Monday, 17 November 2008

Hardeep Singh Kohli - Indian Takeaway (Canongate 2008)

Hardeep Singh Kohli can’t quite figure it out. He’s a Glasweigan Sikh living in the British Isles with a huge appetite and a propensity for food pornography. In an effort to figure out just where his head is at, what his identity is and who he feel an affinity for, he sets off around India on a voyage of discovery; the hook is, he’s travelling round India cooking British staples like full English breakfasts, soups and toad in the hole for his ancestral countryman. What appears to be a Dave Gorman-esque comedic voyage of frivolity is given weight by the huge task of self-discovery Kohli takes along the way. It’s a modern view of India, peppered with references to the India of old and how it has developed at an exponential rate over the last few decades, and of Kohli’s own childhood in Glasgow trying to fit in, despite being a clunky chunky hirsute teenager. As he travels through India, flitting between the remote and the metropolitan, he begins unsure, trying to outclever the chefs and stomachs he prepares food for, instead opting for convoluted versions of the staples he intends to bring to India. Surely and slowly, he grows in confidence and comfort and begins to find his feet. The food is the conduit though, and as it is a great leveller, it allows him to meet members of every aspect of Indian society, from Delhi rich socialites, to poor fishermen living hand to mouth on a few staples, from ex-immigrants who have returned, to firm family friends. Through them all, he starts to work out how he fits into this society and where his Indianness begins and his Scottishness ends. Much as there are a plethora of books on the subject of alienation, identity and the British Asian diaspora, Kohli’s adventure is comedic and light, and never up its own arse. It is told honesty and with a lightness of touch, is easy to read and full of mouth-watering descriptions of food that send your tummy rumbling at the mere mention of crackling oil and sizzling onions, of frying garlic and marinating meats. The problems with this book lie in its lightness of touch in terms of the writing itself. Much as the material is accessible and easily readable, and the story more enjoyable than most other weight tomes on identity, it’s the writing that often lets it down. Kohli resorts to ‘really’ ‘incredibly’ ‘completely’ unimaginative descriptions of his food, and tries too hard to be funny, using similes drenched in pop culture references to make his point, referring to Star Wars characters, Eastenders, films and music; you can’t help but feel he’s taking the easy way out instead of trying to tell you what he really feels. The journey is sweet and succulent like the food he cooks and yet the narration, in its simplicity, becomes contrived and trite in places, and never quite redeems itself through charm. Much as he was a clunky chunky teenager, so is his descriptive prose, and this tends to mar what should be a gourmet feast of discussion and anecdote on the very nature of what makes us British. He is best when relaying anecdotes of his childhood and the bizarre contrast of his father uprooting his family to Scotland on a whim. In the present, though, with overly simplistic language, not much actual cooking of British foods (which start to make you wonder whether the premise is misleading) and no real connection with the people he cooks for, this ends up being a set of interesting anecdotes that never really rise above a slight grin. The premise is strong and Kohli himself is likeable enough and the Indian food he eats is beautiful and my personal interest in British Asian identity stories is relevant, but this is not as good as it could have been.

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