When I decided to travel to Europe, I mentally prepared myself to live pretty much on bread and pasta. Being a vegetarian, I knew my options would be extremely limited. Like everyone else who travels abroad, I carried pickles, podi, ready mixes, etc, etc..
For anyone who’s travelled around reasonably, it is a known fact that Indians are simply everywhere. In fact, my first taste of Paris was being stalked by 8-10 Indian boys (Tamil to be precise) singing Tamil songs and whistling. (which is certainly a story for another time). It almost felt like I was back in Madras being stalked by boys from New College in Gemini bus stop. .
The logical conclusion being, if there are so many Indians everywhere, finding Indian food should not be so tough either. It actually isn’t. Then what am I complaining about? The problem with the Indian food that you find in Europe is that it is completely toned down to the European palette. The restaurants also have a weird sense of what “Indian” ethnic interiors.
During my first week in Dublin, me and 2 other fellow Indians decided to give Desi Khana a try. By popular suggestion, by the Irish of course, we decided to go this place called Jaipur. This is a total uptown Indian place. There were swankily dressed locals and there we were in flip-flops and Jeans. Then we were told that there were no tables available and that you had to book at least one day in advance. One of the fellow Indians decided to play the “Uncle-ji, main bhi Rajasthan se hoon.” card. Result, we had a table 45 frustrating minutes later. Most of the waiters here can’t even pronounce the names of dishes properly and just copy down as you point on the menu. Grrrr… The first weird thing I noticed was that Papad here is a starter. :-O We decided to keep it simple and have some Paneer pasandha, dhall, rice and naan. The food arrived 20 minutes later. By then, I was too famished to even be angry. When I put the food into my mouth, it didn’t taste like dhall or paneer pasandha. The dhall had no salt or trace of spice. The paneer pasandha was sweet, no exaggerations. With great difficutly we managed to finish the food. There, I learnt my first lesson. In any Indian restaurant, when you order, you should ask for it to be really spicy. Only then, you’ll get something normal. In fact, the operating word is “Desi spicy.”
Our next target was another place called Indian Ocean. The food was just about passable. The interiors of this restaurant were weird to say the least. As you enter, there’s a Jaadu with a sparkling band and ribbons on display, that’s supposed to be “ethnic decoration.” What nonsense is that now! In my house, the Jaadu is always kept in a place that can never be seen. I don’t think anyone ever uses it as a piece of decoration. Not just that, there are huge blowups of group orgy sculptures. It didn’t even look classy.
Then we found our haunt, Sagar. It is by far the best Indian restaurant I’ve been to in Dublin. The “desi spicy” thing works here and we actually get good food. But the sad part is that, when you talk about Indian restaurants, they are all North Indian ones. If you want Idlis or Dosas, there’s no South Indian place. There just one place, Madina, which is a Pakistani restaurant that serves Dosas. The irony is that most of the Indians in Dublin are either Malayalis or Telugus. Strange!
By far, the best Indian food I’ve had in Europe is at Madras Cafe, Paris. This place is run by a Tamilian family from Pondicherry. All the waiters and cooks are Tamilians but speak really good French (not that I’m a good judge of that). I actually had “full meals” there. Including Sambar, Rasam, curry, kootu and applam. I stuffed my face so much that I had difficulty walking back after that.
The conclusion being, we need the Indian restaurants to be more authentic. And someone, please consider opening a Dosa Diner chain in Europe. May be, that’s a business plan for me to think about some day 🙂