Baguette with fish and spices? Soup made with curry powder and Riesling? Our food writer Christiane Warmbein went to India to find out what happens when European food is exported and adapted by other cultures. You might just find yourself wanting to try a chickpea sandwich... 

Photo: Umair Mohsin (CC)
A Pakistani take on the British classic, fish and chips

Inside and out

We all have plenty of experience with foreign food in Europe. But what happens to our traditional dishes when they're exported globally?

Nowadays, sushi and curry are everywhere in the West - but bringing one's own food to other countries isn't just a phenomenon of our time. Since antiquity, people who have stayed away from home for a long time have brought their food with them, as weapon no. 1 against homesickness. Moreover, emigrants often choose to make their living by opening restaurants serving their own cuisine. But what happens to our beloved fish and chips, baguette, toast and pork chops when brought to other cultures? Right now, I'm sitting in an internet café in Northern India to write this article, so I'll be focusing on European food in Asia, and especially in India.

Colonisation has been the most insistent and intensive way in which people have exported their culture to other countries, as they were most often supported financially, logistically, and psychologically by their native country. Even the Romans brought their dishes and wine to Northern Europe and Africa. Understandably, new food introduced only by colonisers was accepted rather slowly (the "Hey, we're taking your country! Want some toast?" method was not too successful), but nevertheless, there are many colonial dishes now to be found everywhere in the world.

Understandably, new food introduced only by colonisers was accepted rather slowly. The "Hey, we're taking your country! Want some toast?" method was not too successful.

Food served by civil immigrants in their new home countries has been the result of another process during the last centuries. Emigration waves like the Irish to the US or the Germans to South America have brought lots of European local food elsewhere. As a result, you can celebrate Oktoberfest and its genuine food in Blumenau in Brazil, or drink stout beer everywhere in New York. Generally, these developments have been heartly welcomed as new exotic cultural varieties.

As we Europeans often alternate or vary foreign dishes to fit our tastes (Thai curry in Thailand is a completely different deal compared to those tasty but very mild dishes served in many Thai restaurants in Europe), people have done the same everywhere in the world. By finding out what has happened to our well-known favourites, you might be inspired to leave your own culinary grind and spice it up!

Photo: Christiane Warmbein
A French bakery in Nepal, offering muffins, brownies and bruschetta as well as the classic baguette.

When the French colonised Southeast Asia, they brought – naturellement! – their wonderful baguette and croissants. In Cambodia, baguette is now completely accepted as national dish, but served the Cambodian way: with fish or eggs inside, spices and sometimes also rice. It is very popular and is often served as street food to take away, though it has a fundamentally different taste from the French version.

In India, because of the very long connection with the UK first through trade, then through colonisation, a particularly complex Anglo-Indian cuisine has developed. Many elements haven't only gone one way, but have also come back to their origin, but with great variations. One example for this is British tea culture. Tea from Indian Darjeeling and Assam was brought to the UK via the Dutch and British East India Company (see our article on tea in issue 10). In Britain, the distinct tea culture developed, establishing teatime as a new meal, but also corresponding dishes, like sandwiches or small cakes. Additionally, tea was altered with different spices such as nutmeg, bergamot, cloves or ginger. Changed in this way, tea culture came back to India, with British people staying in India as colonial officials. Nowadays, one can have British afternoon tea at old Colonial hotels and British hillstations (places in the Himalayas to which the British fled during the hot season in India).

Another Indian, but not really Indian phenomenon are "curry" dishes, omnipresent in western Europe. A "curry" is not a special dish in India that you can order in a restaurant; it is more a description meaning "a dish with sauce." In India, there are more specific names for the dishes, such as a korma (a sauce made of nuts and yoghurt) or dhal (anything made of lentils). And as for curry powder, curry as the name of a meal was invented by or for Western customers, who were overwhelmed by the variety of endless spices and combinations in Asian cuisines. It was however brought back to India, where you can find it at tourist restaurants now and then.

There are also dishes that were completely invented through British and Indians living together, such as mulligatawny soup (a spicy and very tasty soup with lots of fruits and vegetables in it) or kedgeree, an Anglo-Indian breakfast dish made of fish, rice, eggs, curry and butter, whose origins are not certainly known.

Photo: Christiane Warmbein
In Dharamsala, India, a sign advertises German bread.

But the exchange of cuisines did not come to an end with colonial times. Modern chefs, like Manju Malhi, an Indian cook in London, are on a mission to "indianise" British dishes, so that Indians will like them. Some creations include fish and chips with turmeric and chillies or Masala Shepherds Pie - find out more at Manju Malhi's website.

Other varied dishes that can be found in India quite often are the Masala Omelette (an omelette made with lots of vegetables and spices), Indian-flavoured burgers (yesterday I had a wonderful burger made of mushrooms, potatoes and lots of spices) and sandwiches (hot chickpea sandwich, anyone?).

Examples are endless, and I am nowhere near finished with tasting new dishes here. What thrills me the most is, that with some courage and openness to new ideas and variations, the well-known world of tastes of our food at home can be altered limitlessly and the best of cuisines can be combined.

As your appetite for something else might be awakened now, turn the page for some new recipes for culinary adventure!

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