Sydney’s Little India is a bustling streetscape of Indian restaurants, groceries and sweet shops. Amid the 20-odd Indian restaurants and food stalls in the area, there are a handful specialising in hard-to-find varieties of Indian food that cater to in-the-know locals and venturesome food travellers.

Momozz, a busy restaurant on Wigram Street, cooks up Indian-Chinese food, which traces its origins back to Hakka Chinese traders who settled in the city of Kolkata in the late 1700s, when it was the capital of the British empire in India. At that time, Chinese immigrants were largely silk traders, cobblers, tanners and carpenters. Communities of Chinese people sprang up throughout the area, especially in Tiretta Bazaar and Tangra, the two Chinatowns in Kolkata.

Most Indians found the Chinese food bland, so the migrants created an “amped up” version of Chinese food by adding chilli, garlic and thick gravies that give the dishes the consistency of Indian curries. This adapted cuisine was a hit with locals and instigated what continues to be India’s most successful food fad, spreading from Kolkata to Mumbai and all over India.

Michael, the owner of Momozz, serves Manchurian Chicken, a dish of red gravy with heavy notes of ginger, chillies and garlic. His chow mein is a stir-fry of Hakka noodles with capsicum, carrot, shallots and soy sauce. And his butter chicken dumplings are as delicious as they sound.

The traditions of Indian-Chinese food spread around the world as members of India’s Chinese community moved abroad. Dragon House, a restaurant in Parramatta, was started by a Hakka Chinese family who migrated to Australia from India. The owner, Francis Li, worked in a Chinese restaurant in Mumbai before moving to Sydney, where he serves the kind of spicy Chinese food you get in Chinese restaurants in India, including dishes such as chop suey, triple Szechuan and hot and sour soup. “Our Chinese food is modified to make it more suited to the Indian palate, because we use ginger, garlic, chilli and some other Indian spices,” said Francis’ partner, Mary. It’s not like the kind of mild spice you find in upscale fusion restaurants, but an authentic sweat releasing heat you only find in a traditional home-cooked meal.

Li says most Dragon House customers are people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Fiji and Sri Lanka who are looking for the Chinese-Indian cuisine they remember from back home. But the food is also popular among Australian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese people who are keen to try something new. “They think it’s really tasty and nice, it’s different from the normal Chinese restaurants.”

Indian food, like the people themselves, is endlessly adaptive. Curry, which is thought to have originated thousands of years ago, has since evolved into a truly global food, having travelled the world through trade, colonisation and immigration. Today, curry is everywhere, from chicken tikka masala in the United Kingdom to fiery green curry in Thailand, katsu curry in Japan and bunny chow in South Africa.

For a long time, Indian food in Australia tended to be North Indian cuisine. ‘People who have never been to India or know very little of India will only know north-western or Punjabi food. It’s always some vegetable or protein floating in brown or orange or red sauce,’ says Padma Lakshmi, the cookbook author and television personality who appeared in the Netflix food documentary series Ugly Delicious.

The Punjabi community were among the earliest Indian immigrants to Australia. The large influx influenced Australian understanding of Indian food and their thick tomato or dairy curries with bread dominated the menus of Indian restaurants. Indian food was often made bland for local palates, with a handful of dishes becoming ubiquitous. For most Australians, ‘Indian food’ meant butter chicken and chicken tikka masala – even though butter chicken is a modern dish first made in Delhi in the 1950s and tikka masala was invented in Britain.

In recent decades, Australians have come to appreciate more of the variety in Indian cuisine, which consists of many different regional traditions influenced by the diversity in soil, climate, culture and religion, and employs locally available spices, herbs and vegetables. And Indian restaurants in Australia today are less focused on offering a homogenised derivative of the northern Indian cuisines and more likely to be presenting authentic flavours.

Dosa Hut was one of the pioneers of traditional South Indian food culture in Australia. It was started by two telecommunications students at the Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, Praveen Indukuri and Anil Kumar Karpurapu. “We had to travel 60 kilometres for a half-decent dosa when we first came here, and we decided to change that,” says Anil. Their South Indian cuisine encompasses flavours from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka and features regional ingredients such as coconut, lentils, tamarind, plantain and ginger. The first Dosa Hut opened in Footscray in 2007 and has grown to dozens of stores across Australia, serving over seven million customers annually.

Some of the largest Indian chain restaurants have started to open outlets in Australia to serve the growing diaspora. Saravanaa Bhavan is a vegetarian restaurant originally from Chennai which now operates 120 outlets across 28 countries. It opened its first store in Australia in Parramatta in 2014. Company spokesperson Shekar Mani said Australia wasn’t initially on their list. “It took us a while to come,” Mani said, noting that they had waited to see the Indian population grow in Australia before they established a presence.

Saravanaa Bhavan isn’t like the traditional Australian suburban Indian restaurants catering to Western tastes. It seeks to serve the Indian diaspora who want unadulterated South Indian flavours. Its goal is to take “our Indian customers back to the village, to their hometown”. We chose Parramatta because of the “steadily increasing Indian population”, said Mani. “Within Sydney, we plan to open a few more stores because the response here has been so big.”

Indian street food has also gained popularity in Australia. Newer Indian restaurants, such as Delhi Streets in Melbourne, are serving chaats, including bhel puri (puffed rice with assorted lentils and chutney) and pani puri (a ball-shaped crispy shell filled with a mixture of tamarind chutney, potato, onion or chickpea). Unlike traditional restaurant-style dishes that tend to be gravy-based and homogenous, chaat is colourful, multi-textured and contains many flavours in a single bite.

Rashmi Sharma, owner of Let’s Chaat Food in Canberra, says Australians are embracing the Indian street food she remembers from her childhood. “Being a pure vegetarian, I couldn’t see anything I wanted in Canberra. I wanted to go back to my Indian roots and the authentic taste I had been missing.”

The flourishing food culture in Australia is a living allegory for the nation’s diverse and evolving society. Indian restaurants have recently been recognised among Australia’s best dining experiences. Five Indian restaurants – three from Melbourne and two from Sydney – featured in the Australian Good Food Guide (AGFG) Chef Hat Awards in 2022. These include Melbourne’s Tonka, Atta and Ish restaurants and Sydney’s Urban Tadka and Manjit’s Wharf. These leading restaurants are popular across the community for combining modern interpretations with traditional favourites. The mingling of ingredients and techniques from around the globe mirrors the blending of people, stories and traditions that has come to define the modern Australian identity. Amid this rich and dynamic melting pot, food emerges as a universal language, a bridge that connects communities and nourishes the nation’s common identity.

Excerpted with permission from Australia’s Pivot to India, Andrew Charlton, Black Inc.