Why Ramneek Singh is on a butter chicken odyssey

· The Pulse

Ramneek Singh may feel differently about butter chicken than some do.

"I'm gonna be honest, I thought it was trash, I thought it was very bland," Singh, a food reviewer who publishes thoughts on Facebook and Instagram, told Taproot about his first bites of the dish.

Singh has embarked on what he describes as a year-long Butter Chicken Odyssey. It's a project meant to allow him to connect to the dish by trying it at roughly 50 different Edmonton restaurants. But it's also a way, Singh said, for him to interrogate his treatment as a Punjabi "other" and its culinary and cultural implications.

At the core is butter chicken itself. "Over time, I realized that it kind of placated and catered to Western clientele — or people that were just brought up here (as) East Indian that couldn't tolerate the spice because they never developed that tolerance," Singh said.

So, how and why does one decide to go on a butter chicken odyssey?

The idea, Singh said, comes four years after he had a mind-blowing version of the dish at the now-closed Curry Vibes on Jasper Avenue. Ordering opened his eyes. "The owner asked me: 'Do you want me to make it spicy?'" Singh recalls. "I was dumbfounded that that was an option. At that point, I knew that butter chicken was our dish. Our genes are wired for (spice); our taste buds are wired for this."

So far this year, from the Strathcona to Kameyosek neighbourhoods, and beyond, Singh's odyssey has seen him try 13 of Edmonton's butter chicken offerings. He has offered each a score out of five. The scores range from zero for Namaste India to 4.7 for Pakwan Indian Cuisine. A forthcoming review for Masala Tree in Hays Ridge is the first to include a perfect five, Singh said. Each review comes with an Indian or Pakistani song pairing, and a long, detailed caption.

Along the way, he's had delightful bites and disappointments alike. From chicken that "tastes like rubber," "store-bought" gravy, and gastrointestinal distress, Singh said he suffers for his art for good reasons. "I'm fiercely and unapologetically Punjabi," he said. "Other bloggers that don't have my background can go to a restaurant and tell you about the food, but they can't tell you about the music that's playing. They can't tell you about the music videos. They can't tell you about the language that's spoken, or possibly even the deities that are on display. I can do that."

The odyssey will also see Singh appear in the (slightly fictionalized) Mill Woods episode of the forthcoming documentary series Eating Edmonton, funded by STORYHIVE. The show focuses on the variety of Edmonton's cuisine, how food defines different neighbourhoods, and the experience of its creators as first-generation Asian Canadians (an experience Singh said he shares). The series is hosted by Salvador Garcia (a.k.a. Fat Sal), Jessica Truong (a.k.a. Tan's Daughter), and Cynthia Lo (a.k.a. Food Critter).

"I play a character that hates butter chicken," Singh said.

A person smiles while holding up a dish of butter chicken.

Ramneek Singh, 38, didn't enjoy butter chicken until he was 34. Now, he's on a year-long "Butter Chicken Odyssey" where he'll try around 50 different Edmonton restaurants' version of the dish. (Heather Hutchinson)

Singh said he's had conversations with white people who bring up butter chicken almost instantly. This causes him to feel othered. He's drawing on that negative experience to create a new, positive one, he said.

"It's my refusal to get marginalized and just embrace the dish that's most popular from India, understand it a bit more — get intimate with it," he said. "So the next time someone does bring it up … I can just have a comfortable conversation rather than just being disgusted by the microaggression."

Singh prefers his butter chicken authentic, but his quest isn't about finding the most authentic dish possible. He recounted an exchange with the owner of Tiffin India's Fresh Kitchen about why Tiffin uses chicken breast rather than the traditional thigh meat. Answer: because it just sells better. (Singh scored the dish 4.25.)

"I understand the need to cater to the Western clientele. But the option for the authentic version, the version that Indian people would appreciate, it should still be there," Singh said. "You don't want to take friends that are unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, and then the next day they get diarrhea. The options should be there as to what you want your spice level to be."

Singh isn't shy to talk about bodily functions in his reviews. He's far from afraid to go negative, either, and that sometimes leads to backlash. He dissed Filipino chain Jollibee four years ago, vastly underestimating its fiercely loyal fan base. (Jollibee is to fast food what Taylor Swift is to pop music.)

"I started getting death threats over that (post)," Singh said. "I was in Calgary for a horror convention … Somebody messaged me and said 'I know where you are in Calgary.' Because I never gave those details on my page, that threw me off."

But what does Singh think about consequences for the businesses he might slam on his pages? Does he feel a responsibility not to endanger restaurateurs' livelihoods? The short answer is no.

"What I share is only my opinion. I personally don't think I'm damaging a business," he said. "Obviously, I'm not on par with someone like Roger Ebert. But even if Roger Ebert goes to the movies — and he hated Blue Velvet, he hated Reservoir Dogs — that didn't prevent me from watching those movies."

Singh has taken heat from commenters online for the butter chicken odyssey as well. It's mostly due to a dispute about the dish's origin. A contentious lawsuit is underway in its country of origin between two families with ties to Moti Mahal in New Delhi, the restaurant widely accepted as the inventor of the dish. Fittingly, Singh will cap off the year with a family trip to the restaurant as an epic way to conclude his odyssey.

"I just think it would be the ultimate finale to have butter chicken from the original spot, and it would be so funny if what I had there, I find terrible," Singh said.