Curry marks a global recognition of India's spice tradition

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 29, 2015 13:18 IST

Some questions are almost impossible to answer. Rachel Lopez, who looks after this column at Brunch, sent me a request and a column idea. "I’d love to read about curry in Rude Food," she wrote.

"The Western and Indian understanding of the term is so different. Firangs always ask me who makes the best Indian curry and I can never explain the difference without offending them."

Melting pot? Not Quite (From left to right) Curries show up in the cuisines of Central Asia, south India, Goa and Thailand. They’re not quite the ones served at the Bangaldeshi curry houses in the UK. (Photos Shutterstock, iStock)

In a sense, Rachel was asking that old question: what exactly is a curry?

God knows, I’ve tried to find an answer. Apart from the many pieces I have written on the subject, I even did a TV show travelling around Asia trying to find a definition of curry. But so far, at least, I have never come up with anything that is remotely satisfactory.

When Indian foodies talk about curry, we act as though the term is a British invention. And now, foreign food writers, trying to sound knowledgeable, say things like: "No Indian uses the word curry; the concept is unknown in India" etc, etc.

Except that this is not entirely true. We do use the term curry in India. How many times have you heard somebody brag about his mother’s mutton curry? How often have you seen a prawn curry on an Indian menu? The truth seems to be that yes, we only used such terms as gassi or korma to describe our dishes once upon a time but that now, we have adopted the term ‘curry’ as an umbrella category to describe a variety of dishes.

So what exactly is a curry?

When I made my TV show, we settled on the formulation that any gravy dish could be counted as a curry. Now, I am not so sure. Yes, we do use the term for dishes with a gravy.

But there are many gravy dishes in other cuisines (a tagine, a stew, Boeuf Bourguignon, etc) that nobody would call a curry. So, gravy is a necessary condition but it is not sufficient.

There’s a gravy, but is it a curry? There are many gravy dishes in other cuisines, like a Boeuf Bourguignon (above) that nobody would call a curry.

My current definition revolves around spices. The distinguishing characteristic of any curry is the mixture of spices. If you don’t have spices, you can’t make a curry.

As for gravy, I am willing to be a little more flexible. Yes, a curry cannot be dry. But it doesn’t have to have a thin gravy like, say, a Goan prawn curry. A thick, masala-filled gravy is enough.

About the term curry itself, there is no accepted origin. The most common explanation is that it is a corruption of the Tamil word ‘kari’, which has come to mean a sauce. A related theory is that it comes from the ‘kari’ leaf, an ingredient in south Indian curries. there are many other theories. One view is that the word came from ‘kadhi’ (the dahi-based dish) which the British anglicised to curry. Yet another theory suggests that it came from the word ‘kadhai’.

And the most outlandish theory I’ve heard is that the word has nothing to do with India. It is a corruption of the French verb ‘cuire’, which means ‘to cook’.

Before you dismiss the French origin of the term, consider this. As Jo Monroe tells us in Star of India, her study of Indian food in England, the first English cookbook, which came out in 1390AD, was called The Forme of Cury.

In those days, European food was not as bland as it is today and haute cuisine used cumin, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, etc. Many of the recipes in The Forme of Cury make extensive use of spices.

In 1390, nobody had even dreamt of the East India Company. So the reference to ‘cury’ could not have come from Indian cuisine. Perhaps it was just a term for cooking that employed spices.

Whatever the origin of the word, there is no doubt that for the British, who popularised the term, curry meant a dish that was cooked with spices. As we know, imperialism was founded on the spice trade. When the Europeans went east, it was to find cheap sources of spices. The idea of empire-building came much later.

When the traders and the sailors returned to England, they created a demand for curry. This was met by the addition of spicy dishes on to the menus of existing cafes.

For instance, the Norris Street Coffee House in London’s Haymarket was serving curry in 1773. Not only was it popular for its taste, it was also touted as an aphrodisiac.

Because Victorians were reluctant to talk about sex, menus went on to describe it as something that "contributes most of any food to an increase in the human race".

The Brits were always clear that spices were the point of the dish. No sooner did curry turn up on menus than ready-made curry powders began to be sold all over the UK.

It was not necessary to use these for an authentic Indian-style curry. They could simply be added to existing British dishes to provide an extra kick. Frequently, they were used to make a thick curry sauce that was served as a condiment along with roast mutton and other such Brit staples.

It’s interesting that not much has changed in the UK. Young men still act as though curry is an aphrodisiac. The ability to withstand the hottest curry is regarded as a virility test.

And curry is often used as a descriptor for dishes that have curry powder in them, such as ‘curried eggs’. There are more authentic Indian restaurants in the UK these days but they cater to a tiny proportion of the population.

Many Brits still regard a stew made with meat, apples and sultanas as a curry as long as it contains a dash of curry powder. Others prefer a made-up cuisine sold at Bangladeshi curry houses where the predominant flavour is an overwhelming emphasis on spice.

Intriguingly, at the Bangladeshi curry houses, the emphasis remains on dishes that were popular a century ago among Brits in India. A Madras curry is a standard curry with extra chilli (after Raj-era Madras curry powder, which was spicier than normal); a vindaloo bears no resemblance to the Goan dish but is another variation on the standard curry which uses a name that Raj veterans picked up from their Goan cooks; and there are Parsi names such as dhansak and patia given to curries that no self-respecting Parsi would dream of eating.

That the Bangladeshis who run these curry houses choose not to put their own cuisine on the menu and rely on these made-up variants of classic dishes tells you something about how unwilling the British are to adapt their palates to real Indian food.

But has all this done us any harm? Has Indian food suffered because of the British emphasis on curry? Rachel is right: some foreigners do think of Indian food as being all about curry.

My feeling is, however, that it hasn’t done us any real harm. We should treat British curries the way in which we treat our Indian Chinese. Both are made-up cuisines that are unknown in the countries they claim to represent.

But the Chinese have not suffered because Indians eat Chicken Manchurian. And our own cuisine is unaffected by the rubbish served at Bangladeshi curry houses in the UK.

We should treat curry as a synonym for India’s greatest contribution to the world of gastronomy: the use of spices. The point of all Indian food is the interplay of spices. (And it was spices that first made the Brits fall in love with curry.)

Most Indians who eat a North African tagine feel cheated because, even though it looks like Indian food, it lacks the complexity of our spicing. About the only people who understand spicing as well as we do are the Thais (though they are better with fresh herbs than they are with dried spices). And even their cuisine is often seen through the prism of curry: every Thai restaurant anywhere in the world has to put a green curry and a red curry on the menu.

The Thais have risen above the curry trap. They don’t mind serving their curries but the world has come to recognise that there is much more to their food. So it should be with Indian cuisine. Our mastery of spices means that all of our great dishes have unique flavours of the sort you will never find anywhere else in the world.

The list of ingredients for a sambar, for instance, seems deceptively humble compared to the great dishes of French cuisine. But the flavours we extract from those ingredients because we know how to layer our spices beats anything the French can do.

So, who cares whether the word curry comes from the Tamil or is an old English term? What’s important is that it marks a global recognition of India’s spice tradition.

It is a tradition that made and unmade empires. And it is a tradition that is at the root of one of the world’s most complex and accomplished cuisines. It is something to be proud of, not to worry about.

From HT Brunch, June 28
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