I am cooking rajma chawal today, a north Indian specialty consisting of red kidney beans in a tangy tomato sauce, garnished with chopped coriander and served with fine basmati rice. But instead of using the fresh beans my home city of Jammu in India is renowned for, I am content with a canned version from my local supermarket in Brisbane. The tomatoes and onions come from the bright and busy stalls of the West End farmers’ markets – a Saturday event in a riverside park in my neighbourhood. And the turmeric, red chilli powder, garam masala and rajma masala, which lend a balance of flavours to the sauce, were purchased at a city-based Indian grocery store in Adelaide – where I first arrived in Australia as an undergraduate, eight years ago. When my mother last visited me in Australia, I was chastised for using too many tomatoes and not cooking the beans enough. She promptly transferred my pan mixture into a pressure cooker which, a few whistles later, produced mushier beans and a thicker gravy. But today the pressure cooker lies unused in a corner kitchen cupboard as I embrace my cooking utensil of choice – the wok. No wonder my Australian rajma chawal has a hint of chilli con carne about it, and sizzles as though it were a stir-fry.
My own version of rajma chawal is the result of a lengthy personal journey, and it has taken time to accept its inauthenticity as a positive reflection of my multiple culinary and cultural influences. The lowest point in this learning curve was in my early days in Adelaide, working as a casual waitress at an Indian restaurant. During a quiet period, I was asked to chop onions, a task at which I failed spectacularly. Even as they saw tears born from the onions and a sense of embarrassment streaming down my 19-year-old face, the owners chided me for not being able to handle onions despite being an ‘Indian girl’. How could I tell them that I seldom entered the kitchen in my parents’ house when onions were being peeled and prepped for the day’s meals? That I was only ever interested in holding the electric beater when my mother was baking, and in feeling and tasting the cake batter before it transformed in the oven. That I was never particularly concerned with ‘Indian-ness’, or even domesticated ‘girl-ness’ for that matter.
So when I did eventually learn to cook in Adelaide, it was both to invoke my memories of India and to embrace my new life in Australia. I used coriander leaves in my risotto, mint in my dal, and spring onions in nearly everything as they were more fragrant and less tear-inducing. My cooking was about drawing on my roots and charting new routes on a plate.
I was born in the northernmost Indian state, a composite of the regions of Jammu and Kashmir, and replete with Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh and Buddhist influences. In my birth city of Jammu, where Mughal, Punjabi and British rulers have inflected the local Dogri cuisine, you can find everything from a creamy meatball curry infused with cardamom and currants to a pineapple pastry with the softest sponge and the sweetest icing. The Sikh household I grew up in had all of the above, with ‘continental’ food thrown in for good measure. My grandfather’s anglicised tastes, and both my mother’s and grandmother’s baking savvy, meant that caramel custard made as frequent an appearance as kheer (a rice-based, South-Asian dessert). In addition to cakes and English puddings, my family were early adopters of macaroni and Thai curry pastes. The first meal I learned to cook consisted of cheese balls and chocolate éclairs, both made from the same batter. Overall, the food of my home was more postcolonial than cosmopolitan. It was the ideal starting point of what has turned out to be my hybrid culinary adventure.
When I was 16 I went to boarding school in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, and there the food was spicier. But each Sunday, a hearty serving of Maggi was on the breakfast menu. The sight and smell of these soupy noodles was inviting, homely and a source of constancy on weekends when I waited for my family to telephone. This turned into a kind of comfort food, and remains so to the present day.
I moved to Delhi to begin a degree in economics. And while I soon realised my heart was set on studying media and literature overseas, I enjoyed living in this enormous city just as it was starting to build American-style shopping malls and brew Italian espresso. Increasingly, cosmopolitan foods were on offer – artfully wrapped and steaming dim sims from Tibet, impeccably layered triple chocolate cakes at cafes with retro Hollywood décor, and spicy fajitas in a hole-in-the-wall establishment festooned with cowboy hats. Yet the pasta on the menu of the university canteen had an unmistakably north-Indian spice base (a sizzling mixture of onions, tomatoes and condiments such as cumin seeds, turmeric, coriander powder, red chilli powder, colloquially referred to as tadka) in its sauce. It reminded me of that other Indian rendition – Punjabi curry bases used in Chinese cuisine, and producing what is pejoratively called ‘Pinese’ dishes, such as chilli paneer (Indian cottage cheese).
When I arrived in Adelaide to pursue undergraduate studies in 2003, the Asian meals on offer at my college accommodation were dry and insipid. There was no sight of chilli paneer and rajma chawal in food-court stalls and cafes, and I craved homestyle Indian flat bread instead of the doughy naan found in nearby restaurants.
It was only when I took up a part-time supermarket job that I was introduced to a new world of fresh fruits and vegetables, breads in various shapes and sizes, and jars of sauces from every corner of the globe.
This period of growing culinary comfort coincided with my childhood love of baking. I am reminded of a particularly wet winter afternoon in Adelaide when I was yearning for samosas and chai – I always associated this steamy combination of savoury and sweet flavours with the monsoon rains in India. But I didn’t have the ingredients, and instead I baked a tray of blueberry muffins and brewed a steaming pot of coffee.
As I baked in a place that was increasingly feeling like my adult home, I was reminded of the cakes my mother used to make and how they filled my parents’ house with sweet aromas. I was no longer nostalgic, but creating a new memory that was engulfing both my home and my heart.
With this growing sense of home came a new-found appreciation of the fresh produce of Adelaide’s well-known Central Markets. It’s the largest fresh produce market in the southern hemisphere, with about 80 stalls of fruit and vegetable, meat and poultry, gourmet cheeses, freshly ground coffee, cafe food and multicultural cuisine under one roof.
When I first visited the markets, it was not only to buy my weekly groceries on a budget but to experience the mixing of the smells, tastes and sounds. A tasting of brie here, a roasting of Colombian beans there, and a shopping break at the Greek yoghurt stall for the ultimate energy boost.
While Adelaide was almost home, courtesy of food and friends, my study meant I was increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of ethnic diversity on mainstream television. It was only when the first series of MasterChef aired in 2009 that I felt that the proverbial ethnic glass ceiling had been cracked, and that I could begin to call this country home both personally and politically. The program mirrored my lifelong fascination with ‘exotic’ food. More importantly, it featured the ethnic faces and foods I saw on the streets of Australian cities and suburban spaces. I could finally identify with someone on TV, like Series One runner-up Poh-Ling Yeow, an Adelaide-based visual artist who remixed her mother’s Malaysian chicken curry recipe with gusto, and could decorate a croquembouche with panache. Although my culinary skills are nowhere near hers, I could relate to her interest in playing with traditional cuisines and visually perfecting already luxuriant desserts.
This same culinary variety in Adelaide seemed a little elusive when I first moved to Brisbane in the wake of the January 2011 floods. Working on a suburban university campus, there was little time to learn of the city’s foodie haunts. I turned my nose at the greasy char-kway teow served in a restaurant in Brisbane’s official Chinatown, nestled in a mall in Fortitude Valley. Local knowledge later prevailed, and the more flavoursome Chinese cuisine in the suburb of Sunnybank finally helped invoke memories of Adelaide’s Asian meals even as it helped me make new memories with Brisbane friends.
I also gradually embraced Brisbane’s outdoor market and discovered the best flavoured coffee I have ever tasted – a dark-chocolate spice mocha that is sensuality in a paper cup. My proximity to West End’s cafe and restaurant strip came as the icing on the market’s cake. This inner-city Brisbane suburb has a rich multicultural history, manifested in the Greek, Lebanese and Vietnamese haunts lining the vibrant precincts of Boundary Street and Hardgrave Road. In addition, the cafes and grocery stores in the area embrace an organic food culture that is becoming synonymous with a new generation of modern yet environmentally conscious youth. I am now at a point in my life where home means just such a combination of multiculturalism and social ethos. The meals I’ve had since living here – such as the Afghani bolani bread, the Indian vegetarian kofta, the Greek dolmades and the Vietnamese pho – are gradually being stored as food memories, and cultivating a sense of homely warmth.
I don’t know what kind of culinary journeys and memories lie ahead of me. However, I have no doubt that I have found a culinary home in Australia’s embrace of its peoples’ roots and routes. Let’s hope that I can share more Govinda’s thalis (consisting of a three-course vegetarian plate with a north Indian influence) with my best friend when she visits me in Brisbane, chat over smoothies and focaccias with my sisters, and discover even more places and foods with my friends.
We may not all concur on whether His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s appearance on MasterChef was a television marketing strategy or a crisis in Australian popular culture, but we will probably still watch it. And maybe even try that winning Sri Lankan recipe at home without shedding tears over onions or eliminations.