Bhang the Intoxicated

“Indian food is like tasting colour on your tongue!” Meet self-taught, Chef and owner of Bhang Brunswick, Dougal Colam.

Having dined in Bhang before, I’m not only looking forward to this story but also meeting the man behind the quirky exterior of the building in the heart of Melbourne’s north. Written in bold red and orange letters: “Come and enjoy Bhang” in bold Hindi alphabets covering the right side of the building, which is otherwise unseen in Melbourne. It translates to Lord Shiva’s drink of euphoria. One sip and your psychosis is already blurring fiction and reality.

The last time I saw or heard anything in Hindi in Australia like this was ten years ago in a night club in Brisbane, the DJ playing Mithun da’s Bollywood number “I am a disco dancer”. How ironic! I thought to myself when I first saw this in 2017 from tram 19. For Indians, Brunswick is to Melbourne what Southall is to London.

I’m greeted at the door by Colam, dressed in a black shirt and trousers, as striking as James Bond – but I find no guns blazing at me or a sharp tongue. On the contrary – Colam, a soft-spoken introvert with a witty sense of humour just likes to be at the forefront of his restaurant, soaking up the cacophony of life.

Before Colam’s Bhang, the building was a funeral parlour. A smirk passes his lips when he jokes, “The saree lady moves from the corner of my eyes.”
Colam, originally from the UK, had an unconventional childhood. His father moved from Edinburgh to Manchester, where the family lived for six years, then to Devon for two years before finally migrating to Australia in 1973 when he was 14.

Colam, now 61, tells me that his grandfather was in the British Army in India during the British Raj. The stories of India always fascinated him, as well as the many failed, awful curries that the family used to try cooking.

Smirking, Colam tells me without any shame that the British have their own idea of what Indian food is. His first experience of Indian food is probably like everybody in the UK – not great. But in the years since, the curries have gotten better and going out to dinner with the family is always Indian now. And why won’t it be, as the national cuisine of the UK is now ‘Indian’? At least this time the British Raj got it right, I thought.

Paying his own way through college, he worked in restaurants washing dishes as a kitchenhand and doing odd jobs as he prepared for his future in the restaurant business.
Colam first travelled to India ten years ago on holiday and was completely blown away by the food – every twenty metres, the food changed with the language. All these things he’d never seen back in Australia told him there’s so much to learn about Indian food – and he pondered his second venture.

To him, the noise of the kitchen is the heartbeat and its food is like the people, representing culture and migration. His favourite cuisines are South East Asian and South Indian. Because of his love for travel and food, Tom Phat in Brunswick was born with his ex-wife and business partner Sway Quach in 2006.

The ingredients are the same, but the way they are used is a different blend. Colam expresses admiration for the similar approach of late chef Floyd Cardoz of Bombay Canteen (who died recently from the COVID-19 coronavirus).

Colam’s dream of opening an Indian restaurant took a back seat for his priority as a father to his daughter. But, the longing for India – and his thirst for experiencing the food and being with the people – took him back to India for a second time. This time he wanted to do things differently, taking a bike and riding south to Kerala. He survived the trucks, his face sodden with diesel.

Most people would be quite animated telling me this, but I see such sincerity in his voice and his eyes that I actually find myself on the road with him – just like the travelogues featuring Scottish actor Billy Connolly, whom Colam fondly remembers whilst narrating this.
I close my eyes and I can almost smell the dust of the highway while standing in Galji Baga, a small village in Goa. Colam’s voice fades into the background – I see him happy in his two-month stay in India. He is getting invited to local weddings. His world from his window in Galji Baga is very different every morning, from a pig being slaughtered by the butcher to food packets being prepared. He pays $7 a night and shares his room with an Austrian, but he is not bothered whom he shares his room with; to him, the local people matter more than anything else.

As Colam’s voice grows louder in the background, saying he just brought a lot of daggy cookbooks with traditional recipes, I wipe off the dust off my eyes and back to reality in 2020, sitting in Bhang: once a dream and now a reality, born in 2017.

A strange feeling engulfs me, as if I know him from somewhere. I say to Colam that it’s as if I know him from somewhere. I’d recently read a book by Anuradha Roy, “All the Lives We Never Lived”, in which the author wrote about a German painter, Walter Spice, who travelled through Indonesia and India for inspiration for his paintings. It seemed to me as if I was chasing food through nostalgia, but it was nostalgia chasing me.

I have to ask him how he came up with the name “Bhang”. It wasn’t until the third trip to India. Bhang was born just because Colam likes the letters B and H – and you can just scream “BHANG!” as loud as you can and it will still be “Bhang” to your ears. This way or that away, either way it will still be “Bhang”.

But it’s more than the sound. When he first opened its doors, truck drivers would stop by droves. They came into the restaurant and looked around; he would politely tell them, “Before you ask, we don’t have any.”

Their response was unique: “I am going to turn the government on you – you are authorised but not selling it.” I can’t stop laughing.

Colam has brought his India, and his memories of the UK, alive in Brunswick. He surrounds himself with chefs who believe in ayurvedic cooking. The 80-seat restaurant was fully booked pre-COVID on any normal Fridays and Saturdays – as of this article, a massive chunk of their business is takeaways due to restrictions.

As I look around the restaurant walls, adorned with old Bollywood posters and family photos purchased from Hauz Khas village in Delhi, I look back at the man who took me on my own journey to the dust of Rajasthan, to Calicut’s fish in green mango, to Mumbai’s parsi food, to Goa’s Galji Baga cuisine, to Kerala and through to Cochin’s deep blue sea.

As I end my interview by asking him about the secret ingredient in his Bhang, he simply tells me, “Cooking for somebody is a pretty intimate thing, as they are going to put this through their body, ingesting it. If you cook with love, people will taste it.”

As he stands posing for this article with two plates of delicious lamb shank rogan josh and tharavu duck (which sadly I never got to taste), the aroma lifting my endorphins, I can’t help thinking of his journey, surrendering himself to the realms of India and his love for food.

Rumi comes to my mind at this point: “You are not a lover. A lover’s food is the love of bread, not the bread. No one who really loves, loves existence.”

By Nandita Chakraborty


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