Spicy Curries Versus Svíčková
By Kamal Sunavala

This is actually my impression of a food adventure experienced by a Czech friend who recently visited India. Over a long conversation, I gathered her thoughts and wrote them down for her. Díky moc, Vanessa.

Curry, I think, is the favourite Indian word of most foreigners. Most people at some point want to try an authentic curry. There's no telling how many authentic curries there are in India. I remember the poor substitute I have tasted at the Taj Mahal restaurant in Prague. I recall being impressed then. I recall my senses being tingled enough to book a ticket to India. What I don't recall is the assault on my tongue that I am feeling now. Not three hours ago, we were seated in a crowded restaurant in the Fort area, which is the commercial hub of Bombay, and digging into my first South Indian fish curry.

I got a quick lesson from the head chef on what spices made up a fish curry from Kerala. Names I couldn't pronounce and won't insult him by trying. What I also got from him, interestingly enough, was an abbreviated history of how the fish was traditionally caught by the fishermen in the south of India. How hundreds of fishermen died each year in the process of earning their livelihood so that inexperienced foodies from the Czech Republic could enjoy a colourful, spicy curry.

When I looked at the pomfret in my plate, swimming in the red curry, I didn't know whether I should eat it as with gratitude or with a sense of apology. When I saw everybody dig in with complete irreverence and yet appreciation, I decided to do the same. Food in India, as we see it abroad, is symbolic of their culture and their festivals and their traditional practices. To most Indians, it is ordinary. It is the cabbage and dumplings that we find boring back in the Czech Republic. They don't talk about it. They just eat it. They find it amusing when we use words like flavourful because they are certain we have no idea what we mean. Of course we don't. We think adding sage to cream is creating a delicate flavour. The Indian palate is scarred by years of chilli and turmeric consumption. They would look at a svíčková dish and politely enquire who was ill at home.

Indians don't have the time for reverence where their food is concerned. Even the beggar on the street looks for the most flavourful food he can pick out of the bin. He certainly won't pick up the McDonald's burger, half eaten and carelessly thrown away, if he can lay his hands on a discarded half-plate of biryani or potato stew. They treat their food with love by burping loudly at the end of the meal. It shows appreciation for the chef. In fancy homes across Bombay, of course, such a practice is frowned upon because it suggests bad manners. They prefer eating pasta in mixed company. They eat pasta when their foreign guests are sweating it out over a red hot curry and trying to gulp down as much water as they can in between bites. Secret. The way to kill Indian spice on an untrained tongue, is not to drink gallons of water but to eat a piece of bread.

But around this restaurant I got a better understanding of why Indians who travel abroad don't carry as many sweaters as they do packets of masalas and pickles. They carry their mums in jars and their grandmothers in ziplocked sachets. They regret that they didn't thank their mothers enough at home for the delicious flavours they were pampered with. They regret that they didn't take five seconds to inhale the aroma of sautéed garlic, cumin and fresh coriander. They make trips all the way to the open market at Pankrác and spend a ridiculous 50 Czech crowns to buy a bunch of coriander the size of a squirrel's tail.

I apologise to Indians that they have to learn to appreciate svíčková and bland polévkas when they are guests in the Czech Republic. I am not disparaging the cuisine of my country. But I do understand better why they are fiery, changeable, volatile and ready to burst into loud laughter. Spices that tickle make them that way.

It will perhaps take me a long time to eat like Indians do. Carelessly, irreverently, quickly, unappreciatively. But it takes me no time to understand how very hungry they must remain when they first come to the Czech Republic.