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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Theodorou

Not all spices burn: a taste of India in Groningen

Updated: Jan 31

Spices Groningen © A.T.

The Indian restaurant 'Spices' is on the ground floor of a very unassuming building - typical Dutch architecture with brown bricks and unnecessarily large windows. Step inside though and it comes to life with yellow walls decorated with painted peacock feathers and graffitied Hindi writings.

“The peacock is India’s national animal” explains Anurupa, the co-owner. As for the writings, she says that some translate to ‘street food’, while others to ‘I love Delhi’. She and her husband Dinesh are both originally from the Indian capital.

The move to the Netherlands was motivated by Dinesh’s successful career as a professional chef. Anurupa describes with a tinge of pride that her husband is a talented cook who has mastered seven different regional and national cuisines, among them Korean and French.

Back home, he worked for the Indian Tourism Development Corporation, a position that allowed him to travel abroad to cook and to represent his country. It was an invitation in 2012 to teach Indian cooking in the Netherlands that changed his life. He's lived here ever since with his wife and children.

Anurupa managed a catering company before deciding to open the restaurant with her husband. But the world of cooking was not something that came from her natural inclinations.

“I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do. I first studied English literature, then I studied management and worked as a finance educator at a company. So I just knew I had to do something with business. What? I did not know.”

When she moved to the Netherlands to be with Dinesh, he was already a well-established chef. Cooking and business seemed to be a good combination for her. So, after taking a course for female entrepreneurs she started her catering business which was then integrated into the restaurant they opened together.

The idea was to introduce authentic Indian food to Groningen in a way that hadn’t been done before. Anurupa says her research showed that 80% of those surveyed had a poor understanding of what Indian food actually is.

“People had this perception of Indian food that it has to be very hot, that it is spicy, it's oily. But Indian food is so rich, so diverse, so healthy. It’s just never been done in the right way here. So we had a very new concept.”

This misconception turned out to be one of the biggest challenges.

“That's the reason we came up with the buffet restaurant. Those dishes, if you put them on a menu card, people will never order. But if you put them on the buffet they will at least try.”

What is more, Dinesh does not alter the recipes to cater to European clientele. He sticks to the traditional dishes as a principle.

“He started in one of the best five-star hotels in India” his wife explains. “He's a professional chef. He cannot change things because he feels he's representing India and he has a moral duty towards it.”

It’s clear that the restaurant is more than just business for the Borkar family; it's a way to leave a mark, earn respect, and ensure their cultural heritage is presented in the right light. And in many ways, they have succeeded. There's a scrap of newspaper displayed on a wall at the back of the restaurant which shows that her restaurant came second in a local ranking.

“You know, before us, the people who were running Indian restaurants here, they were not Indians. They have nothing to do with Indian culture. So for them, it was just a matter of earning money. But for us, it's more than that. We are introducing our culture in the right way and getting it the respect it deserves."

Family and Tradition

Running a family restaurant has other advantages too.

“When he worked elsewhere, all weekends he was gone. All evenings he was gone. He never saw the children and we didn't want them to grow up without seeing their father. So we started the restaurant and the children were always right with us.”

Their son is studying medicine, while the daughter is studying law and while both of them are good cooks, they were very clear from a young age that they would not be participating in the restaurant business.

Their parents were understanding, wanting them to have the freedom to choose their own career paths. What is important to them is that their children retain the moral values that the parents tried to instill in them; honesty, respect, hard work, and independence.

The Borkars also wanted their kids to be familiar with their religion and cultural practices. While there isn’t a place of worship for Hindus in Groningen, the family completes all their rituals at home, which aligns with their view that religion is a private matter.

Anurupa says she only talks about it when asked.

“We are not fanatics you know? It’s not like we have to do this or that because our religion is very flexible. Hinduism, we say, is not a religion, it's a philosophy.”

Having grown up in a multicultural city and in a home that exposed her to three different languages, English, Hindi, and Bengali, she learned to live among very different types of people of different faiths and traditions. Her husband too had a similar upbringing.

“We feel we can get along with every religion and every culture. We are adaptable. There are many who look for their own people, but we look for good people with good values and they can be from anywhere.”

So, for the Borkars moving abroad and into a totally different culture wasn’t all that challenging. Anurupa stresses the importance of attitude and recalls her husband giving her advice before she arrived in the Netherlands.

He said, “If you make yourself a foreigner, you will be a foreigner. If you mix with the locals, you will be one of them. So you decide what you want to be.”

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