Monday, June 15, 2009

Suriname food

Recently, I had my first taste of Suriname food, not in Suriname regrettably, but, as you might guess, in Amsterdam.

Suriname for those of you who didn't major in geography, is a small country in Northern South America. The majority of its population, around 37%, is of East Indian origin (Bihar and Eastern UP) and a majority of the Surinamese who migrated to Holland after Suriname became independent, are of this stock (more than 320,000 as of 2005). As a result Surinamese food, which is only second in popularity to Indonesian food in the Netherlands, is heavily influenced by Indian cuisine - in fact to a certain extent it is Indian food. The Surinamese are very well assimilated into Dutch society (unlike, for example, the Moroccans) and many players in the Dutch soccer team are proud of their Surinamese origins.

The most popular are the Roti platters. which are served with a couple of vegetables (say potato and string beans) and a meat dish, made somewhat in the Indian restaurant style of a fairly spicy and oily masala gravy. The roti is like the Indian one but the ones I had were more like the large and thin Roomali roti, made more like a paratha in oil rather than on a dry tawa. Suriname food has dishes also made of Cassava, owing their existence to the African origins of many Surinamese, but these are less popular than the Indian ones. The food is somewhat rough and ready, not in the nature of the more sophisticated Indonesian restaurants, but it's popular with the locals, the white Dutch as well as Africans, Indians and other ethnic minorities. Interestingly, they provide no cutlery and you are expected to eat with your fingers, scooping up the food with a piece of roti. Predictably, and unlike any European restaurant, there is a sink in the dining area to wash your hand and rinse your mouth.

I have met Surinamese earlier too, in the Netherlands, in buses and trams. They all speak a kind of formalised Hindi at home (learnt from their elders and from Hindi textbooks that are still imported from India and completely comprehensible -- not a pidgin variety). This is remarkable considering that they are all descendants of Indians from UP and Bihar dating from the late 19th century imported as contract labourers. (Some of this migration is described in Amitav Ghosh's recent book Sea of Poppies). In fact the Surinamese of Indian origin in Holland speak Dutch and Hindi as their main languages, and only the well educated speak English. Most of them have never been to India since they obviously have no contacts after almost 150 years. One of the tell-tale signs of their Bihari and generally Eastern Indian origins is something called Phulauri -- similar to the Indian Chatu. Chatu is a very heavy patty made from boiled and mashed yellow split pea, popular in Bihar and amongst the very poor in Eastern India (rickshaw pullers in Kolkata live mainly on chatu - it's cheap and gives then a burst of energy that they need for their back-breaking job). As far as I know, it doesn't exist anywhere outside that belt.

Overall, an interesting sociological and culinary experience. The world is indeed, to use a cliche, such a small place.

8 comments:

Anant said...

OLO: you say ``The majority of its population, around 37%, is of East Indian origin (Bihar and Eastern UP) and a...''. Correct me if I am wrong, but I also thought that there should be a fraction of Sindhi origin. But then you probably include that in west Indian/Pakistani origin. Pray educate us.

Rahul Basu said...

Stop nitpicking...this was not a post on the statistical distribution of various ethnic groups in Suriname but about the food...you can try and look at the Wikipedia article I linked to for more details about Sindhis in Suriname.

Anant said...

Many apologies. How could I be so daft as to miss the culinary focus of the post. In any case, next please do stop by for sattu-paratha at home.

Yhs.

AmOK said...

Thanks for the interesting and educational article, OLO. While having been forewarned about nitpicking -- I do not compute the following -- 37% is the majority of the population? When I last checked majority meant more than 50%. What is this missing-masses problem and can you please resolve without undue chiding. Precision is so hard to find these days!

Rahul Basu said...

Would 'largest ethnic group' satisfy your majesty?

AmOK said...

Thanks OLO. Largest ethnic group will do nicely. Precisely. It feels so nice to be among this learned lot! Good company is so hard to find these days....!

kola said...

I am Surinamese and I am only a quarter Indian. Your article while it is food related fails to mention the African influence on the suriname diet; Yam, Yampi, Cassava, Plantain. What up wit dat?

sam said...

ye kola i agree with u why do they writer left out the african descent the owners of the web always try to edit writers comment otherwise some comment may spark trouble .sam