FOREIGN RELATIONS: Will Canada’s PM Stephen Harper be able to handle the curry in India

Annandita Dutta Tamuly is watched by a crowd as she consumes Bhut Jolokia Chili Peppers for a television program in Guwahati in this file photo. The peppers are also known as ghost peppers. STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images


NEW DELHI — Does Prime Minister Stephen Harper like curry?

That is, a real, sinus-clearing Indian curry, not the somewhat bland impostor that is offered at many Indian restaurants in Canada — a country where many these days profess to love Indian food but few would be brave enough to munch on a blistering red or green chili.

The question about Harper’s dietary preferences arises because he is soon to begin his longest stay in a foreign country since becoming prime minister 6 1/2 years ago. The prime minister is to spend six days jetting around the sub-continent with five of his ministers and a gang of business leaders. The idea of the unusually long mission is to make plain that Canada desires much stronger and diverse economic ties with India, particularly in the energy sector.
The itinerary, as revealed by the Times of India last week, is to include the capital, Delhi; Agra and a mandatory visit to the Mughal emperors’ masterpiece, the Taj Mahal mauseleum; Chandigarh, capital of Punjab, where many of Canada’s large Sikh community come from; and the booming high-tech city of Bangalore in the south of the country.

The 18-meal Odyssey Harper is to embark on will give him a chance to savour three distinctive Indian cuisines, each of them flaming hot. Hence the question about whether the prime minister is ready to prove his manhood by eating the industrial voltage spreads that await him.

I must confess that despite many visits to the sub-continent, I have had great difficult meeting this harsh test. In common with many Canadians, I like Indian fare as it has been popularized in the West. That means menus often built around tame but tasty dishes such as tandoori and butter chicken.

But those who live in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan naturally take their curries a lot more seriously. Its ferocious kick not only permeates almost every local dish — which is, after all, to be expected in this part of the world — but forcefully infuses most western, Chinese and sushi food here, too.

I am forever asking Indian waiters and waitresses to go light on the curry. With a laugh they always politely reply that my request “will most certainly be heeded, sir.” However, no matter how often I ask, the food invariably arrives fierier than most curries served in Canada.

Given Hindu and Islamic religious rules and customs, it is understandable that there is no beef or pork offered at the 271 McDonald’s which have sprung up across India in recent years. But almost every one of the chicken and vegetarian dishes on the McDonald’s menu in India is a scorcher. The chicken made to look as if it is a benign Big Mac is perhaps the hottest of all.

I had similar experiences at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet which provides NATO troops at the Kandahar Airfield with a break from the grim monotony of the chow hall. The always genial Indian fellows working for KFC in Kandahar would never take any of the “original recipe” chicken out of the freezer unless I prompted them to do so. They claimed that of the thousands of westerners on the base I was the only one who did not want the “spicy chicken” or the ominously and accurately named “zinger.”

Indian desserts aren’t much better. Many are topped with curry. The only dessert choices offered the other night at the misleadingly named New York City Restaurant, whose centrepiece at every meal is a curry buffet, was a “five spice creme brulee” or a “spicy pumpkin pie.”

At a guest house in Pakistan whose entire clientele has long been entirely from North America, the chef always sprinkled curry powder on my fried eggs every morning. With an interpreter in tow one morning, I entered the kitchen to ask that my eggs arrive unadorned. The chef nodded his agreement and I thought that was that.

However, the very next day my eggs had once again been cooked in a pungent curry. Returning to the kitchen to complain, the chef greeted me with a genuinely puzzled look. He explained that he had done his best, but he knew “everyone wants at least a little curry on their food.”

With a little luck Prime Minister Harper and his entourage will not confront the notoriously incandescent Naga Bhut Jolokia chili when they criss-cross India. A red chili from northeastern India that few locals dare to tackle, the ghost pepper, as it is sometimes called, is reputed to be 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.


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