Tracing the origins of dhal puri

By Jasminee Sahoye

The desire to find the origin of the Dhal puri, a delicacy made popular among West Indians especially in Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Guyana and now around the world, has resulted in the making of an 80-minute documentary Dhal Puri Diaspora.

The delicacy, which is made with dough from wheat flour, stuffed with ground split peas, was brought to the West Indies by Indian indentured labourers more than a century ago, and has become popular here in Toronto and further afield. Award-winning film maker, Richard Fung, a native of Trinidad and of Chinese ancestry, who lives in Toronto, travelled miles away to fulfil his desire to trace the origin of the dhal puri.

And even though the dhal puri is produced commercially in the West Indies and here in Toronto, the delicacy as we have come to know it, is not easily found in the country of originated, according to Fung’s research and documentary.

The film maker who grew up eating dhal puri, even though his parents never made it, travelled back to Trinidad and all the way to India to produce the documentary which will have its North American premiere at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival this Saturday at the Royal Cinema, fittingly in time for the Hindu celebration of Diwali.

The world premiere was at the Trinidad and Tobago International Film Festival last month and the film goes on to festivals in Dhaka and Madurai in December.

“When I was growing up because I grew up in the 60s; at that time roti shops weren’t as common as they are now… at that time either somebody would make it at home, like my cousins made it or you would buy it… My mother made curries but she didn’t know how to make roti,” Fung told the Camera.

He says the project started when he was a visiting professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia, the national Islamic university in New Delhi in 2009. “When I was there …I had been going to India a few times and nobody would know about this dish (dhal puri) … people would tell me some things, but I had a lot of false leads over the years.

“It was only after I started doing the research project that I realized there was this Bhojpuri culture and language that I had heard of in Trinidad and then I started researching that. I had been in Bihar in 1979, I didn’t see anything in the food there and then I realized later that no one in Bihar made dhal puri outside of a house. In fact I met a Surinamese scholar at the Indian Diaspora conference at the University of the West Indies last year and he does work in Bihar, speaks Bhojpuri and he said he didn’t think dhal puri exist in India because he had never seen it.

“I realized afterwards that it’s because he would have had to ask for it, he would have had to be in a house with a family and he would have had to be there at the right time, because it’s a festival food.”

Fung adds that the documentary mirrors his search. “I was just talking to a lot of people and finding out stuff, I had read a lot of books, I was trying to touch up on stuff and what I found in Trinidad is that a lot of people know the food, know names and things but in many ways some of that historical context was lost within families. People may not know where the food comes from or the stories around the food…,” Fung says.

His research was extensive and costly. He estimates the cost of producing the film to be $56,000. “It’s tiny that’s why it has somewhat of homemade feel…. I was shooting alone… I also hired a few people along the way.”

With financial assistance through a research fellowship from the Chalmers Arts Foundation, Fung said he had to quit his job for six months in order to qualify for the fellowship. He also received grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council.

Included in the documentary are the late Charles Roach, co-founder of Caribana, a historian in Trinidad, a Trinidadian who lived in India, a Trinidadian who has been living in India for several years; a cook book author in India; a University of Toronto professor and a woman in the south of India who made her version of the dhal puri.
Fund says he is dedicating the Toronto screening of the documentary to the late Charles Roach.

Fung is a former Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University and teaches video production among other areas at the Ontario College of Art and Design.
He received the McKnight Fellowship at Intermedia Arts Centre for Arts Criticism and Asian American Renaissance, Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1996. The same year he received the Bulloch Award for best Canadian work in the inside Out Film and Video Festival. In 2001 he won the Bell Canada Award for Lifetime Achievement in Video Art and the Toronto Arts Award for Media Arts.