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Verve People
April 20, 2020

Multi-Cultural Tastes

Text by Anandita Bhalerao

Swiss urbanologist Matias Echanove lived in four different cities before his research led him to settle down in Mumbai. He tells Verve about the culinary traits that make up his immigrant identity

“I like that you cast me as a foreign migrant rather than an expat!” Matias Echanove, the Swiss urbanologist writes to me, and it’s true that despite the official meanings of the two words being practically interchangeable, ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ have come to evoke starkly different images over the years. The former is sent to India on contracts by multinational companies, gets paid a hefty ‘hardship bonus’ for the move, (as Echanove points out), and is welcomed with open arms by Indians eager to impress with what the country has to offer. The latter’s precarious existence, by contrast, is often cast in derogatory terms but is romanticised as fodder for our film industry — from the starry-eyed longing for the big city to the eventual struggle to ‘make it’ once you’re here. It is this struggle that Echanove most relates to.

He is the co-founder of urbz, a 12-year-old Mumbai, Geneva and Bogota-based platform that promotes experimental research and collective action for urban development. He is also co-director of the Institute of Urbanology. With offices in Mumbai and Goa, it counts Brooklyn-based writer Amitav Ghosh among its advisors and veteran designer James Ferreira among its trustees. Echanove first came to Mumbai as a student doing post-graduate research in urban information systems at the University of Tokyo, where he had been studying incremental development. According to landscape architects Johanna Hoffman and Karl Kullmann, incremental development is ‘a framework that structures large-scale change through small-scale steps. By increasing the role of time in urban design, incremental development potentially improves urban diversity and spontaneity’.

“In my research, I started to compare the urban development of Tokyo and Mumbai,” says Echanove. “A large part of Tokyo was developed incrementally after the War, and really locally too. I was drawing a parallel with the way so many neighbourhoods in Mumbai have also been developed.” He came to Mumbai and began searching for people who were doing interesting work on the subject and met his co-founder Rahul Srivastava. “We had a really great discussion and decided to write to each other, then to write together, and then finally to work together,” he explains. “So actually, my interest in India developed through my interest in Mumbai. I was just fascinated with the city itself.”

When we begin talking about food, I sense that we have veered towards a subject the usually astute Echanove hasn’t given much thought to. For most people (myself included), food is one of the numerous quotidian realities that don’t merit great rumination save perhaps for the eternal question, “What’s for dinner?” But in the Indian diaspora, it has always been the subject of much discussion. On the popular Facebook meme-group Subtle Curry Traits, over half a million South Asians, mostly based in the United States, frequently come together to groan in frustration at the incorrectly anglicised phrases ‘chai tea’ and ‘naan bread’. Actor Padma Lakshmi was also recently accused of being tone-deaf for tweeting about the same in the midst of anti-CAA protests in India.

Food has always figured prominently in immigrant literature of the Global South. The characters in Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, frequently use their attachment to traditional dishes and culinary habits to negotiate their immigrant identities. In When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine, the young Indian-American narrator befriends the titular character through the meals he comes to share every night at their home. When her father tells her that Mr Pirzada is no longer considered Indian and hasn’t been since Partition in 1947, she finds it difficult to grasp:

It made no sense to me. Mr Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents, Mr Pirzada took off his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea.

If food habits and mannerisms are such an important component of identity for Indians in other parts of the world, why then, do we know so little about the food cultures of immigrants like Echanove within India? One apparent reason is that immigrants from Switzerland and other countries of the Global North are a minuscule minority in the country. But equally significantly, Indian identity overseas has often been shaped around reclaiming culinary traditions that were a source of much shame and derision at first. By contrast, for Europeans and North Americans in India, food, as with the rest of their cultures, has always evoked pride.

Indians who are familiar with these cultures wear their knowledge like a badge of honour. Finishing schools (themselves a testament to outdated colonial customs) boast of fine-dining and high-tea training sessions, where aspiring members of high society in the city learn how to navigate European food traditions and dining etiquette. So it follows that immigrants from these countries have never needed to compensate by asserting their identities particularly strongly.

Echanove’s interest in urban spaces gets me thinking about a plush supermarket in Mumbai that holds pride of place on a bustling main road in Bandra. Despite being a resident of the suburb, he prefers to buy his produce from the vegetable vendors dotting the streets rather than the ‘overpriced’ supermarket. Still, he agrees that it’s nice to pop in from time to time for a piece of Swiss cheese. This occasional craving for specific foods or ingredients would be familiar to anyone who has lived away from home. I think of the Asian supermarkets in Paris found in the relatively peripheral 13th and 10th districts. Their chaotic and casually messy interiors are as reminiscent of the home countries of the produce as the sparkly floors and immaculate rows of the supermarket in Bandra.

The first time Echanove tasted Indian food was as a student in London. Now, the father of two, divides his time between Mumbai and Geneva, savouring misal pav and Swiss cheese in equal measure.

Before you started your research on Mumbai as a student in Tokyo, did you have any previous connection to the city?
I actually knew almost nothing about Mumbai. It was more of a gut feeling that this would be a really interesting city. It was a fast-growing city, the economic capital of India, the city of migrants…. I knew these kinds of things. I also knew it as a city of extremes, with half of the population supposed to be living in slums. I was interested in that bit — what it meant, how people were managing, what the criticisms of this idea were. But not much more apart from that.

So, not even Indian food? I suppose for most people that’s the one connection they have; it’s either Bollywood or Indian food.
I knew a little bit about Indian food, of course. I would say I knew as much about Indian food as you do when you don’t live in India. My first real connection to Indian food was in London as a student. There, the cheapest food you could take home as a student was either Chinese or Indian. In fact most of the Indian restaurants were run by Bangladeshis or Pakistanis. But still, it was always good value for money — not the same quality of course, because it was kind of takeaway food, but still very comforting.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. I moved to London to do my Bachelor’s at LSE (London School of Economics), and later to New York, where I worked for four years and did a Master’s at Columbia University. Then I lived in Tokyo for four years, after which I moved to India.

When you were growing up, who prepared the food in your home? Were there any specific traditions or rituals you followed?
I was actually living in between my mother’s and father’s houses growing up. I would spend three months at my mother’s and then three months at my father’s. At my mother’s place it was mostly her who would cook. Her cooking was not necessarily the tastiest, but it was healthy. She’s Swiss, so she came from a culture where you cooked just enough so as to have no leftovers. And then I would spend the other three months at my father’s place, who’s Spanish. He and I would cook together, or we would take turns to cook. It was always the same — pasta or rice, with lots of onions and garlic and then meat or fish. His culture was always to make way more than we could ever eat. So I grew up between the two. You’d think that since this is Europe, they should be very close culturally, but actually there’s so much difference between the Spanish relationship with food and the Swiss relationship with food. It’s also connected with the sense of hospitality. With Spanish being a Latin culture, food is really the moment of socialisation and family, of welcoming and sharing. The Swiss culture of food is much more austere. You eat because you have to feed yourself, you eat things which are nourishing and you don’t waste food. It teaches you good values, but it’s different. It’s easier to relate to the more generous, plentiful and fun food culture of Spain, for sure.

So what was it like when you first moved to Mumbai? Were you living on your own and cooking for yourself?
I was living in a hostel, and I would just eat the food provided there. I had very little money because I was on a scholarship in Japan that was just enough to live in Japan, but I was using it to pay for the flight tickets as well as keep the rent in both Tokyo and Mumbai. But once in a while I would just go out and enjoy a dosa, or some sabzi.

And now, how does it work? Do you cook for yourself or do you have a cook?
When I was living with my family in Mumbai, we had someone at home who was helping with the kids. She was really an amazing cook, so I became very lazy with the cooking. But when I’m in Geneva I cook more often — I cook a few times in a week. I resisted having a cook in Mumbai for a long time because it’s not so common in Europe and I wasn’t used to it. But eventually I gave in and I’m enjoying it quite a lot now.

So now what kind of food do you eat at home? Is it mostly Indian?
It’s a mix of many different influences. My wife also comes from a Mediterranean culture of food — she’s Swiss with Moroccan origins. She’s a very good cook and enjoys cooking, whereas I get tired. I’m not the best or the most passionate cook, but it’s always a pleasure when you cook something and the kids like it. So tonight, I’m cooking chicken.

We cook pasta a lot because the kids really like it and it’s easy. My wife cooks Japanese food sometimes since she learnt to cook it while we were living in Japan. And of course I always enjoy the Indian food in Mumbai. I really like food from the Konkan in general, especially Goan fish curry.

Your kids are clearly growing up with different culinary influences than you did. Are their tastes different from your own?
For sure, they are 7 and 10 years old and were born and brought up in India. They moved to Geneva last year, but they really love Indian food. My daughter, for instance, craves dal and rice, and she loves her fish curry. My son’s favourite is pav bhaji. Each time I come to Geneva I bring back some food from Mumbai. So this time I brought sabudana (sago).

It’s always difficult to cook good Indian food in Geneva because you don’t find all the ingredients you need. But some basic stuff like sabudana — we love and keep on making. I have to say though, the one thing I miss the most when I’m not in Mumbai is all the street food. My favourite is misal pav (a spicy sprout gravy served with bread), and rasam (a typical South-Indian gravy) also. I’m just waiting for it to get a little bit cold and I’ll have some rasam. That’s the only thing that heals me.

Were there any food traditions or eating etiquette you had to familiarise yourself with when you moved to Mumbai?
To me, everything felt quite natural. Except maybe one thing I really had to learn was eating with my hands, which I was not used to. I was really bad at it at first, but now I find it quite enjoyable. So even at the office, we eat regular dal-rice and sabzi at lunch. Everybody brings their own dabbas that they share. I think that’s really nice, it was something that was new to me. I love having lots of different dishes on the table — it’s really different from the European culture of having mostly one dish per person. And I prefer it; you know, there’s different things and you take what you like. One of our colleagues, Bharat, always brings the spiciest food ever and I love it. I’m really into spicy food now. I miss that in Switzerland for sure. My kids are the same. They love chicken tandoori, and that’s spicy, but they just love it too much.

When you were in London, was it common for people around you to be vegetarians at the time?
I think people were becoming more and more aware, yeah. I was not raised vegetarian, but after moving to London, I was so disgusted with the industrial meat there that I stopped eating it altogether. It was kind of funny because when I moved to Mumbai, where you can get vegetables everywhere, I started eating more meat. I’m careful not to eat too much but I like the chicken and mutton here. I always liked fish, but especially when I was in Tokyo. One thing that is nice, and I’m speaking from experience at the office, is the ability to respect each other’s food traditions and still be around the same table. I feel it’s important to respect people’s beliefs, traditions and food habits. And I think that is something that Indian food allows. Since you put different types of dishes on the table, you can always choose and say, “Okay, I’ll just have the sabzi or the dal or the meat,” so you can always find something that suits you.

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