What the Oldest Indian Restaurant in Kyiv Taught Me About Identity
Can you find belonging within the contents of your plate?
An edited version of this article was first published on 18th January 2019 in the Kyiv Post as a food review.
Stepping in through the doorway, you are sucked into a vacuum; all connection to the bustling street outside is severed as though with a blunt knife, and a blanketing warmth takes over where there was, seconds earlier, an air infused with chill. Walking past the vestibule, the warmth settles into a comfortable presence, and your bearings are distracted by the sheer character the room embodies.
The lighting is moderately bright, but is contained by the solid black walls that line the room. The dominant hue, however, that washes over you is a bright, unrestrained red: on wall panels, ceiling edges, curtain frills, seat covers, candles, tissue papers, table mats, decorative bobbles — it is what you imagine the inside of a Christmas present might look like. The sturdy red door decorated with festive, seasonal wreaths attests to this observation. This celebratory air is complemented, if surprisingly, by the modern Punjabi music that blares across the room and announces the defining identity of the premises you occupy.
You have just entered the famous Himalaya Restaurant, the oldest offerer of Indian cuisine in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
First founded in 1997 by the late Mr. Paresh Kanth, the family-owned Himalaya now occupies a prominent space in Kyiv’s ‘ethnic’ cuisine market. One amongst a handful of Indian restaurants in the city, Himalaya is revered for its pioneer status in the industry and its comfortably classic take on Sub-continental cuisine within a wide range of loyal customer base. While remaining a major attraction to Kyivian residents and visitors of South Asian origin alike, it also attracts a local and international audience. Equipped with a descriptive menu written in both Ukrainian and English, and with a friendly management of local origins, Himalaya opens its doors to a diverse clientele. In the time of culinary globalization and the ready acceptance of multiculturalism, it comes as no surprise that appreciation for Indian cuisine now finds mainstream appreciation the world over, Ukraine included.
It is conventionally accepted that culture and identity go hand in hand, and food plays a significant role in tying them together. Within settings that one does not originate from, it is increasingly common that ties to an origin — such as language, traditions, or food — act as independent representations of the place of origin itself. That is to say, the part represents the whole. Because of this, avenues like ‘ethnic’ restaurants play a part larger than just providing a different culinary experience. In addition to importing a culture to a foreign place, they also act as spaces of collective solidarity for those that share an identity, for example within a diaspora community. The walls of the Himalaya thus do not only contain a space of social cohesion, but also of comfort and security. Statues of Hindu gods and goddesses lining the wall are markers of a religious identity that many seek to share, while paintings of Indian landmarks, such as the Ganges river, ground the experience within a geographic origin of identity. For those who relate to these identifiers, the Himalaya is an extension of home. For others who seek the authenticity of an experience foreign to their own, the Himalaya is a refreshing break from a monotonous life. For others still that fall somewhere in the middle and share big and small bits of the culture, cuisine or identity — for many share their historical and culinary roots with India — the Himalaya is as much a comforting as it is a novel experience.
Within most cultures, the sharing of a meal is a means of social bonding. Here, too, food provides a medium of sharing common experiences and lived memories, and offers more than merely a blend a delicious spices. Today, “Indian cuisine” is a staple within any diverse food market, but the term generally encompasses a plethora of different cuisines originating within the Indian sub-continent. The menu at Himalaya boasts the same diversity that is associated with an overarching Indian cuisine, yet is also limited in its “Indianness.” Within it are a wide variety of North Indian dishes, such as tandoor cooked foods and yogurt based meat curries, as well as a variety of vegetables and daals that are synonymous with what is ubiquitously viewed as Indian food. Yet the menu also contains staples such as roti and naan, as well as deserts like gulab jamun and gajar ka halwa, that are widely held common with other cuisines within South Asia and beyond. Food, then, seems to both be an identifier of and a mediator between different cultures and identities.
The Himalaya is quite a literal representation of this phenomenon not only through its menu, but its ambience as well. Quite interesting to behold are the traditional Indian flower garlands that share a common wall space with western Christmas décor. The music, too, conveys a similar meaning; the lyrics of a latest Indian Punjabi song, popular within India’s regional neighbours as well, invoke images of a girl from Lahore (a city in Pakistan — one that, coincidentally, this writer belongs to), while the television screen lighting a corner of the restaurant replays images of Bollywood celebrities with global recognition.
The magnificent Himalayan mountain range that is eponym to the restaurant stretches across an impressive expanse of geography, enveloping five countries — Pakistan, China, India, Nepal and Bhutan — within its folds. Even within its origin, the Himalaya is not limited in its offerings, or whom it offers to. Literally meaning the Abode of Snow, the word Himalaya is enough to evoke sensations of a certain serenity associated with grandeur. While magnanimous in its design, this is a grandeur that can be domesticated through human ideas of nationhood and, by extension, the cultures and identities that emerge through them. As an Indian restaurant called Himalaya stands its ground within the bustling capital of an Eastern European country — one that itself is an abode of snow this time of the year — one wonders about what it means to belong. In an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Post about a decade earlier, Himalaya founder Paresh Kant famously claimed to be a “citizen of the world, and not one country.” Perhaps a similar concept may also be applied to food. If a person can find home within multiple places, a cuisine, too, can bestow a taste of belonging upon a range of people. A plate of makhni daal can anchor both an Indian-Kyivian local and a wandering Pakistani writer to home, and, if anything, it only testifies to the amount of power held within cuisine. Cultures and identities shift; food remains wonderful.