Book Review: Curry – A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors

August 8, 2009

curry-cooks1

Has this ever happened to you – a friend tells you that they don’t like curry.  BUT, they reassure you, they really want to like Indian food.  It’s just that – well – they don’t like curry.  So they enlist you to go out for Indian food with them to help navigate the menu.

I would love to help my friends who confide their curry woes to me, but I have no idea what this means.  Mainly because I don’t know what curry is.  Do you?


Curry could be Thai curry, Malaysian curry, Trinidadian curry, Balinese curry – or apparently Indian curry.  What is Indian curry though?  Is it a coconut based Goan curry?  Is it a reference to South Indian kootu, a lentil and vegetable dish?  Is it the creamy tomato-onion liquid of North Indian mattar paneer?  Chicken tikka?  Is it a reference to ubiquitous yellow curry powder?

When I heard about Curry – A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, I thought it might be my chance to finally understand “curry”.  Having now read the book, I couldn’t tell you in 15 words or less exactly what Indian curry is but I think that’s the point (or so I’m telling myself).

I did learn a lot of interesting facts about Indian food and how it’s been influenced over the years by the Moghul empire and then by various colonial conquerors ranging from the Portuguese to the English (this makes for impressive dinner conversation – if you dine with people who care about how the Portuguese invented vindaloo).  Here’s some of the more surprising things about Indian food that I discovered:

1. Chai, Indian spiced tea, is not authentically Indian.  Tea was introduced to India by the British but there was so much resistance to taking up the tea habit, that the British had to stage tea demonstrations in homes throughout India.  Of course, the British were horrified by the way Indians bastardized tea with loads of milk, cardamom and other spices.  If only they they knew about Starbuck’s chai tea latte and Oregan chai in a carton.  By the time tea was introduced, Arabs had already corned the hote beverage market in the South with coffee plantations (For me, this was an “Aha!” moment.  As in, aha, this is why Rajat’s North Indian family whips up chai daily while my South Indian family opts for coffee).

2. Tomatoes and potatoes aren’t indigenous to India and Indian food.  Forget potatoes – just think of all of the Indian dishes that use tomatoes (mattar paneer, aloo gobi, chicken tikka, vindaloo, sambar, rasam…).  I can’t imagine Indian food without them.  But according to Collingham’s book, it’s true. And given her lengthy, detailed bibliography at the back of the book, I’m very much inclined to believe her.

3. Collingsworth also traces the journey of Indian food to America.  Indian food in America was first served alongside what else but enchiladas?  The first Indian immigrants arrived from Punjab in California and joined the agricultural labor community which resulted in a number of Indian Mexican marriages.  Really, who knew?  I didn’t.  Which is perhaps why I found this book fascinating.

I had only a few criticisms of this book.  For starters, I get the sense that Collingham is much more of a sociologist-researcher-scholarly type than she is a lover of food.  The book mostly reads like a grad school dissertation (albeit the only grad school dissertation I could ever muster sufficient interest to read) than a foodie guide through Indian food.

I was also looking forward to the recipes that I saw scattered throughout the book.  I got the impression, however, that most of the recipes are more about their historical and scholarly value than actual usability.  I don’t see myself measuring out a six “chittacks” of lard to make vindaloo (for a number of reasons), and I am guessing that Collingham didn’t recipe test these herself.  So it’s not really meant to be a cookbook, but I will probably try to modernize at least a few of the recipes.

Finally, Collingham’s research seemed to taper off towards the very end (though who can blame her after tracing Indian food through centuries) when she cites Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake to describe the availability of Indian “foodstuffs” in America.  I’m pretty sure The Namesake is set a number of years ago, so it’s not telling of today’s availability.  She goes on to describe how Lahiri taught herself to cook Indian food and generalizes that most second generation Indians in America “have failed to acquire the knowledge of how to make many of the elaborate dishes their parents were used to from home.”  Umm, hello?!

Overall, I learned a lot about Indian food and its origins from this book and found it to be really interesting to read as it goes from one fascinating factoid to another.  And in the end, Collingsworth reaffirmed my thoughts on curry by noting that “curry” is a European concept brought to India and that no Indian would refer to her food as “curry.”

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lynne August 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm

I could so relate to your wondering about WHAT is a curry. I work with some lovely Indian nurses, and when one discovered I was going to a certain city for a few days she asked me if I could pick up some authentic Indian ingredients from one of the many specialty stores there. I thought this would be an easy task. I went into several and got baffled looks from the Indian staff there. The most common refrain was “is this from North India or South India because they use completely different ingredients, and also have different names for the same ingredients”. Due to all the confusion, and my being scared to buy the wrong thing, I wasn’t able to get the things she wanted. Sorry Radhika. I tried. I really did.

ND:That’s a pretty tall order – Indian grocery stores can be really hard to navigate even with a good list! Thanks for the comment.

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Vaishali August 9, 2009 at 12:06 am

That’s interesting stuff– I didn’t know about the tea demonstrations either. I did know about the tomatoes, and potatoes not being native to India and I agree with you– imagine Indian food without them! In fact, imagine any cuisine without tomatoes and potatoes (except maybe Chinese and Japanese?)

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Vaishali August 9, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Hey Nithya, it’s award-sharing time in the food blog world, and I have one that I’d like to pass on to you. Do pick it up! 🙂

ND: We tried to think of other cuisines, and I think you’re right – can’t think of anything other than Chinese and Japanese. Thanks also for the award! So sweet of you to think to include me. Looking forward to sharing the award!

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Shelly August 10, 2009 at 4:29 pm

I agree that the book peters out in the end, though overall it’s a great read that makes you say, hey i didn’t know that! Also based on what I see around me I think she’s right that Indians born and raised here don’t have the repertoire of Indian recipes that our parents have (especially the guys…). I think it’s natural to lose a little of that though when you’re exposed to so many different styles of cooking.

ND: Thanks for recommending this book to me. I agree with you – this book is loaded with lots of interesting “factoids” about Indian food that I had no idea about. And you’re right – while my style of Indian cooking is much more traditional than modern or fusion, I do end up modernizing techniques and flavors to accommodate our lifestyle. So some of my parent’s techniques that tend to be more time consuming are getting lost. I hate that it happens, but there are just somethings that I can’t make time to do!

Thanks for the comment!

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veggiebelly August 18, 2009 at 1:19 am

what a fantastic post! you make me want to buy this book! i love your summary of it! i know what you mean about the author being scholarly/researchy. but my guess is that she is a foodie but perhaps all that research over powers her love for food. im curious about the first indian immigrants..does it mention what time period they first came to the US?

ND: Thanks! So glad that you enjoyed it. I lent the book to my dad, so I don’t have it on hand to check but I think the wave it is talking about was around the early 1900’s.

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Nisha August 20, 2009 at 12:59 pm

I enjoyed reading your synopsis of the book … you are such an entertaining writer!

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Thinya August 27, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Please see the reviews on this book at Amazon.com, especially the last one which gave the book one star value:
http://www.amazon.com/Curry-Cooks-Conquerors-Lizzie-Collingham/product-reviews/0195320018/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt_sr_1?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar
I totally agree with this reviewer.

To be brief, “curry” is an age-old term native to India (the Tamil language to be accurate).
It got twisted and took a “cultural tour” when non-natives entered the land.

ND: Thanks for sharing the other reviews. Collingsworth does mention that the concept of “curry” is derived from the Tamil word “kari” and was spun into various interpretations of “curry” by non-native Indians.

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{kiss my spatula} September 5, 2009 at 3:35 pm

my life would not be complete with curry!

ND: Mine either 🙂

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Ajay October 24, 2009 at 5:54 pm

This book sounds interesting. Out of curiosity: where can one find Indian recipes which existed before the invasion of the tomato or the potato?

ND: Ajay, I’m not sure that I know of any 🙂 I’ll have to hunt around and see what I can come up with.

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a. November 6, 2009 at 3:16 am

the chili pepper as well is not “indigenous” to indian cuisine. peppers, along with tomatoes and potatoes, are “new world” foods (i.e. indigenous to the americas). the thing of it is, though, that this is true throughout history – cultures, and their food, language, music, “traditions” etc, are constantly changing/evolving/being influenced by new ideas/ingredients from elsewhere (or from being transplanted to a new place – e.g. indians in america). when seen through this lens there’s no point in saying what’s “authentic” because that itself is constantly changing. i mean, seriously, take southern italian food – even pasta is said to have been brought by marco polo from china. and tomatoes are from the americas – so what do they have left – nothing? no, i would just say that whatever they had before was, well, what they had before these two items allowed them to enrich and expand their cuisine! and same w/ indian. 🙂

(same with the potato and pretty much all of northern european cuisine, etc. 😉

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