‘Dal Puri Diaspora’ – A Conversation with Richard Fung

Richard Fung’s “Dal Puri Diaspora."

This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Richard Fung’s award-winning culinary travelogue, “Dal Puri Diaspora.” Beginning in Trinidad, shifting to India and ending in Toronto, “Diaspora” explores food, migration and culture in its quest to identify how and when roti, that flatbread so famously known in Indian and Caribbean restaurants alike, made its way from South Asia to the islands of the Caribbean.

With Fung as our guide, the film criss-crosses space and time and brings together a remarkable set of interviews, historical facts and of course, delicious sights, to link together stories of colonialism, migration and the globalization of tastes.

What drew you to make a film about food, and more specifically, to make a film which uses food as a framework to discuss much larger ideas – of migration, race, culture, diaspora? What is it about food that makes it such a useful and rich lens through which to look?

RF: I’ve long been interested in food; I read cookbooks in bed. The global circulation of foodstuffs and recipes particularly fascinate me, but while I’ve made a lot of work referencing my native Trinidad and Tobago, I’d never made a film on food. I’d been to India on several occasions and was mystified by the fact that I never could locate the classic “Indian” dishes of the Caribbean kitchen. But after meeting someone from eastern Uttar Pradesh who described the dal puri back to me, I thought it was time to take on the project of retracing the recipe more seriously. Once I started on the journey I became increasingly aware of how richly rewarding it would be.

We all eat and it’s wonderful to think about how the food in our plate has a history: the ingredients were domesticated somewhere and some time, or if wild, found to be edible at a certain point; the preparations were also invented in a particular time and place and likely traveled and changed through a number of factors. What is great about the Caribbean roti is that I was able to trace the path of its development, at least back to a certain point; there is more to discover in terms of its life in the subcontinent.

What’s intriguing is that the West Indian roti is something that is intensely regional in India, only eaten at certain times and not commonly sold on the street. (In Kolkata dal puris are more commonly available than in Bihar). Yet in the southern Caribbean it became the most widely eaten “Indian” food, and in the Caribbean diaspora it has become the most commonly consumed West Indian or Caribbean dish. So not only has the dish changed, but its very identity.

What kind of sources did you use in this heavily researched film and why? While it does on one hand cover a kind of political and cultural history that we might find in textbooks, it also seems to rely quite a bit on first-person memories and experiences to build a broader picture of how roti made its way from India to the Caribbean.

RF: I am neither a food nor a South Asian scholar—nor a Caribbeanist, for that matter. I therefore relied on recommendations to begin my research. The starting point on the history of South Asian food was George Grierson’s 19th Century study, Bihar Peasant Life, and the writing of the late K.T. Achaya. I subsequently came across a comprehensive study of eating across the state by Bihari scholars in the 1970s, and oddities such as another 70s publication produced by a national association of bakers in India. I also consulted more contemporary writing such as Arjun Appadurai’s work on cookbooks and Chitrita Banerji’s more popular investigation into Indian food. But you’re right that for a lot of the film you’re learning as I learn, from food writers such as Pushpesh Pant and Naomi Duguid.

There are no scholarly books on Indo-Trinidadian cuisine and a lot of information resides in people’s heads, which is why interviews with people like Brinsley Samaroo are so important to the film. Peggy Mohan is particularly important as she is one of the few people who knows both cultures and cuisines intimately, having grown up in an Indo-Trinidadian family and having lived in New Delhi since the 1970s.

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You were born and raised in Trinidad, but have lived in Toronto for many years now. How did your own memories and understandings of Caribbean and Indian culinary and cultural histories match up against what you found through the making of the film?

RF: I grew up in a non-Indian household, so while I ate roti it was not in my mother’s repertoire. Various relatives made roti, however, and it was often brought in from roti shops or as gifts. While I was in Trinidad I had no idea that roti as I knew it would not be eaten in India; it was only when I went to the subcontinent that I discovered it was not known in that form. In the film, Vimla Bhorouth from Mauritius narrates a similar experience. It was only on making the film that I realized that the wrapped roti as widely served in North America is actually a Trinidadian innovation.

Tell us about some of the most delicious encounters you had while making this film. Did you discover anything unexpected about your own palette and taste?

RF: The big revelation for me was litti, the Bihari national food consisting of balls of roasted durum wheat flour stuffed with sattu, powdered roasted chickpeas. It is very heavy and can be taken into the fields by farmers, so it had been a mystery to me as to why this didn’t survive the journey to the Caribbean. But now I’ve realized that you can’t make a similar dish with white flour, which is all that was available in the colonies due to its better shelf life. An unmodified white flour litti would likely become too hard. I did discover that sattu survived as one of my favourite childhood snacks, chillibibi: ground roasted corn mixed with sugar. I don’t know anyone younger than, say, 45 who knows chillibibi, however, including Trinidadians of Indian descent.

Roti is a generic word for bread in the subcontinent and it was delicious joy trying all the different rotis in India, though it was the Sri Lankan rotis, similarly made with imported white flour, that seemed closest to the Caribbean varieties. There is even one sold in corner shops wrapped around curried potatoes into neat little packages. But the more rotis I eat, the more a roti is not a roti is not a roti. Some differences are quite small but still constitute a qualitative difference. For instance, as similar as they are, I don’t think you can pass off a rumali (handkerchief) roti to a West Indian as a local roti.

What are you working on now?

RF: Since this project I’ve become more interested in the spread of white flour quick breads through colonialism: rotis and their African-Caribberan equivalent bake (both roast and oxymoronically fried), as well as bannock, originally a Scottish recipe but now widely eaten in different forms by Indigenous peoples across North America.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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