There are a couple of reasons why you would want to pick up Hardeep Singh Kohli’s Indian Takeaway if you saw it in a bookstore, even if you have no clue as to who the man is. On the cover, there’s a picture of a chubby-cheeked Sardar (who, we assume, is Kohli) in a pink suit and white turban sitting on an autorickshaw. He is rather jolly looking, and if the back cover is to be believed, he seems more than willing to talk about Shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire pudding. When Sikhs talk about food, others tend to listen, even if it’s about British food.
Chapter 1 shows exactly why Kohli is such an authority on Toad in the Hole and suchlike. The sons of immigrants, Kohli and his two brothers were born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland. Like all good Sikh boys, the centre of his universe is the dining table. Or the kitchen. Or the fridge. Basically, anywhere where there’s food.
Big bite: Kohli cooks Shepherd’s pie for people in India. AFP
But don’t be misguided into thinking his love for mash means his palate has been hard-wired to accept only stuff that ranks a negative 23 on the spice scale. For his dad’s best friend’s wife’s baingan bharta, he “would walk over broken glass merely to inhale its aroma”. He fell in love with rajma chawal at age 12 in a ramshackle food shack on the road to Srinagar, even though he wasn’t allowed to eat it. Thirty years later, he hunts down the shack to have his fill of that long-denied plate of mushy beans. So we can conclude that single-minded dedication to anything edible is deeply embedded in Kohli’s DNA.
Indian Takeaway is about his journey to India to cook British food for Indians. The point of this exercise is not known even to Kohli, but it’s his attempt to discover himself and his roots. He tells us of his childhood in Glasgow, the hardships his parents faced and the bone-grinding work that goes into setting up a base in another country and an alien culture. Of course, even childhood anecdotes are food-studded: from langar (free kitchen) at the gurdwara in the Southside of Glasgow, to his grandmother’s sweet tea at their home in Bishopbriggs, to the mystery of a missing Victoria sponge.
Kohli’s tale, when reliving his childhood and youth in the UK, is funny, touching and a great read. His experiences, or some variation thereof, are probably the same as those of any immigrant child whose parents consider themselves Indian, but who is himself not so sure. It’s when he comes to narrating his Indian experience that he starts to go all NRI on us. In Kohli’s defence, he does try to fit in and absorb as much of the Indian experience as he can. And he’s quite self-aware: “My lilac turban and clashing pink kurta top might seem to be quintessentially of the subcontinent, but I now realize it is clearly more sub-fashion. I am dressed the way white people dress when they wish to make a statement about how they are embracing India.” But a tongue-in-cheek monologue on the wealth of information contained on a single railway ticket and the endless search for his roots does get repetitive.
Indian Takeaway: HarperCollins India, 285 pages, Rs295.
His experiments with feeding Indians bland British fare don’t meet with much luck. His wife’s cousin Bharat takes one bite of Kohli’s Toad in the Hole and orders himself a portion of king prawns with coconut and chilli. Someone plonks down a bottle of Tabasco on the table before sampling his Shepherd’s pie. At some points, you find yourself fervently wishing that Kohli had heeded the sound advice of his father who, when he heard of his cooking-Brit-food-for-Indians plan, told him, “Son, if British food was all that good, then there would be no Indian restaurants in Britain.”
But all said and done, Kohli’s book is truly funny, honest and earnest. His love for cooking and eating is infectious, and so are his stories about home. Kohli is a product of a “patchwork heritage”, as US President Barack Obama so succinctly put it, and the book reflects that.