Monday, May 15, 2017

Curry: The Flavor of Mystique, Part I of III

Years ago, before I started Un-Curry, my Indian catering company and cooking school in California, I spent over a year exploring a subject that first intrigued me and then, as I researched, became close to my heart. I had hoped to publish my findings in Gastronomica, a quarterly journal of food and culture brought out by Berkeley. But, for reasons there is no point in getting into, though the then-editor liked my piece, it was not published there. 

After hoping for years to find it another home, I have finally decided that The Shared Table is that place. I have a new book out this week, appropriately titled Shared Tables: Family Stories and Recipes from Poona to LA (Speaking Tiger Books, 2017) and in honor of its release, I share with you Curry: The Flavor of Mystique. It is a long story so I offer it in three parts. 

Think of it as appetizer, main course, and dessert over the next three weeks. Recipes finish out the offering. I hope you will try them at home and share your thoughts.

Bon Appetit.


Curry: The Flavor of Mystique

Two of my most prized possessions reside in my dining room. One, sitting in pride of place on my cookbook shelf, is a 1784 edition of Glasse’s Cookery. The other, standing in a sunny spot near the window, is my curry leaf tree. 

I received the book in the spring of 2004, just one of a generous baker’s dozen of cookbooks gifted by my dear friends, Beth and Jerry Bentley, scholars and rare book collectors. Another dear friend, Rachel Mathew shares my Indian heritage and planted the curry tree for me, knowing that I like having the fresh, glossy deep green leaves on hand to cook with.

Shot of curry leaves by Sanjiv Bajaj

I have no green thumb but I do like to cook. Living in Southern California, I nurture and cherish my curry plant because it is my connection to home, a little taste of India. Whenever the mood strikes, I can stretch an arm out and pluck a branch. Instantly, the distinctive aroma fills the air and scents my fingers – pungent, sharp and tangy – conjuring up visions of Indian kitchen gardens, of aromatic leafy branches piled high at the corner vegetable stall, of favorite childhood dishes flavored with their pungent zest: my mother’s pumpkin raita seasoned with green chilies, mustard seed and curry leaves. The astringent curry leaf chutney powder I ate on summer vacations in Poona, my hometown. The chili- and curry leaf-flavored ‘Chicken 65’ that was a specialty of the city of Hyderabad where I spent my college years. 

Recently I discovered a connection between my curry tree and Glasse’s Cookery. The curry plant may have given birth to the infamous word ‘curry’ which has come to symbolize all of South Asia’s rich culinary traditions in its two wee syllables. And Hannah Glasse’s cookery book contains what is considered the first-ever recorded recipe for ‘curry’ in the English language.

I have lived in the USA for two decades. Often the first comment people make when they learn I am Indian is, “Oh, we love curry.” This always flummoxes me. I am at a loss for an appropriate response. Do they mean that they like Indian food or a specific dish or a certain kind of spice powder? Should I be smiling my gratification at what might be a compliment to my country’s “cuisine”? And should or shouldn’t I dive into long-winded explanations about the word and the misnomer that it is? 

I’m weary of being identified with curry, of people assuming that Indian food is curry. I want to assert that there is no such thing, that no magical ‘curry powder’ makes food taste ‘Indian’. To do so there are, of course, two questions I must answer: first, what is curry, and second, what is curry powder? The confusion over curry is a product of understandable ignorance and avoidable semantic generalization. When people use the word ‘curry’ they often mean to represent the food of India. But while it may, today, be the worldwide symbol that represents Indian cooking or flavor, it is also pure generalization (as are many other misconceptions about South Asia) in such a historically, ethnically, religiously and culturally varied region. Given the diversity and complexity of the cuisines of the subcontinent, hardly anything can be defined so distinctly or as simplistically as ‘curry’. 

Yet it has become as synonymous with Indian cooking like stir-fry is with Chinese or pasta with Italian. Such broad generic terms understandably serve the purpose of categorization in, or simplification of, a ‘foreign’ cuisine. However, they can soon become stereotypes, misnomers that undermine the very diversity of that culture. Take ‘stir-fry’, for instance. The term willy-nilly clumps together hundreds of distinct dishes for which regional Chinese dialects have individual, evocative, even spiritual names. 

And what about pasta? It can be argued that until fairly recently (perhaps till the advent of the Food Network, which has brought world cuisine into American living rooms and kitchens), it was generally assumed that all the Italians ate was ‘pasta’ and that one pasta tasted pretty much like another. Of course, we’ve since been educated. Today we know that there are hundreds of different kinds of paste; fresh, dried, long, short, stuffed, coated, baked, boiled, each produced differently, each with its own character, seasonality, cooking method, accompaniments, seasonings, and context. People are also more aware that Italian cuisine extends far beyond pasta.

Yet the definition of curry has not altered much from this description in the 1896 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, published in the heyday of British colonial rule in India: curry is a “name applied to a great variety of seasoned dishes.” Apparently by then, the word was already being used expansively and loosely to describe an entire cuisine and the trend has continued. However, if you asked for ‘curry’ in India, you would be met with blank stares. To one of Indian extraction, the word, sans qualifier or adjective, may mean nothing. You might, at a pinch, say chicken curry or fish curry – almost always a dish with sauce – but not simply curry. 

Cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey has lived in the USA for over four decades and was one of the first writers to introduce Americans to authentic Indian home cooking. In An Invitation To Indian Cooking, she writes, “Curry is just a vague, inaccurate word, which the world has picked up from the British, who, in turn, got it mistakenly from us… In America it can mean either Indian food or curry powder.” She finds the word as “degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term ‘chop suey’ was to China’s.”

The 1896 Britannica goes on to list the ingredients used in curries, citing every possible herb, spice, base and flavoring agent (albeit mostly indigenous ones) used in culinary preparations in regions ranging from Rajasthan to Assam and from Kashmir to Kerala. “In India the following are employed as ingredients in curries: – anise, coriander, cumin, mustard, and poppy seeds; allspice, almonds, asafetida, butter or ghee, cardamoms, chillies, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa-nut and cocoa-nut milk and oil, cream and curds, fenugreek, the tender unripe fruit of Buchanania lancifolia, cheroonjie nuts (the produce of another species, B. latifolia), garlic and onions, ginger, lime juice, vinegar, the leaves of Bergera Koenigii (the curry-leaf tree), mace, mangoes, nutmeg, pepper, saffron, salt, tamarinds, and turmeric.” This list also encompasses virtually all kinds of savory Indian preparations in its breadth and groups them under that inaccurate but easy label, ‘Curry’. 


Nearly 300 years earlier had come the “earliest apparent mention” in print of curry in the English language, writes renowned British food historian, Alan Davidson.

 It appeared “in a translation (1598) of a traveller’s [Jan Huygen van Linschoten] account of voyages in the E. and W. Indies.” In Linschoten’s renowned travelogue, the Itinerario, he documents the Indian subcontinent: its peoples, mores, flora, fauna, and foods. In Chapter 48, titled “Of the Fishes and other beastes in the Seas of India”, he describes a specific dish, defining its ingredients and flavors and calling it curry: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, that they seeth in broth which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sowre, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well and is called carriil, which is their daily meat, the rice is instead of bread…” This accurately describes certain sauced fish dishes of Goa, the region where Linschoten lived for five years.

Though numerous similar references to, and an occasional recipe for, curry have been noted in Portuguese, Dutch, English and French texts from at least the 16th century, it was not until the British colonization of India that dishes called ‘curry’ became popular in the Occident and the word curry entered the English lexicon, along with other culinary words of Indian origin like mulligatawny, kedgeree, tiffin, punch, congee, and toddy. Early British travelers to India were taken with its food and ate it adventurously. “… From the time the very first seventeenth-century [British] traders sat down with Moghul princes to dine off delicately spiced meats and saffron rice, the story of India’s influence on the British diet has been vast, colourful and fascinating.”

We may never discover the context and character of the “curries” early travelers to India ate. What Linschoten relished in Goa was most certainly not what officers of the East India Company devoured in Calcutta. However, Hobson-Jobson, a 19th century lexicon of Anglo-Indian words or phrases, offers an explanation of the role of a curry in an Indian meal. “The proper office of curry in native diet” was as a relish for the staple, which consisted of rice or bread. Curry “consists of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric; and a little of this gives flavor to a large mess of rice… It should be added that kari was, among the people of South India, the name of only one form of ‘kitchen’ for rice, viz. that in consistency resembling broth… Europeans have applied it to all the savoury concoctions of analogous spicy character eaten with rice. These may be divided into three classes – viz. (1), that just noticed; (2), that in the form of a stew of meat, fish or vegetables; (3), that called by Europeans ‘dry curry.’ These form the successive courses of a Hindu meal in S. India, and have in the vernaculars several discriminating names.”

Hannah Glasse’s compatriot, dressmaker Eliza Fay wrote in her Original Letters from India, that colonials were frequently served curry and rice as part of sumptuous lunches in Calcutta in the late 18th century. “We dine too at two o’clock,” she writes, “in the very heat of the day… I will give you our bill of fare... A soup, a roast fowl, curry and rice, a mutton pie, a fore quarter of lamb, a rice pudding, tarts, very good cheese, fresh churned butter, fine bread, excellent Madeira…”

As early as 1747, Glasse had, rather authoritatively, included a single curry recipe, ‘To Make a Currey the Indian Way’, in her Glasse’s Cookery. While the curry spices she lists are few and indigenous to India: turmeric, black pepper and dried ginger, her addition of a pint of cream and the juice of two lemons sounds more Western. Her recipe was only for chicken and contained a limited number of specific seasoning ingredients, certainly none of the notorious ‘curry powder’, which became common at a date not long after the book’s publication. “By 1773, curry had become the specialty of at least one London coffee house”and from 1780 onward, “curry powder blends were on sale [in England]”.

 Just a century after the publication of Glasse’s Cookery, the Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, written for British ex-pats and offering familiar English recipes as well as exotic ‘Oriental’ ones, offers over 40 “different methods of preparing curry.” In 1817, Dr. William Kitchener’s The Cook’s Oracle included a recipe for curry powder that became the English standard for years to come. In her famous cookbook, Beeton’s Book of Household Management, author Isabella Beeton offered curry recipes for beef, veal, fowl, rabbit, cod and mutton that utilized the esteemed Dr. Kitchiner’s method. Clearly, Indian cuisine was fashionable in contemporary England and influenced local tastes and cooking styles. Breton’s book includes recipes for dishes that use newly available Indian ingredients like coconut, mustard seed and other spices, as well as recipes for Indian dishes like mulligatawny soup, kegeree, Indian mustard, Indian/India pickle (“very superior”) or Pickalilly, and an Indian chutney sauce. Queen Victoria was such a fan that she “employed two Indian cooks whose sole duty was to prepare the curry that was served at lunch each day…”

But the other interesting fact concerning Beeton’s curry recipes is that they appear to be a means of using up leftover or cold meat, and perhaps of disguising their staleness with aromatic spices. They bear no similarity to Indian methods of cooking – indeed the only ‘Oriental’ element is the addition of curry powder – and they display a disturbing uniformity, all using cooked meats, stock and flour and butter based sauces, with an occasional peculiar ingredient like mushroom powder or rice! As Davidson expresses it, “What had been an Indian sauce to go with rice has become an English stew with a little rice in it.”

And something had been lost in translation, or at least in transit, from colony to seat of empire. 

To be continued ... 

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