An exploration of culture, experimenting in the kitchen, and the comfort of the quotidian bread.
“There’s nothing quite like it. English white bread, Flora butter, and our homemade chutney podi,” says Rahul Balaji, who moved to the UK back in 2020, to pursue his Masters.
Indians in the UK adapt and create unique dishes of their own, using the quintessential sliced white bread and condiments brought from home.
While the ubiquitous bread serves as a canvas for culinary experiments, the masalas, pickles, and savouries provide some much-needed solace and spice.
Chutney podi, for example, is a staple seasoning condiment from Karnataka. Podi (pronounced “poh-dee“), translates to ‘powder’ in at least four South Indian languages.
These seasoning condiments scattered across the country, are made from local ingredients, and guarded through carefully handed-down ancestral recipes.
Podi acts as the foundation of most South Indian dishes, sometimes freshly grounded right before cooking, and other times made in bulk that is used over many months.
Rahul’s chutney podi, for example, is traditionally eaten with dosas (South Indian-style savoury crêpes) or mixed with rice. It is made using a combination of lentils, red chillies, coconut, and unrefined cane sugar, and is hence spicy and nutty, with notes of sweetness – all flavours that also complement a slice of buttered bread.
“Chutney podi toast has gotten me through a lot, especially when I was working on my dissertation. Like my mum puts it, if you’re lazy, don’t want to cook, or just want something that tastes like home, make chutney podi toast.”
Charukeshi Ramesh recently discovered manga thokku – cheese toast. Manga thokku is a type of South Indian pickle made from grated raw mangoes and freshly ground spices.
“When I first moved to London, my uncle dropped in to check up on me. He casually mentioned that I can make a quick vegetarian ‘desi’ breakfast by adding pickle to buttered toast which will give it a tangy, spicier taste as compared to the regular toast. I started adding cheese to it as well,” explains Charukeshi.
Mansi Sharma from Delhi, swears by her bread bhujiya. “I don’t even remember the first time I made it, I just inherited it from my family. Some of my best memories is just sitting with my family after a huge event or function, having tea and enjoying bread bhujiya,” Mansi recalls fondly.
Bhujiya is a deep-fried savoury snack made from a mixture of flour and classic Indian spices including chilli powder, cloves, coriander seeds, dried ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon.
A slice of Morrison’s wholemeal bread is toasted on a pan with a healthy dollop of salted butter, followed by a healthier sprinkling of bhujiya. An additional step, back in India, would be to add some malai for a creamier texture.
“I eat it everyday. Bhujiya is one thing I need in my mornings, that is how I start my morning,” says Mansi.
Miette Dsouza, on the other hand, has her toast dipped in chai – a classic combination across the country, so much so that we have a band named after the popular combination, When Chai Met Toast.
“When I would go down to India, I would be living at my grandparents’ house. My grandad would go down and get fresh kadak pav [brun bread], carefully wrapped in newspaper and string. He will toast it on the tawa [pan], cut it open, and apply butter on it,” Miette explains.
“So the outside would be quite hard, and the inside would be really soft and warm with the butter. I just remember listening to the various sounds of India, people honking on the street, as I ate that piece of bread, dipping it in my tea or coffee.”
Kadak pav or brun bread is a round-shaped bun, particularly crusty on the outside, and very soft and spongy on the inside. In the UK, however, Miette buys sliced brown bread from the nearest supermarket, toasts it, and dips it in her chai, meticulously brewed using dried tea leaves brought from home.
Speaking of this interplay between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and what lies at the heart of fusion food, Ananya Sridhar, an assistant psychologist with the NHS, says: “We’ve managed to create such a complex, beautiful feeling like nostalgia for something that’s considered a basic survival necessity – food, which is not unlike the way other mammals use their long term memory to remember where their last source of nutrition came from.”
We use a few ingredients that reminds us of home and a few that is typically ‘foreign’ to create something so unique, so personal, so very much our own, through harmless experimentation and making-the-best-of-what-we-have.
Curating these experiences and recipes have made me somewhat of a cook myself. As I crave for a snack in between words, I slip two slices of Tesco’s sourdough bread into the toaster, and stare at the many bottles of condiments on my kitchen shelf.
I pick up karuveppelai podi – a curry leaf powder, traditionally mixed with rice. I add a layer of yoghurt to the toast, in memory of my dairy-loving brother, sprinkle some of the karuveppelai podi that Amma made and packed for me, and call it ‘pesto toast’, as an ode to Appa, who always finds creative ways of making and seeing things.
Featured Image by Janani Venkateswaran