Starving on a full stomach

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The Indian restaurant experience in Sydney leaves a lot to be desired

Indian restaurant.Indian Link

One of my first observations when I landed in Sydney was the number of times I had to answer the question, “How are you?” It’s almost an epidemic, this public curiosity in my wellbeing.

You walk into the chemist’s to buy a skin cream for your groin itch, and the counter clerk cheerfully asks you, “How are you?”

“Ah, itching to use this cream,” you might confess.

Yeah, it’s hard to escape the question. Except of course, if you go to some of our fair city’s Indian restaurants. The first question that greets you there is a stony-faced “How many people?” from a tired looking host, busy quarantining the waiting guests.

No welcoming smile. No “How are you?” No attempts to recognise repeat guests.

I’ve become so used to the courteous small talk that the lack of it now stands out more.

Indian restaurant.Indian Link

One counterargument to my complaint is, maybe I am not going to the right restaurants. I confess, I have only been to the mid-range Indian joints in Western Sydney so far. Not the fine-dine variety of the East. But I also occasionally patronise the Macca’s at St. Marys, and that’s the standard I’m holding them to.

Two years in Sydney, and I’m yet to discover a great Indian restaurant experience. Nothing that said “This represents my home cuisine in a way that makes me proud” and inspires me to invite my Australian colleagues to sample my culture. Know what I mean? A great example appears to be the Jasmin Indian Restaurant in Adelaide that won rave reviews from chef Marco Pierre White, brought to my attention by a post on Indian Link’s Facebook page.

Indian restaurant.Indian Link

There is a certain warmth to hearing about a place with a backstory like that – a nonagenarian matriarch overseeing the kitchen that has thrived for nearly four decades. I can’t wait to taste the food made from family recipes there and possibly meet Mrs Singh herself. As the Jasmin story reveals, there’s a lot more to the ‘eating out’ experience.

Successful restaurants offer an experience beyond the right amount of salt in your food. And it possibly starts with how you are welcomed. Isn’t good food all about memories, and more than just the recipe? I used to dismiss this as marketing talk. “Food is about satisfying hunger,” I would scoff. “Memories are for hard disks.”

Indian restaurant.Indian Link

Over time though, I came to appreciate that food constitutes an important part of your memories of a time or place. My memories of India’s Cricket World Cup victory in 2011 are invariably linked with how we celebrated by driving for an hour to eat the juiciest tandoori chicken in Mumbai at a hole-in-a-wall eatery, because the five-star hotel we watched the match at would never come close enough.

Among my best memories of Moscow are the dining-in-complete-dark experience at Dans Le Noir to the Kopek cafés that hosted our polyglot meetings.

It’s that kind of defining food experience that I’m craving in Sydney. No doubt, there is a unique experience attached to dining at an Indian restaurant in Western Sydney.

It starts with the scant weekend parking that demands ninja-grade anticipation and reaction. Then come the insane waiting queues outside while slow-moving cars blast their bhangra onto the street. All of which really raises your expectations. If the demand is this high, it must be worth the wait. Bollywood-themed walls and the excited cacophony of the diners bring back memories of urban dining in India.

Indian restaurant.Indian Link

Unfortunately, the experience starts going downhill from there. Seating is often cluttered and too close. Menus are generic and bear no direct connection to the theme. Street food themed restaurants serve all kinds of fare that’s near impossible to cook on streets. Cuisines sacrifice character to cater to pan-Indian palate. Traditional South Indian thalis served with naans and tandoori rotis – I can hear my late grandmother cursing at the pollution of her art!

The staff, most of them part-timers on student visas or engineers looking for a job elsewhere, are largely indifferent. Oddly, the trainees smile at you though – they’re keen to land a longer term gig and value their jobs. I do recognise that the staff are probably not professionals at hospitality. I don’t expect a five-star experience either. Little things like ensuring a clean table and stocking up the condiments go a long way.

Indian restaurant.Indian Link

A golden rule of Indian food in Sydney is – do not expect consistency. At a very popular Harris Park restaurant one week, the food reached a crescendo of perfection reviving long lost memories. The next week, the very same dish made me abandon the effort midway. Obviously there’s a high turnover amongst kitchen staff. That, and the cardinal sin of pre-cooking and heating to order.

I am sure the eateries are putting in a lot of effort. It’s not easy to create a completely authentic cuisine in a foreign land. And it’s probably not commercially viable to specialise too much. But it is also not impossible to achieve excellence within those constraints. I suspect the desi restaurateurs only aim to be functional with their food. They don’t look at it as a form of art, much less as an ambassador of original culture. They are happy functioning as enclosed spaces where you can buy and eat food.

Indian restaurant.Indian Link

With a little effort, these restaurants can transform good food into an excellent experience and I hope they do. Examples like Jasmin will go a long way in setting the standards that others will follow.

There are clearly many reasons why you see so many closures on the Indian restaurant scene in spite of the apparent demand. Dirty spoons is probably one of them.