When tapas tap your wallet dry

Why change a winning recipe? There is no set recipe for a traditional thali but they are delicious and provide 
a filling meal that can be shared with friends and family. Photos: Russ Rohde/AFP

Why change a winning recipe? There is no set recipe for a traditional thali but they are delicious and provide 
a filling meal that can be shared with friends and family. Photos: Russ Rohde/AFP

On a recent trip to Cape Town, a friend and fellow food lover called to invite me to explore a newish Indian restaurant in town.

Acknowledging its unofficial tagline of “Indian tapas” (Cape Town-speak for European-friendly), we ventured into chef Liam Tomlin’s latest Asian restaurant endeavour in the suburb of Gardens: Thali.

A total of R650 ventured out of my bank balance and out of my life for good that night, leaving me with nothing but hands still sticky from Thali’s “condensed milk-infused” class appropriation of what is otherwise an ancient, humble Vedic eating tradition.

At a time when conversations about cultural appropriation are becoming more robust, more nuanced and (potentially) legally consequential — and as creative industries are more swiftly and publicly being dragged out by their ahistorical, synthetic feathers — it is necessary to talk about working-class exploitation.

There is no single thali

Although the exact history of thali is difficult to trace with certainty (autonomous records get fuzzy pre-colonialism), there is certainly a lot more to thali than the metal tray and small curry-filled katoris (bowls) we typically associate it with. We know this because there are traditions and philosophies attached to the Indian thali.

The earliest appearance of thali in Hindu scripture locates it in the Vedic period (circa 1500 to 1100 BCE) around the region of Punjab in north-west India. This timestamp connects thali’s individual servings of colourful foods — ranging from sweet to spicy — to the philosophies of Ayurveda.

(If we were into claiming unverified cultural primacy, we might say that the ancient Indians invented portion control and smoothie bowls, but we don’t need to go around Columbising like that.

Besides, the Ethiopians have likely been enjoying their beyaynetu platters for as long as, or longer than, the Indians.)

Historically, there have been thalis for all occasions and hierarchies — with warrior castes, for example, eating more meat-rich thalis than the vegetarian Brahmin caste.

Today, this style of eating is practised across class and region and caste legacies —with thali trays being made of materials ranging from free banana leaves to ornate copper and gold.

There is no single thali recipe, either. Rather, they are microcosms of the food that is seasonal and local to its region.

Anyone who has attempted a solo thali would also know that, delicious as they are, thalis are tremendously filling. Today, they make for great sharing and splitting of costs: a low-cost food fiesta.

But when that cost is four times the price of Indian-made versions, and that food that sits awkwardly contextless between fusion and confusion, who is the fool? The customer who buys into a poorly executed, exorbitantly priced pretence of a new cultural experience, or the chef who can self-fund the illusion of cultural literacy and the gentrification of present people’s cultures without being held accountable? Perhaps we are all fools.

There’s fusion and confusion

Thali does the decor thing decently enough, although one is never quite sure where exactly in the whole subcontinent of India the place is inspired by.

The unfortunate habit of restaurants that claim to be fusing elements and appreciating cultures not their own is to collapse all design and cultural nuances into one big dress-up party. “Indian chic”. “Eastern mirage”. “Rustic Raj”. Orientalism is a potent hit to the imagination, and we’re all buying dinner and the show.

Whether or not the fusion part of the restaurant was intended to extend to the ergonomics of its furniture, Thali — the restaurant — misses the mark on both the ethos and context of the Indian eating custom after which it is named.

For one, the bar table-height seating is immediately at odds with the earthly connection that eating from actual thalis traditionally involves. As an Ayurvedic method of eating mindfully, the closer one is to the ground, the better.

Design-wise, the bar stools and too-small tables are painfully awkward. They seem better matched to a grab-and-go snack bar than to a seven-course dinner.

Second, and most critically for a restaurant, the food is really not something to shout about. Celebrated though he may be as one of South Africa’s top chefs, Tomlin’s take on Indian food falls awfully close to Nando’s Mediterranean on taste. Never have I felt more like my mother in asking for more salt and fresh chilli.

Would I feel differently if ... ?

Like, if its curries were less like flavour toppings and truer to their taste-rich origins? Or if its sweet serving of burfee was actually an Indian sweet and not condensed milk enrobed in coconut?

Or if Thali did not charge more than R100 for the starter of papad snacks that customarily come for free?

I probably would be a little happier, but no less annoyed at myself for paying towards a trend of serving traditionally working-class food like gobi masala (cauliflower masala) in brass bowls and elevating their prices without even getting the taste on par first.

If Thali is going for a high-end version of Indian cuisine — a representation of ancient royal thalis that celebrated Indian fine-foods chef Gaggan Anand might approve of —this is not made clear.

It would not be the first restaurant in Cape Town to strip other cultures of their narratives in an effort to “elevate”, “gourmet-fy” or “reinterpret” a cuisine that is somehow not gourmet enough in its own form or price-range.

What is baffling and astounding is the persistence with which restaurants like these take liberties in fusing exoticised cultures, while enforcing strict codes of study where classicised food cultures — such as French and Italian cuisines — are concerned.

Is it inconceivable to afford the same reverence to Indian chefs as we do to French ones?

Legitimacy matters when culture is up for sale. Respect for ingredients, composition and provenance matters when a previously erased, ridiculed and devalued culture is now turning a trendy profit.

The request is simple: get it right and give credit where it is due.

And — for the love of all our grandmothers’ labours of love throughout the ages — coconutty condensed milk balls do not a burfee make. 

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