Ranjona Banerji: Ditching the curry for thumkas

May 03, 2017, 05:22 IST | Ranjona Banerji

Garba has been replaced by that strange hybrid: “Bollywood dance”. Almost everyone I have met in the UK is an expert on "Bollywood dance". Pic for Representation
Garba has been replaced by that strange hybrid: “Bollywood dance”. Almost everyone I have met in the UK is an expert on "Bollywood dance". Pic for Representation

Is curry dead? There was a time when we in India were so proud of it being the United Kingdom's national dish and that the British ate more curry than anything else. In all my earlier visits to the UK, someone always tried to con me into an Indian meal so that I could also suffer the travesty of onion bajji eaten with some red masala-laden oily gravy of little taste or provenance.

I am very sad to say that red gravy, whether called vindaloo or chicken tikka masala or an "Indian curry" in a meaningless generic kind of way, is no longer the food of choice. Victory, it seemed, once was being handed to the Italians, but the battle has been decisively won by hummus and all things Levantine or Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. There is no meal you can have anywhere in the British Isles without hummus or couscous or falafel or some similar combination making an appearance.
Don't get me wrong, I love it. And I equally love the fact that I don't have to fight not to eat onion bajji ever again.

However, it would be unfair to pronounce all Indian food dead. At every other service station on the motorways, you might find one "sagerloo" (one word) or "chicken tikka masala" (three terrible words when combined) dish, served with "basmati rice and naan bread". I feel very deprived that in all the restaurant meals I have had in India, I have usually been served either rice or naan or tandoori roti or whatever, but not together. Nor have I been served that at home, which means my parents left something vital out of my upbringing.

The same feeling came over me when I was confronted with "chai tea" on a menu. Although, truthfully, my beverage of choice is "kaapi coffee" and while I also have a weakness for "paani water", I have not seen either on a menu here in the UK.

In the days before economic liberalisation, every Indian who lived in India has some annoying NRI friends or relations, who boasted endlessly about the developed nation they lived in - where they had sofas and washing machines, unlike us poor Indians who had almost nothing. But at least we had food and we had tastebuds.

In some cases, our annoying friends and relations were on the right side. It was true that they had better sofas and washing machines wherever they lived. But it makes you wonder, with all those vacuum cleaners and washing machines and plastic TV covers, couldn't they have found one decent cook amongst the lot? All the people I know who have been to Pakistan say Lahore's kebabs are the best. Every Bengali knows that Bangladesh has great cooks. But put people from the Indian subcontinent into Britain and they all collectively forget what food in the subcontinent tastes like.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I visited a university in England. There, I met a young woman who was head of some Indian students' union. She was excited about celebrating the Indian Republic Day. What was it she was planning to do to commemorate that day, I asked - or made the mistake of asking. "Dance the garba," came the response, swift and almost unbelieving of my stupidity and ignorance.

Didn't I even know that the garba was what Indians did on Republic Day? It is a lesson I have not forgotten for 35 years.

Since then, the garba has been replaced by that strange hybrid: "Bollywood dance". Almost everyone I have met in the UK is an expert on "Bollywood dance".

They have lessons at their birthday parties, they have lessons at office bonding sessions, they do it for exercise, they do it for fun, they do it on Diwali and who knows when else. They possibly do more "Bollywood dancing" than Helen, Bindu and Padma Khanna did in the 1960s, '70s and '80s combined.

Luckily for the future of Indian cuisine though, tired out but exhilarated after a good session of "jhatak-matak", these experts possibly no longer rush for a curry after, full of sagerloo, basmati rice and "naan bread". Energy will now be replenished by lamb tagine, hummus, falafel and pita.

Or, to be totally fair to "naan bread", that should be "pita bread". Why should only we suffer?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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