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Beyond butter chicken: Capturing the evolution of Indian food in Melbourne

Sonia Sarangi, with some of her photographs from Desivolution.
Sonia Sarangi, with some of her photographs from Desivolution.

ABC: Suzannah Lyons

When Sonia Sarangi wanted to explore how the identity of the Indian migrant community in Melbourne was changing, food was the obvious prism through which to do so.

The architect and "closet photographer" says it's our emotional connection with food which makes it such an inclusive thing to look at, both for people with an intimate knowledge of a culture and outsiders.

"Food is pretty primal and it taps into this whole vein of nostalgia. I mean food is shaped by our family, and festivals we've seen as children."

"You can sit at a restaurant and have a yummy taste of something like a dosa," she says. "And... you feel like you can glimpse a way of life a thousand miles away from your own."

Chiaroscuro. Supplied: Sonia Sarangi

The result was Desivolution, a photography exhibition that looked at what Sonia terms the 'Next Wave' of Indian restaurants in Melbourne, establishments showing a side of Indian food culture different to the weekly takeout spots Australians may be more used to.

"I want people to know that no, culture is not a static thing, it changes, and so that was the point behind the exhibition," Sonia says.

Discus. Supplied: Sonia Sarangi

The 'desi' in the title is a more relaxed way of referring to an ethnically Indian person, and one she would love to see in more mainstream Australian usage.

Sonia photographed seven businesses for the exhibition. She found them both through her own contacts, and by asking each of her subjects if they knew of other establishments that were doing something different in Indian cuisine.

Sonia is in awe of how every day these people are being cultural ambassadors for Indian food, and are taking on local influences.

"Each one of these establishments has not found its feet without help from people outside the community," she says.

"I think it's beautiful that each one of those have sharpened and moulded their ideas in conversation or in development with other Aussies."

Sonia is also impressed with how they're very enthusiastically embracing Australian produce.

"Tonka does amazing things with local ingredients that actually do not even exist in India," she says. "Overdosa, they've got stuffings in their dosas that I have never seen in India."

Sonia says Melbourne has taught Indian restaurants that food doesn't always have to be a formal affair.

"Even street food can be serious food," she says. "Everything doesn't have to be tablecloths on a table to be taken seriously."

The Gift.
The Gift. Supplied: Sonia Sarangi

Melburnians' interest in being healthy or following a vegan diet is also encouraging the Indian community to share their everyday food, rather than just their party dishes.

"A lot of Indian food is already vegan and quite light and quite seasonal, so we're going 'Oh, we don't always need to crack out the butter chicken when people arrive'."

Silk-Steam. Supplied: Sonia Sarangi

"There's actually no one Indian cuisine, there's many. And it's very seasonal and it's very regional so sharing all that variety is I think one of the evolutions in Melbourne," says Sonia.

"Melburnians are so well-travelled, and I think over the years the community has realised that they really want to know other cultures in depth."

Sonia says that all the businesses she spoke to talked about the ease with which they've been able to introduce a different Indian food concept to Melbourne, which belied her initial expectations.

"I was quite worried for the longevity of some of these spots and going 'Well I better shine a light on them before they disappear'," she says.

"And well here I am humbled to see that no, they're not going to disappear."

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Desivolution explores the evolution of Indian culture in Melbourne. Supplied: Sonia Sarangi & Michael Smith

Desivolution was part of Mapping Melbourne 2016, an annual celebration of our Asian Australian identity.

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