As Lizzie Collingham states in the preface to her biography of curry published back in 2006, there are dishes that are very familiar to ‘habitués of Indian restaurants’; chicken tikka masala, vindaloo, biryani, korma. But time and money can change what we expect from our Indian eateries. As new elite restaurateurs do battle with older curry houses in places such as London and New York – it is more usual to have chai-based cocktails and the latest Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata street food fads in our curry scape.
Along with time and money, can place also transform the standard, globalised Indian restaurant menu? What happens when these restaurants try and make a success of it in Hong Kong, Macau or Guangzhou.
For centuries this southern tip of China has been part an inter asian trade of cottons, silks spices and other food stuffs, led by Chinese, Tamil and Arab privateers and merchants. And for centuries European powers were the losers of this maritime silk and spice trade, as silver and bullion leached away from the west and flowed towards the east. European gunboat colonialism followed, and accentuated and eventually largely ignored the food trade routes deeply embedded among the sailors and their junks. Under this oscillation between attention and neglect, people uprooted, taking with them tastes, ideas and flavours to create dishes of strange, and often tasty hybridity – think of mamak food in Singapore and Malaysia (considered a racist term by some), or of Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel. This southern tip of China and whole provinces in India were also ‘geographies of uprootedness’ – as culinary historian Jean Duruz suggests – exchanging cultures of steaming rice flour, grinding spices and making use of black pepper.
At least this is how things are explained to me when, as part of my ethnographic fieldwork, I talked to South Asian chefs and restaurateurs in these Cantonese cities, from Michelin starred masters to young newcomers, months out of culinary school. But just how far do these old stories haunt their kitchens, their stores and their imaginations? How do these chefs shape their future creations using the culinary analogies of the past?
This is the first part of a talk delivered at the International Conference on “Chinese Food and Culture in Local and Global Perspectives” and Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou in October 2016. Please get in touch if you would like the full paper.