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When we think of Indian food, we imagine ourselves biting into a crunchy samosa, savouring some luscious tikka masala or wolfing down curry-soaked naan bread.
But there is much more to Indian food than meets our Irish eyes. Even those of us with the most adventurous taste buds are unlikely to know the true extent of Indian dishes and their flavours.
“Every state has different dishes,” says Santosh Shukla, the manager of Diwali restaurant on South Great Georges Street. “We do only the north Indian, we don’t touch completely south-Indian dishes or other states.”
It is the rich, creamy curries and sauces, which originate in the north of India that the Western world has become most closely acquainted with – and Ireland is no exception.
“Oh, Irish people love it,” says Shukla, who is originally from just outside New Delhi. “Mostly restaurants have these [northern] foods only.”
Northern Food on the Southside
Among these foods are some of the best-known Indian dishes: chicken tikka masala, korma, butter chicken and pasanda, as well as fried street foods like vegetable samosas and onion bhajis.
There are 29 states and seven union territories in India. Each has “a different kind of their own popular dishes, so we couldn’t do them all”, explains Shukla.
Even naan varies from state to state. This is down to different types of flour and ingredients, as well as different cooking utensils. “And you need a different kind of chef,” he adds. “I can only make north Indian food”.
So why haven’t dishes from other regions become prominent in Dublin’s vast array of restaurants? Well, according to Shukla, it’s not down to immigration patterns, as “lots of people from south India are here.”
Chicken tikka masala is Diwali’s most popular dish, and Shukla puts this down to its mild flavour – in fact he thinks this explains the prevalence of north Indian cuisine here.
Even in Indie Spice in Sandymount, where food from a variety of different states is available – Bengali, Gujarati, Kashmiri – northern Indian or Punjabi dishes are still the most popular. According to the manager, chicken tikka masala and korma are the most frequently eaten.
“Lots of Irish people like to eat mild, they don’t like it with too much spice,” says Shukla. Even Diwali’s korma is made milder to adjust to the Irish palate, and after 12 years in business, it seems to be working.
The one spicy and southern offering on the menu is the well-known madras curry, which has roots in the city of Chennai.
Beyond Chicken Tikka
A little further south in Indian than Chennai is the state of Kerala, which inspired Lewis Cunningham to open his lunchtime food stall at markets around the city.
After spending time in hotels and homes in Kerala learning to cook, he opened Kerala Kitchen, which moves between Eastpoint, Spencer Dock, Mespil Road, Sandyford and Grand Canal Dock.
Cunningham acknowledges the dominance of Punjabi (northern)-style curry houses in the city and admits it was difficult to get Dubliners to warm to Keralan meals.
“We do south-Indian dishes and they are quite different. They cook with a lot of coconut and the market menu would have a lot of mustard seeds and fresh curry leaves, which would be in every south-Indian dish,” he explains.
Snacks or street food are popular in south India, which explains Cunningham’s menu of mutton rolls, dosas (rice pancakes) and fried potatoes. And vegetarian offerings are generally the norm, which hasn’t proven a problem for Kerala Kitchen, as its most popular dish is vegetarian chickpea-and-spinach curry.
In its fifth year, this market stall has proven that there is a customer base for south-Indian cuisine. Cunningham says he normally sells out, and when he goes to Mespil Road, he estimates that a third of his customers are Indian.
This week, he also hopes to sign a deal to open his first restaurant.
Southern Food on the Northside
On the Northside, just off Mary Street, Madina has become a bit of a melting pot for different Indian cuisines.
Owner Mia Manan Hameed uses his mother’s recipes in the restaurant. His family is originally from Punjab but – as he tells it – he learned how to make dosas and other south-Indian food when he was growing up in Limerick.
The few immigrants that lived there at the time would get together for “one-dish parties”, and this is where he was introduced to southern foods like idlis and dosas.
He calls his food “traditional”, rather than “Indian”, because it includes so many dishes that are traditional to other countries as well as India.
For example, “mango lassi is traditional in about 15 different countries”, says Hameed.
Cunningham, who is originally from London, says regionalised Indian restaurants are opening there at the moment. And, in his experience, Dublin usually follows the same trends as London about two years later.
“I think that’s going to happen here,” he says.
But Shukla believes that to taste truly traditional Indian cuisine, it is necessary to go there, where the spices are fresh.
“The real taste and real flavour you will get in India,” he says, laughing and smacking his lips.