josh rosner


In Book Review on November 23, 2011 at 4:54 am

I recently reviewed Tanveer Ahmed’s memoir, The Exotic Rissole, for the Canberra Times. Ahmed has written a great Australian book; in many way quintessentially Australian. It is also the story if an immigrant made good. Ahmed is a medical doctor and part-time comedian and actor. While debate continues to rage in Australia about policies towards refugees, Ahmed’s personal journey highlights for all Australians, regardless of how we came to our citizenship, that those who come to Australia from other lands, in the hope of finding a better home and a safer life, can make a significant contribution to Australia.

THE EXOTIC RISSOLE. By Tanveer Ahmed. NewSouth Publishing. 197pp. $32.95

  The humble rissole is as quintessentially Australian as the meat pie and footy. No weekend barbecue is complete without it. It would be like cricket, without the stumps. Or Todd Woodbridge, without Mark Woodforde. It’s simple, entirely without pretence, and delicious.

And yet, have you ever thought about the origins of the rissole? We may like to claim it as our own – as does New Zealand – but in fact it is a French word, probably originally Latin. In Europe the rissole is most often eaten as a small, pastry-enclosed croquette filled with minced meat or fish that is deep-fried.

The thing about the rissole – or at least, the Australian version of the rissole – is that creating the perfect, tasty one is a task far harder than its simple ingredients would lead you to believe. The rissole is actually a particularly delicate mix of mince, breadcrumbs and egg, each added with precise measurements. Too much of one, more of the other is needed. Keep getting it wrong and very quickly you don’t have a rissole of an appropriate dimension and texture.

The rissole reminds me of Australia. It’s that delicate balance of cultures and identities all mixed together. When the balance is right, Australia is a great country. But much like the process of making rissoles, occasionally the mix is wrong and it crumbles into an inedible heap.

Tanveer Ahmed came to Australia with his parents from Bangladesh as a five-year-old child. Initially, “everyone looked taller and whiter” and the roads were “wide and clean and dominated by the sounds of cars whooshing past” and his father cut his hair once a month, refusing to pay to have it done.

But before long Ahmed was skimming stones across a creek, giving his best mate Lynchy ‘horse bites’ and devouring rissoles; even if his mother loaded them with chilli and turmeric paste.

The Exotic Rissole is an immigrant’s story. Tanveer Ahmed was an excellent student who by hard work and talent won a scholarship to the exclusive Sydney Grammar school, becomes a psychiatrist, married and had two daughters. His may be an immigrant’s story, but it is also an Australian story.

The Exotic Rissole is packed full of wisdom and a great many laugh-right-out-loud moments. Recounting his first foray into the world of stand-up comedy, Ahmed writes, “Waiting backstage, I almost wet myself. I’d already been to the toilet three times in the last twenty minutes. In one hand I was holding a water bottle and in the other I was gripping a scrunched sheet of A4 paper filled with my jokes. I tried slow, deep breathing to control my shaking. I had heard stand-up comedy being described as a kind of skydiving for the soul. I was terrified that my parachute wouldn’t open.”

Tanveer Ahmed is not one for smelling the roses. Whether it’s stand-up comedy, seeking fame as an actor, studying to be a     psychiatrist or writing journalism – and now, publishing a memoir – Ahmed’s life can, at times, seem manic. Whether the immigrant experience came to influence his personality and world-view is less easy to discern from these pages, but one thing is clear from reading The Exotic Rissole: Ahmed is a skilled storyteller who offers many valuable insights into the human experience.

As we once again discuss refugee policy in Australia, The Exotic Rissole is a timely reminder that many immigrants make a valuable contribution to our nation. Perhaps I have a very simple view of what it means to be Australian, but to my mind, Tanveer Ahmed is as Australian as they come. And he loves rissoles.

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