turner, ibid., p 417.

[xi] Jean-Anteleme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, Penguin, London, 1970 p 13.

[xii] M. Douglas and J. Gross, ‘Food and culture: Measuring the intricacy of food systems’, Social Science Information, no 20, 1981, pp 1-35.

[xiii] Laurier Turgeon and Madeleine Pastinelli, ‘“Eat the World”: Postcolonial Encounters in Quebec City’s Ethnic Restaurants’, Journal of American Folklore, vol 115, no 456, 2002, p250.

[xiv] Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine, The presentation of ethnic authenticity: Chinese food as a social accomplishment, The Sociological Quarterly, vol 36, no. 3, 1995, p 535.

[xv] Turgeon and Pastinelli, op. cit., p 252.

[xvi] See for example S. Gunew, ‘Against multiculturalism: rhetorical images’ in G.L.Clark, D. Forbes & R. Francis (eds) Multiculturalism, difference and postmodernism, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, p 41; Pierre van den Berghe, ‘Ethnic cuisine: culture in nature’, Racial Studies, no 7, 1984, p 395.

[xvii] Turgeon and Pastinelli, op.cit., p 251.

[xviii] Uma Narayan,  Dislocating Identities: identities, traditions and third-world feminism, Routledge, New York and London, 1997, p 184.

[xix] Davie E Cooper, ‘I am because we are’, Times Literary Supplement, April 29, 2005, p 6

[xx] Lu and Fine, op.cit., p 538.

[xxi] Carmen Voigt-Graf, ‘Towards a geography of transnational spaces: Indian transnational communities in Australia’, Global Networks, vol 4, no 1, 2004, p 29.

[xxii] Turgeon and Pastinelli, op.cit., p 251.

[xxiii] I draw on four sources here: James Jupp, The Australian People. An encyclopedia of the nation, its people, and their origins, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001; Rakesh K Agrawal and Meena Chavan, ‘Entrepreneurship development amongst the ethnic community in Australia’ , Paper presented to the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship June 1997 National Conference Proceedings, 1997; Voigt-Graf, op. cit.; Lakha and Stevenson, op.cit.

[xxiv] See for example Prema Monteiro, ‘Factors that influence the decision of patrons to dine at selected Indian restaurants in the Twin Cities’, A research paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Science Degree, The Graduate College, University of Wisconsin-Stout, 2002, pp 19-20; Franco de Vita, ‘The ethnic food business: an overview on the growth of the ethnic food market’, Local Economy Quarterly, vol 3, issues 1 & 2, p 91.

[xxv] Classification Count Data 2001 Census, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004.

[xxvi] Turgeon and Pastinelli, op.cit., p 254.

[xxvii] David Bell and Gill Valentine, Consuming Geographies, Routledge, London, 1997, p 168

[xxviii] Lu and Fine, op.cit., p 536.

[xxix] Turgeon and Pastinelli, op.cit., p 256.

[xxx] Agrawal and Chavan, op.cit.

[xxxi] Turgeon and Pastinelli, op.cit.. p 256.

[xxxii] Lu and Fine, op.cit., p 537.

[xxxiii] De Vita, F. (1994) The ethnic food business: An overview on the growth of the ethnic food market. Local Economy Quarterly vol 3 issues 1 & 2 p 98.

[xxxiv] De Vita, op.cit., p 98.

[xxxv] De Vita, op.cit., p 94.

[xxxvi] Agrawal and Chavan, op.cit.

[xxxvii] van den Berghe, op.cit., p 394; Turgeon and Pastinelli, op.cit. p 259; Monteiro, op.cit., p 17.

[xxxviii] Turgeon and Pastinelli, op.cit. p 259; Lu and Fine, op. cit., p 540.

[xxxix] Lu and Fine, op.cit., p.539.

[xl] Monteiro, op.cit., pp 71 – 85.

[xli] Monteiro,  op. cit., p.87.

[xlii] Lu and Fine, op. cit., p 540.

[xliii] Lu and Fine, op. cit., pp 539 – 542.

[xliv] De Vita, op.cit., p 94.

[xlv] Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1996, p 266.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Véronique Chossat and Olivier Gergaud, Expert opinion and gastronomy: The recipe for success Journal of Cultural Economics, 27, 2003, p 127.

[xlviii] Chossat and Gergaud, op.cit., pp 135-136.

[xlix] Lu and Fine, op.cit., p 539.

[l] Eva Barlösisu, ‘France’, The History and Culture of Food and Drink in Europe V.C.3, The Cambridge World History of Food, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, pp 1212 – 1213; Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1996, p 150

[li] Lu and Fine, op.cit., p 541

[lii] See for example Mrs, Foster Rutledge (Compiler), The Goulburn Cookery Book, 1899, Facsimile edition National Trust of Australia,1975, pp 38 & 51; Jessie Sawyer (Compiler), The Coronation Cookery Book, Country Women’s Association of New South Wales, Publicity Press, Sydney, 1938 p 91; Bee Nilson, The Penguin Cookery Book, Penguin, Melbourne, 1952, p 163,

[liii] Interview conducted by the author with the owner for other purposes than the present study.

[liv] Interviews conducted by the author with owners of five other South Asian restaurants for other purposes than the present study.

[lv] K.T. Achaya, Indian Food. A Historical Companion, Oxford University Press, 1994; K.T.Achaya, A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, Oxford University Press, 1998.

[lvi] David Burton, The Raj at Table. A culinary history of the British in India, Faber & Faber, London, 1993, pp 1- 12.

[lvii] Burton, op.cit. pp 73 -75.

[lviii] Burton, op.cit. p 6.

[lix] See for example, Karuna, Delicious recipes from Andhra, Jaico Publishing, Hyderabad, 1993, in which there are 40 vegetable preparations and only 9 meat or egg; Smt Radha Puri, Gujrati Dishes, Shani Publications, Delhi, 1996, in which there are over 70 vegetable and only half a dozen meat.

[lx] Monteiro, op.cit, p 22.

[lxi] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p 235.

[lxii] See for example Doris Adey, Curries from the Sultan’s Kitchen, Reed, Sydney, 1968 pp 36 – 38 and 31 – 33 (all significant for some of the earliest recipes to move away from recommending generic curry powders and to list ingredients for grinding instead); Ellen Sinclair (ed), The Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbook, Golden Press, Sydney, 1970, p 56-58 (though the kofta here is made with curry powder and tinned pineapple).

[lxiii] Priya Wickramasinghe and Carol Selva Rajah The Food of India. A journey for food lovers, Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2005, pp 292-295.

[lxiv] Woodlands Family Restaurant, May, 2005; Joy of Chennai, May, 2005; Blue Elephant, May 2005.

[lxv] Bell and Valentine, op.cit., p191

[lxvi] Susan Sheridan, ‘Eating the other: food and cultural difference in the Australian Women’s Weekly in the 1960s’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol 21, no 3, 2000, p 321