It’s said that music is the universal language. This probably is true as far as it goes—like other languages, it is a way to communicate ideas and emotions using sounds and symbols.

But nothing breaks down barriers like sharing food. We may invite a friendly neighbour over for a simple lunch, or connect with friends and family over an elaborate dinner. Our diets may share a “vocabulary” of foods that are common or traditional to our own cultures, or we may explore other cultures by learning how people prepare and enjoy meals.

The Western world is becoming more and more enchanted with the spicy flavours of India, and it’s easy to see why. There is a seemingly endless variety of culinary styles matching the many different cultures, regions, social and economic influences, and food traditions found throughout the Subcontinent.

My own ethnicity, other than to say I’m Canadian, is English. This might bring to mind roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or a massive fried breakfast. But it’s said that if Great Britain had a national dish it would be chicken tikka masala—bite-size pieces of boneless chicken served in a creamy, spicy gravy.

Tikka masala may have its roots in India, but you would be hard-pressed to find it there. It is thought to have been invented in Britain in the past 50 years or so, created by an Indian or Pakistani chef.

If you are not used to curries or other Indian food, there’s no need to fear the word “spicy.” I remember the host at the Taj Mahal restaurant in Saskatoon explaining to a table of adventurous (but nervous) first-time diners that “all the food is spicy. It has to be spicy, that’s the whole point of it. But it doesn’t have to be hot.”

There are many spices in an Indian kitchen, and they all come together in beautiful and exciting combinations. Some dishes are hotter than others, but even with those it’s a simple matter of reducing or omitting the hot chillies or chilli powder.

I am learning to prepare some Indian dishes myself, and every time I cook I learn more about India’s many regional, religious, and philosophical food traditions. In a society like ours, built on immigration, it’s always a lazy temptation to reduce a culture to the easily-available popular foods. But just as there’s more to Italy than the neighbourhood pizzeria, there’s much more to India than a local curry stand.

It remains true though, that good food opens doors. It also opens minds.  

Congratulations to the Lakeland Multicultural Association for all their work bringing a sampling of Indian dishes to Cold Lake and St. Paul for Diwali. And congratulations as well for their ongoing work opening doors among the many cultures represented in our region. This is a great way to get to know one another.

I think we overstate the comparison between the US as a “melting pot” and Canada as a “mosaic.” We can all enjoy our own traditions as we learn from others, whether they be music, art, language, fashion, or food. The many distinct cultures in Canada all have an influence on the others, and they all come together to bring  variety and spice to our lives.

Nothing warms a cold night like a delicious curry. JEFF GAYE