Brought up as part of the Indian diaspora, Rasika Sittamparam discovers the future is a vibrant and youthful culinary tapestry of taste, from the ‘unapologetically Indian’ Talli Joe.
Growing up in an Indian family in Malaysia was tough. As a member of the world’s largest diaspora of over 16 million, my existence was incessantly filled with a personal and community-induced need to discover my Indian roots. Friends, families, neighbours, and the occasional well-meaning, but preachy stranger, have urged me to embrace my ‘Indianness’ since I was very young.
As a result, I have endured almost a quarter of a century of Ghandism, spiritualist literature and even a month-long pilgrimage to India’s holiest cities. But it may be strange, irreverent, and nonsensical even to some, to say that I had a recent epiphany about the true spirit of Indian culture but not in a temple, yoga retreat or on the banks of the Ganges. It was instead in a ‘half-plates, full drinks’ bar on Shaftesbury Avenue, London. And the renewed appreciation for my culture was inspired by all manner of Indian delectables, and perhaps further intensified by a ‘talli’ (tipsy/pleasantly intoxicated) state of mind.
Firstly, I’m not being reductionist for the sake of it - I’m not pooh-poohing centuries’ worth of history, neither am I drowning the country’s art and culture in what seemed like a copious amount of booze in my cocktails. But the evening at the Indian tapas made me realise how little I knew about modern India, and that it was even more simplistic to assume that 1.2 billion of its citizens are either loincloth-wearing ascetics, snake-charmers, Slumdog Millionaire-style squatters or princely Rajputs with jewel-bedecked turbans.
While the described groups do exist, Talli Joe drew me to a different picture of a country brimming with Beats and Adidas-wearing youths sipping local cocktails and devouring heavily-spiced street food. With over 350 million people aged between 10 and 24 India is the most youthful country in the world; yet the drumbeats of this legion, as it passes from India’s future to its present, are unheard by those in the diaspora.
The menu attempted to give a fair representation of the various ethnic groups from all four corners of India – something I had never seen before in Indian restaurants, which are mostly orientated around a North-South culinary divide. A colourful booklet listing cocktails from the northern, southern, eastern and western regions of the country, with cartoons outlining the distinct languages and cultures of the people, encouraged an earnest discussion with my dining partner about the differences within the world’s largest democracy.
Housing more than a hundred languages and regional dialects, I recalled celebrity chef Rick Stein’s bewilderment at the discrepancy in the word ‘curry’ between regions. Only the Southern states recognise the usage, as it was along the Coromandel Coast that the British first anglicised the term ‘kari’ (the Tamil word for sauce). Even today, curry’s linguistic and culinary identity is not readily recognised outside the South, and Stein’s BBC documentary, Rick Stein’s India, showed that it could sometimes provoke an impassioned debate among locals elsewhere.
When the dishes arrived, it was daunting to discern between fifteen sharing plates of food, and over eight regional cocktails with their respective ‘stories’. Still, the atmosphere was merry, akin to a Christmas feast in a bar, albeit one ostentatiously Indian – complete with the beaming host’s Santa-like exuberance.
Besides the customary poppadums, pickle and chaat (battered kale with sweet yoghurt and spiced potatoes), most of the items were unrecognisable, but the combined flavours managed to create a nostalgic warmth. Notable highlights were dishes like the orange and Old Monk-soaked red mullet, tenderly grilled with the pleasant bitterness of fenugreek seeds, and the aromatic truffle ghee naan stuffed with cottage cheese. My personal favourites were the Gol Baari Kosha Mangsho, a sumptuous replicate of lamb chop curry from a 192-year-old eatery in Kolkata, the Chicken 65 dancing in the crisp freshness of fennel seeds and curry leaves, and the tastebud-exhilarating Bohri chicken curry served with fenugreek flatbread, originating from a liberal and colourfully-dressed Muslim community in Gujarat – little known outside the nation.
I welcomed chef Sameer Taneja’s (formerly at Mayfair’s Michelin-starred Benares) cross-over into the bold and more unusual taste territory, an area I would call ‘unapologetically Indian’. It is a trait which I find many UK curry houses attempt to hide. The slightly nauseating smell of fenugreek, which many restaurants try to mask with the sweeter scents of cumin and cinnamon, was a proud feature in many of the ‘curried’ items. There were also reams of the aromatic, but slightly soapy, hints of coriander leaves and the musky smell of asafoetida (a type of plant resin used as a natural preservative and flavour-enhancer in dhal).
A truly Marmite situation arrived in the form of the dhal-stuffed karela (bitter melon), the black sheep of the cucumber family. It was a taste I had painfully but slowly acquired, thanks to my health-conscious grandmother who had force-fed me similarly acrid vegetables for their medicinal benefits. I found the bitterness of the baby alligator-like vegetable addictive, while my grimacing English partner said it tasted like ‘the inside of a ventilation pipe’.
While the food paraded India’s cultural diversity and culinary depth, the host frequently, not taking no for an answer, punctuated the foodie experience with whisky, gin, tequila and rum-based concoctions - each cocktail accompanied by an amusing story. Unforgettable was the vigour with which the Delhi lad described life in the capital city, while serving the Day in Delhi cocktail. It was a testament to the life and times of a typical urban youth who loves his fair share of rum, biryani (represented by shots of lentil and rice syrup with salt) and lime juice, before a hot afternoon siesta.
An equally intriguing coffee-cocktail narrative traced back to my ancestry in the South. The tale of Baba Budan, a Sufi Muslim priest who not only introduced coffee to India but also brought feuding Muslim and Hindu communities together in the state of Karnataka, was mirrored in the mixing of his cocktail namesake.
Another taste I cherished was the Paan Aam: a tequila and tangy raw mango and lime mix with the unmistakably raw, pungent and peppery taste of the betel nut and leaf – a mildly hallucinogenic plant old Indian women love to gnaw on like chewing tobacco. Remembering my grandma’s hip pouch full off the stuff, it was, again, something that connected my Malaysian upbringing to its Indian origin.
Hours of drinking and dining later, we were left surprisingly full (despite small portions) and ‘talli’. I admired the establishment’s frank authenticity, which aims to iron out the wrinkles off an outdated version of India. It gave the culture the youthful makeover it needed, bold decor with walls emblazoned with the occasional curious inscription, i.e. ‘too fly to drunk, roared the lion’, and a truly intriguing menu. The easygoing staff were not difficult to love either. Clad in casual wear, they showed a cordial but unstuffy version of Indian hospitality, a matey pat on the back rather than an aggrandised salutation.
Talli Joe is a jovial reminder that the era of post-colonialism is indeed over in India. It is time for the UK’s Indian culinary pundits to jump off their high elephants and discover the snack-filled street bars of Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore, where the country’s young movers and shakers revel.
A night out in the West End might not have illuminated the area of darkness; the Naipaul-esque search for my roots is far from over. But the sexy outlook of a business that has landed straight from South Asia has certainly made India seem less purist and distant, and became far more familiar instead, a more intimate enigma. The momentary connection with my heritage was reason enough for celebration, and what better way to do it than with a sip of pauwa (liquor) and a bite of chakna (snack) the way the Indians do today.