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.”