Friday, June 2, 2017

Curry: The Flavor of Mystique, Part II of III

In colonial India, the British had by and large eaten food prepared for them by local cooks, who not only served up elaborate Indian meals but also were quick studies when it came to learning English recipes. Though the arrival of more and more British wives to the colonies in the 19th century had seen the focus revert to familiar English style foods in their homes, a “number of hybrid dishes [were being] conjured up between the English lady of the house and her Indian cook … [dishes] like Windsor soup, Patna rice, a broth of doll (daal), Burden stew, cabobs, fish moley, curry chutney, and the renowned Byculla soufflé.”

Curry and rice continued to be common eatings too, so much so that a popular humorous book of the era was titled Curry and Rice on Forty Plates or the Ingredients of Social Life at "Our Station" in India and the term ‘curry and rice days’ signified the nineteenth century itself in British colonial lingo.

It has been widely suggested by food writers and colonial historians that it was when the nabobs returned to England and became nostalgic for Indian cooking, that a one-bottle spice blend like ‘curry powder’ became their quick fix. In An Invitation to Indian Cooking, Jaffrey imagines a droll scenario in which an Indian khansama (cook) saw a business opportunity when his Sahib (master / boss) praised his garam masala and wanted to take it back to England. The cook threw together a box of whatever spices he happened to have on hand. When the improvised blend became popular across the black water, his fortune was made and ‘curry’ was born! 

More realistically, some spice blends – probably adapted by the British from garam masala and other regional Indian masalas – came to be called, for the sake of convenience, an Anglicized name, curry powder (powder used to flavor curries). This was convenient to use and imparted an ‘exotic’ and a superficially ‘Indian’ flavor to food. In time, the British began to use curry powder indiscriminately, with all kinds of ingredients: lentils, meats and vegetables. It was a bit of instant gratification. As Gernot Katzer, chemist and creator of the Everything About Herbs and Spices website, puts it, “Curry powder is a British invention to imitate the flavor of Indian cooking with minimal effort.”

According to author David Burton, “Of all legacies of the Raj, none is more firmly or more happily rooted in British popular culture than curried food… [but] … curry powder has badly misrepresented Indian cookery to the rest of the world. To a people whose cuisine is centred upon freshly grinding and mixing different spices in varying proportions for each individual dish, the idea that a single ready-made spice mixture can be added to fish, chicken, eggs or whatever to produce real Indian ‘curry’ is preposterous, to say the least.”


So perhaps I should not have been surprised in 1998 to read in the news that ‘curry’ had overtaken fish and chips as Great Britain’s most popular food, that it could indeed be considered the UK’s national dish.

 Britons even celebrate a National Curry Day on November 10.  Ironic, isn’t it? It is not, however, “only the British who [historically] use curry powder. In France powder de curry is obtainable, and in Denmark with its long tradition of trade with the Orient, there has for long been a ‘karry’ powder available (but a relatively milder version).”

 In the late 1990s, there were reports in the Indian media that the Japanese were trying to patent ‘curry’.

 Naturally, there were protests from various Indian quarters. Imagine Indians trying to patent sushi! The truth is, however, that the name of some long-forgotten dish originally from India has evolved into a largely global idea of foods inspired by its culture. Perhaps by the very token of this metamorphosis, this lack of clear-cut national identity, it’s okay for the British and the Japanese to have their own curry and patent it too. After all, their version would be unrecognizable as anything Indian. Curry, a term “adopted into the British language from India, has changed its meaning in migrating and now become ubiquitous as a menu word. It now denotes various kinds of dish in numerous different parts of the world; but all are savory and all spiced.”


It was only natural that the import, which had made its way into the English culture and lexicon, should also begin to make an appearance in its literature. William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta in 1811 and spent the first five years of his life there. In 1846, he published his satirical poem, “Kitchen Melodies – Curry” that offers a look at the place of ‘curry’ in contemporary England and a document of the English manner of making it, à la Glasse, Kitchiner and Beeton. 

Kitchen MelodiesCurry

 THREE pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,
And chops it nicely into little squares;
Five onions next procures the little minx
(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks),
And Epping butter nearly half-a-pound,
And stews them in a pan until theyre brownd.

Whats next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savoury stew,
With curry-powder, table-spoonsfuls three,
And milk a pint (the richest that may be),
And, when the dish has stewed for half-an-hour,
A lemons ready juice shell oer it pour;
Then, bless her! then she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boiland serves quite hot.

P.S.—Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish;
        Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fish
        Are fit to make A Curry. ’Tis, when done,
        A dish for Emperors to feed upon. 

Two years later, Thackeray would write of curry again, using the popular and soon-to-be stereotyped notion of curry as an exotic and fiery concoction, in an amusing episode in Vanity Fair that illustrates Rebecca Sharp’s determination to snag Joseph Sedley, no matter the personal cost. 

“Now we have heard how Mrs. Sedley had prepared a fine curry for her son, just as he liked it, and in the course of dinner a portion of this dish was offered to Rebecca. "What is it?" said she, turning an appealing look to Mr. Joseph. 

"Capital," said he. His mouth was full of it: his face quite red with the delightful exercise of gobbling. "Mother, it's as good as my own curries in India." 

"Oh, I must try some, if it is an Indian dish," said Miss Rebecca. "I am sure everything must be good that comes from there."

"Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear," said Mr. Sedley, laughing. 

Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. 

"Do you find it as good as everything else from India?" said Mr. Sedley. 

"Oh, excellent!" said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper.

"Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really interested. 

"A chili," said Rebecca, gasping. "Oh yes!" She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. "How fresh and green they look," she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. "Water, for Heaven's sake, water!" she cried. Mr. Sedley burst out laughing (he was a coarse man, from the Stock Exchange, where they love all sorts of practical jokes). "They are real Indian, I assure you," said he. "Sambo, give Miss Sharp some water."

The paternal laugh was echoed by Joseph, who thought the joke capital. The ladies only smiled a little. They thought poor Rebecca suffered too much. She would have liked to choke old Sedley, but she swallowed her mortification as well as she had the abominable curry before it, and as soon as she could speak, said, with a comical, good-humoured air, "I ought to have remembered the pepper which the Princess of Persia puts in the cream-tarts in the Arabian Nights. Do you put cayenne into your cream-tarts in India, sir?"”


Epping butter and veal notwithstanding, the word curry and the curry plant do have historical and literal roots in India. The plant is a true native. It is called mahanimba (great lemon) in Sankrit, kadhi patta or meetha neem in Hindi, kadhi limba in Marathi, mitho limbdo in Gujarati, and kariveppilai (leaf of the black Neem tree) in Tamil. And, of course, since ‘curry’ is the colonial Anglicized version of kari or kadhi, you have curry leaf. 

This shrub, which now grows wild in much of South and Southeast Asia, belongs to the Rutacae (citrus) family. While the usual suspects of this family include Citrus aurantifolia (lime) and citrus sinensis (orange), the unlikely members are the curry plant (Murraya koenigii, also called Bergera koenigii, particularly in older texts), rue (Ruta graveolens) and Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum). 

The curry leaf tree is a small spreading shrub, about 2.5 meters high. The main stem is “dark green to brownish, with numerous dots on it; its bark can be peeled off longitudinally, exposing the white wood underneath… the girth of the main stem is 16 cms... the leaves [are] exstipulate, bipinnately compound, 30 cm long, each bearing 24 leaflets…” The flowers are “bisexual, white, funnel-shaped, sweetly scented, stalked, complete… the average diameter of a fully opened flower being 1.12 cm.”

Curry flowers bear a striking resemblance to orange blossom. And yes, the leaves, disposed in a feather-like arrangement, have a subtle citrussy-pungent aroma when rubbed between the fingers. If you see its small lemon-like fruit, the relationship becomes even more evident. This knowledge makes the Hindi (meetha neem or sweet Neem/lemon), Marathi (kadhi limba or kadhi lemon), and Gujarati (mitho limbdo or sweet lemon) names for the plant more comprehensible. They also serve to differentiate it from another Indian native, the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica), which possesses numerous medicinal and other beneficial properties but is bitter and distasteful. The Neem tree is appropriately named kadu limba or bitter Neem/lemon in Marathi. It is not ordinarily used in cooking although Mahatma Gandhi is said to have eaten a mess of neem leaf every day at dinner. 

Curry leaves, on the other hand, are ‘sweet’ or at least pleasant, even eaten raw. So popular is Murraya koenigii that in much of the Indian peninsula, it appeared almost as frequently in gardens as did the revered Tulsi (Sacred Basil) plant. While it may have its origins in South India, its popularity is certainly not limited to that region. My father, Sudhakar Marathé, grew up in a traditional household in Poona in the state of Maharashtra on India’s west coast. He says, “Almost every upper / middle class family garden had at least one curry plant. It will grow to 20 feet in height, and cover a circle of 15 feet diameter. It looks very nice when fully clothed, and the blossoms in bunches look lovely too, as do the fruit which (surprise, surprise!) also come in bunches. Almost no family, never mind how large, is able to consume all the leaves of their tree. So chaps come round asking to buy the leaves – we used to 'sell' ours, making sure the plucker left at least one branch intact, for continued use.”

Like many other ingredients indigenous to India and employed widely for centuries, the curry leaf has numerous medicinal qualities. “The leaves, the bark and the roots of Murraya koenigii (L.) Spreng. can be used as a tonic and a stomachic. The bark and the roots are used as a stimulant by the physicians. They are also used externally to cure eruptions and the bites of poisonous animals. The green leaves are stated to be eaten raw for curing dysentery, and the infusion of the washed leaves stops vomiting (Watt, 1891; Kirtikar and Basu, 1935; Dastur, 1962). 

“A strong odiferous oil occurs in the leaves and the seeds of Murraya koenigii (L.) Spreng. The chemical examination of this oil has been made by Nigam and Purobit (1961). Gautam and Purobit (1974) reported that this essential oil exhibited a strong antibacterial and antifungal activity. An alkaloid, murrayacinine, is also found in this plant (Chakrabarty et al., 1974).”

To be continued

1 comment:

  1. K,

    The Spice of Mystique is in the hands of the Chef. A dash of spice here, a pinch of something else there, cut, blend, whip and whirr while a masterpiece unfolds. A blend of exotica.

    Your pen is as facile as the hands that fashion your unique 'Taste of Home.'

    May your culinary repertoire grow with spices from the exotic Islands you will visit during your travels at sea. adding a flavour of the salt air, the spice of conversation and company - and perhaps a taste of a wine to linger on the palate.

    As John Masefield says in the "Sea Fever:"

    "I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yearn from a laighing fellow rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over."