"Cumin and turmeric scented the air. Children on the streets hollered to one another in Portuguese."
This is neither India nor Portugal, but rather Russell Shorto's description of the neighbourhood where the Sephardim settled in Amsterdam in the 1600s, bringing with them their religious and culinary heritage, and the language of the land that, a hundred years prior, declared them an "enemy" and drove them out. From the Parsi cafes serving Persian rice below photos of Gandhi and the Queen of England, to the rich, warm halwa (now far from the Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Arabic halvah, but a descendant that travelled and evolved with the Mughals) served in heaps at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to the Armenian dishes still bubbling in the streets of Kolkata, and the Afghani tandoori flatbreads that now fill every Indian restaurant from Mumbai to L.A., India's culture is undeniably intertwined with different parts of the world, no matter what governments and education ministers might try to do.
As Amitav Ghosh delves into the trade between Canton, Bombay, and Europe in the 1800s, he slips in details like a concoction of noodles made by local boat-cooks for the foreign sailors that became the predecessor of today's schezwan noodles. Today that same Indian-European-Chinese dish has been re-appropriated, lining India's streets and filling brightly coloured menus with 'Chinese bhel', 'schezwan dosa', 'schezwan khakhara', and noodles that no Chinese person would ever recognise but that have rendered 'Indian Chinese' a cuisine in its own right.
A conversation the other day with someone who likes cooking turned to his passion for 'fusion', a favourite of his being pizza pau bhaji. A dish of stewed vegetables and Portuguese bread that began as a cheap, quick meal for local mill workers is now topped with bell peppers, tomatoes, and cheese and shoved in an oven. Today we ordered lunch in at work: spinach chaat, a very cool innovation, and... pizza paratha. Apologies to all Punjabis and Italians.
Or not? Apologising for a so-called 'impurity', be it of a dish, a history, a community, a neighbourhood, music, an art, or a language, drives us apart and sidelines thousands of years of trade and evolution, suggesting that some immigration policy or textbook reform can somehow render us immune to the human desire to share and learn.
Don't get me wrong, you won't catch me putting ketchup on an idli or green chillies on my pizza. I love each dish for what it is, with the knowledge that there is a deep history and set of traditions that underlie it that cannot be undermined. And not all forms of globalisation are equal. A recent article in the Financial Times titled 'Imperial Appetites' reviewed a book about how colonialism transformed British food and, according to the author, the world. It's true, colonialism did transform the world, but not necessarily in the glorified way the article made it out to be. Apart from a brief mention of slavery, the article focused on how merchants profited from exotic food like sugar and cocoa, how sailors survived on preserved fish, and how tea became a mainstay in English homes. And what the author possibly thought was a grand finale quote turned out to be the most disappointing part of all:
'In Raiatea in the Society Islands, during the 1820s, a missionary reported that the adoption of teatime rituals would have a beneficial effect on the natives: "When they have Tea... they will want Sugar, Tea Cups... they will want a Table... then they will want seats to set on. Thus, we hope that European customs in a very short time will be wholly introduced in the leeward stations.'"
Globalisation is old. And, clearly, not all globalisation is good. But I can't judge others' creativity or the mingling of cultures – whether across whole populations or a sole individual's mixed heritage. This week, watching the Mumbai monsoons outside my window, having tahini biscuits from an Israeli-Italian's recipe that I tasted in London with my Belgian-American friend, with cappuccino made on an Italian machine with Vietnamese coffee, I was happy.
So cheers to sharing.