People I know who have been to India talk about having come back somehow changed. I myself have never been there – although my 80-year old mother has, to her enchantment. India in the late 70s and early 80s was the destination of many of my contemporaries, a point of departure for Magic Bus tours overland which wound up in London. My then-boyfriend Tony did one of these trips – he was one who spoke, afterwards, about great personal changes incurred as a result of the experience – and when I met him, as arranged, in London what I mostly recall is the brand new squeaky black leather coat he had purchased there, around which I wrapped my arms, and which seemed, perhaps by its alien scent and its unfamiliarity, to hint at a slightly shifted inner life.
India has been in the news a lot lately because of racially motivated violence – attacks on students, murders – directed towards Indians in the Australian community. In response to this, one outraged Melbourne woman called Mia Northrop initiated an event she called Vindaloo Against Violence, a chance to give ‘ordinary Melburnians a peaceful, easy way to express their anger and disappointment that racially motivated violence is happening in their city, to embrace and show solidarity with the local Indian community and to mount a show of force against the perpetrators of violence’. All she urged people to do was to dine at their local Indian restaurant – and the response was overwhelming. On February 25 The Age reported that around 17,000 people across Australia ‘tucked into a curry at an Indian restaurant’. Mia’s hope was that those restaurants would ‘channel the community spirit and pay it forward by donating some funds to a worthy local anti- violence or anti-racism cause.’
As it turns out, the origins of vindaloo are Portuguese rather than Indian. The term derives from the Portuguese dish Carne de Vinha d’Alhos which is meat, usually lamb, cooked with wine and garlic. It was brought to Goa by the colonising Portuguese and evolved into a curry dish through the addition of piquant and pungent Goan spices. In fact, apart from Goa, vindaloo is neither common nor popular in most parts of India – unlike in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada where it is almost always featured on Indian menus. It is one of the hottest dishes available.
A common Western misconception is that, in order to be authentic, a curry must be searingly hot. In fact India, being a land of dramatic contrasts, is also a land whose cuisine is widely diverse, the direct result of cultural and religious influences together with large-scale interactions, throughout history, with neighbouring Iran, ancient Greece, Mongols and West Asia. Europe contributed its cooking styles during the colonial period. One strong influence is the longstanding vegetarianism within the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain community, with less than 30% of the population only being meat-eaters. Jains, disciples of Mahavira, were once forbidden to eat even fruit and vegetables which contained an insect, and, according to Charmaine Solomon in her ‘Encyclopaedia of Asian Food’, ‘even today the most orthodox Jains refuse to breathe the air without a mask lest they inhale some hapless creature, eat tomato because of its blood-red colour or a root vegetable because in uprooting it a grub may be injured.’
Indian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines across the globe. In London alone I remember being dazzled by both choice and quality of Indian restaurants. Curries and braises, hot or otherwise, whose creamy nut-enriched sauces beg to be sponged up by puffy breads like naan; tangy fruity chutneys, sambals and pickles; flaky pastries; tandoori-roasted meats; deep- fried puris; Persian-inspired biriyanis, pilaus and kebabs studded with nuts and dried fruit. Vibrant, colourful, gloriously-flavoured food with a rich deep heritage. Vindaloo Against Violence is a magnificent initiative if it only reminds us how enriched our nation is by the input of Indian culture and cuisine. Byron Bay Slow Food will be staging its own Vindaloo Against Violence in May, the date yet to be determined, with further details forthcoming. Everyone, members or otherwise, will be welcome.