Flavours of fusion connect food and identity

Manchurian Prawns, a dish available at the Chili Pepper House, an Indian-Chinese fusion restaurant. Photo by Phoebe Yu

The link is undeniable: Food is at the forefront of India’s cultural landscape, and the complexity and diversity of the Indian identity is reflected in the variety of regional dishes found in Indian cuisine.

“In India, the taste, the culture, the language, the attire changes within 150 miles,” says Abhishek Roy, owner and chef of Atithi Restaurant.

Regional Flavours

Abhishek Roy in his restaurant, Atithi Restaurant. Photo by Phoebe Yu

Roy, who grew up in Rajasthan in the northwest of India and whose parents come from the eastern state of West Bengal, is no stranger to the different tastes of Indian cuisine.

According to Roy, seafood and rice are plentiful in eastern Indian cuisine. In the northwest, they use a lot of milk, cream and grains because of the dry weather. In southern India, coconut is abundant in many of the dishes.

Nowadays, Roy says that India has changed substantially – more people like to dine out and appreciate dishes from different parts of the world. The most popular foreign cuisine in India is Chinese food or, more specifically, Indian-Chinese fusion.

Indian-Chinese cuisine used to exist only in India, a result of centuries of Chinese migrant workers in the country, but has now come to Vancouver.

Home cooked fusion

Peter and Paul Yang, owners of the Chili Pepper House. Photo by Phoebe Yu

Brothers Peter and Paul Yang were born in Kolkata, West Bengal, and are ethnically Chinese. They operate Chili Pepper House, an Indian-Chinese fusion restaurant. Peter is the chef, while Paul is the manager.

Peter blends his own style with Indian-inspired ingredients and dishes from West Bengal state, like his own curry sauce and a house special chicken with tandoori and Chinese ingredients, adjusting the taste and spiciness according to the customers’ palate.

“For us, we use Chinese and Indian spices combined together, so it’s a very good balance of these two countries,” he says.

Paul says that the kind of food they serve is nothing new for them because they’ve always had it back home in India, where Indian-Chinese cuisine is considered mainstream.

In Vancouver, the brothers host many Indian and Chinese customers, as well as people from other ethnic backgrounds.

Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, explains that almost any restaurant in Vancouver now will use different flavours from around the world to offer fusion dishes, due to the high amount of people travelling to and from Vancouver.

“I don’t think there’s any other way to make anybody happier than to serve them with a good plate of food,” he says.

To Tostenson, food is a total reflection of our culture.

“We go to restaurants that reflect our tastes, and we take people with us that reflect our culture and our sociability,” he says.

Food and Culture

Both brothers acknowledge how the cultures they grew up in are reflected through their dishes. While they speak Chinese, practice Chinese traditions and eat Chinese food, they do sometimes speak Hindi and make Indian dishes at home as well.

In recent years, Roy has noticed a change in India’s food landscape. He says there are more and more restaurants serving foreign cuisine as the cities become increasingly metropolitan, and the middle class are dining out more often to get a taste of the world.

Roy stresses that the role of food in Indian culture is unique to their way of life.