They say that when you step outside your country, you are in fact an ambassador of your people to the world. This must be true, for why else, would they ask you for example, which are the best Indian restaurants in Lisbon? You are expected to know, whether intuitively, or through sniffing out to satiate home-sickness, the institutions and elements in a foreign city that incarnate the homeland when one is away. The problem with this little Indian however, is that he stoutly refuses to go to a.n.y. Indian restaurant in Lisbon. He will have none of it. The reason for this refusal to visit or patronize the Indian restaurants in Lisbon is quite an involved story.
To begin with, these ‘Indian’ restaurants in Lisbon are something of a play-on-words. Invariably run by Bangladeshis, or Pakistanis, they could more appropriately be called South-Asian, or sub-continental kitchens. To call them ‘Indian’ is to stretch political boundaries to unholy limits on the one hand, and to further encourage continental (European that is) fuzziness of the world outside of Europe on the other.To further complicate this mess is the fact that these ‘Indian’ restaurants serve up a strange mélange. They call it Indian, but the food served is really that strange version of Punjabi food, that perhaps even those in the Punjabs (on both sides of the Radcliffe line) do not consume on a daily basis. Within this state-of-affairs therefore, one would hardly go to an ‘Indian’ restaurant to relive the flavours of one’s home, or capture the blessed scents of one’s maternal kitchen. One would rather just cook up, or valiantly attempt at any rate, to concoct the ambrosian delights that mother manages to unfailing produce each day. If the process of cooking itself is therapeutic, then what could resolve the aching nostalgia for home, than to pound, grind and fry one’s pining away? Furthermore, there seems to be a curious pattern to the dishes that are served up in these restaurants. Order as many dishes as you like, the flavour of these dishes seem to vacillate between a restricted set of flavours; perhaps four to five. When one eats as a good amount of sub-continentals do, by mixing various foods together, reveling in the surprises that explode in one’s mouth, this lack of variety can be quite a buzz-kill.
There is one more reason why one would not like to go to a sub-continental kitchen when in Lisbon (or in any other part of the great ‘White’ world for that matter). Invariably, your companions summon the waiter and indicate that they would like their food spicy, ‘Extra spicy!!’ One gets the impression at these events that the point of the meal at the Indian restaurant is not to enjoy the varied and often delicate spicing that sub-continental food can provide, but to prove, through a trial by fire, just how ‘native’ these white folks really are. Not amusing. Not amusing at all!
If you do want to know where to get the nicest, Indian food in Lisbon however, you are in luck. The nicest, sweetest smelling dal is served up at the canteen of the Hindu temple in Telheiras. To go by, on a cold winter’s day, and plunge your fingers into the dal-chaval, and wolf down the accompanying veggies is to transport yourself in an instant, away from the world of the Atlantic, to a place only you know, realizing in that instant, the meaning of the term ‘comfort-food’.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 19 Feb 2012)