Indian Takeaway

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Indian Takeaway: A Very British Story by Hardeep Singh Kohli, book reviewI first became aware of Hardeep Singh Kohli though the Channel 4 television series ‘Meet the Magoons’ which was set in a Glaswegian curry house and starred a bunch of great British Asian comic actors. These included his brother Sanjeev Kohli (the writer of the equally fabulous radio 4 comedy ‘Fags, Mags and Bags’), the guy who plays the postman in East Enders and the father from The Kumars at No. 42. I thought the series was hilarious and I loved the weirdly eccentric turban-wearing kilted Kohli. Unfortunately it seems that only I, my husband and another three viewers who were probably Kohli relatives thought it was funny and the show was pulled after just one series. I never have been good at finding humour where others look for it.

Once found, Kohli was difficult to lose again. He popped up all over the place – though admittedly quite a lot on Radio 4 and usually doing documentaries on what it’s like to be a Glaswegian Sikh who really likes nice clothes. He is definitely one of the most instantly identifiable of characters – who else do you know who can carry off a bright pink turban, a snazzy designer jacket and a kilt? He looks like your favourite teddy bear fell into the dressing up box with his eyes closed and rolled out again looking very pleased with himself. And whilst I’m thinking about it, what IS the Kohli clan tartan? Identity crises and self doubt abound in a lot of his work but at heart, I can’t help thinking he’s just a media boy who happens to have a good excuse for wearing skirts (sorry, I mean kilts).

Indian Takeaway was one of a batch of books I bought between Christmas and New Year to assuage my thirst for all things Indian. It’s an account of a journey that Hardeep Singh Kohli took a few years ago, ostensibly to ‘find himself’ and to try to identify what it means to be a British Indian and yet be intrinsically neither British nor Indian. As he travels he learns rather more about his father and what it must have taken for the man he calls the ‘big fella’ to up sticks and move from a village in the Punjab to seek his fortune in Delhi and then move to London and Glasgow all to the UK in search of a better future with his wife and for his (at that time) unconceived children.

Every travel book needs an ‘angle’ and simply going in search of yourself in the country where more people are self-searching than any other just wouldn’t cut the mustard. Hardeep Singh Kohli decided to turn the tables on the concept of an Indian takeaway and go to India and cook British (or occasionally when he bottles it, Italian-ish French-ish) food. With a lot of help from his father and his father’s contacts in India he puts together an itinerary every bit as daft as the ones I create for my own holidays but with seemingly rather less knowledge of what he’s doing when it comes to organising travel. Next time Hardeep, give me a call and I’ll give you a hand with your train tickets.

Starting at what might be considered ‘the bottom end’ of India he bounces back and forth across the tip of India before heading north through Mumbai and Delhi and up to the most northern big city of Srinagar. Then he’s back to the ancestral town of his father and grandfather before heading back to the UK. It’s not clear how long all of this took but I’d guess not much more than a month. It reads as if there really should have been a camera crew hot on his heels recording his adventures – I’m sure it would have been a very funny show if there had been and I can’t help thinking that it probably would have been more funny and compelling on the screen than it is on the page. But in this case HSK is on his own and on the road (and rail and airways) although friends and family and friends of family and family of friends are scattered along the way to help him on his mission.

“Hardeep Singh Kohli does come across as a lovely, jolly, self-deprecating and rather modest chap.”

Some parts of the journey are hilarious and authentically inevitably Indian. He gets diarrhoea on the 29 hour train journey from Mumbai to Delhi, he waits hours to fill a shared taxi and ends up having to buy all 7 seats for the 8 hour drive that would have taken 30 minutes on a plane. He tries – and often fails – to feed bland English food to bemused locals who just don’t get what he’s trying to do. It is a reminder of the classic ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ sketch where the Indians go out for ‘an English’ to abuse the white waiter and compete to eat the blandest things on the menu. Occasionally he gets it right – feeding fried fish (the chips didn’t work – wrong type of potatoes) to fisherman in the middle of Dal Lake in Srinagar, and cranking out some fish cakes in a tiny cafe by the beach in tsunami-struck Mamallapuram – but more often than not the cooking mission is a bit of a waste of time. He doesn’t get his potato to meat ratio right on the shepherd’s pie, can’t make toad in the hole if there are no sausages and can’t stop himself from sticking coriander and chilli into everything he makes.

Hardeep Singh Kohli is clearly a bit of a whizz in the kitchen. I subsequently learned he did very well in Celebrity Master Chef a couple of years ago so I guess he learned a lot from his mother’s kitchen and from working in the Glasgow restaurant trade. Whilst I love to eat and love restaurants, I don’t generally enjoy reading about food and I hate novels that try to shoe-horn recipes into their text. I was initially really pleased that Hardeep Singh Kohli hadn’t given into the temptation to attempt a fusion of travelogue and cookery book to go along with his Glaswegian-Indian fusion theme but actually I found myself reading his descriptions so closely that I realised I would have liked a few more details. I hate to say it but I wanted the recipes. After roundly slagging off a book called The Hindi Bindi Club a few months ago for the sin of mixing recipes and fiction, I was almost eating my words (along with chopped chillies and a sprinkle of coriander of course).

Hardeep Singh Kohli does come across as a lovely, jolly, self-deprecating and rather modest chap. He makes perhaps too many references to his portly stature and his looks but on the whole he comes across as a turbaned teddy bear with whom you could have a good dinner, though probably one with rather a lot of pork in it. I never really got a sense for WHY he felt the need to go on his journey although the book was published in 2008 and I suspect the breakdown of his marriage the year before might have had something to do with feeling the need to hit the road but that’s really just speculation on my part fuelled in part by his emphasis on focusing on the land and time of his parents and only rare references to his wife and children.

Where his book perhaps falls short of what I’d hoped for is in the overwhelming sense I got that he just feels he has to try to be funny all the time. On radio and TV he exudes a natural humour that doesn’t seem to transfer well to the page. The puns in his chapter titles are excruciating although I did laugh out loud (in a smug insiderly way) at his joke about opening five cakes shops in Delhi and calling them Victoria’s Punj (punj is five in Hindi – Victoria’s Punj = Victoria Sponge). Sadly the chap he cracked the joke to (and probably most of his readers) didn’t get it.

I’ve been to more than half of the places he describes in the book and there was no mismatch for me between what he wrote and what I’ve seen myself so I tend to believe the account he gives of the other places that I haven’t visited. For me to describe Amritsar as a bit crap is one thing, but for a baptised turban-wearing Sikh to say the place is a “shit hole” takes a higher level of honesty than most writers are entirely willing to commit to. Whilst he is perhaps trying a bit too hard to get a laugh, he’s brutally honest about the highs and lows of his experience. The beautiful things are beautiful and the eyesores are not dressed up as anything more than eyesores. If you’ve never been to India, then what you’ll find within the covers of Indian Takeaway is a nice little taster of what to expect. It’s like the traditional thali – a metal tray with lots of small portions of different curries, chutneys, rice and even desserts. Indian Takeaway is just that – a bit of everything, some good, some bad but entirely authentic.

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Indian Takeaway
by Hardeep Singh Kohli

2 Comments on "Indian Takeaway"

  1. Thanks for highlighting this book – it is a new one for me. I do like travel essays though so I think I would enjoy this. I took a trip to India last year so I am sure I can relate to some of the scenes in the book!

  2. eilidhcatriona
    eilidhcatriona
    03/02/2011 at 15:28 Permalink

    This sounds enjoyable, I quite like Hardeep Singh Kohli, and Sanjeev Kohli who is brilliant in Still Game.

    As for the Kohli tartan…I think anyone can design their own tartan and have it officially registered alongside the ancient clan tartans, so maybe they do have a family tartan!

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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