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Curry Curry Curry

To an average Westerner, curry is a ?lethal? temptation with the possibility of becoming an addiction, writes Annie Datta in her column From the Varsity.

india Updated: Oct 15, 2005 17:59 IST

To an average Westerner, curry is a ‘lethal’ temptation with the possibility of becoming an addiction. There was a time when a tourist to Delhi would enquire after two ‘mahals.’ The Taj Mahal and the ‘Moti Mahal’ – one an awesome wonder in marble while the other a restaurant of repute serving curried food. Even today the best way to win a friend in Portugal is to present her with a tin of curry powder.

I wonder if there is something called a curry mindset with an accompanying idea of a smoky kitchen and a mysterious mixture of spices. Can a Westerner vie with an Asian in obtaining the same spicy result? Does the curry way of cooking involve a deft use of fingers to sprinkle a powdery ingredient or can one do the same with carefully measured spoonfuls. Is it the intuited end product that directs the hand or is it the printed word of a page, culled from a recipe book, that does the magic? Is Asian cooking a matter of technique or expression? It undoubtedly has an aesthetic side to it.

On the way to the university once, a taxi driver told me that curry still needs elaboration in Portugal where only one type of ready-to-make curry paste (caril in Portuguese) is available in the market. The cabby was a man from a former colony in Africa and he had more-than-average knowledge of oriental-African cuisine. Many in Portugal would be surprised to hear that curry has more than one form with more than one base ingredient or blend.

A diplomat friend with strong links to Iberia would often come to our house in Delhi. There for many years, he had stuck to his bland food habit of salt and onion in marinades. He wouldn’t tolerate a grain of spice. The diplomat was under the impression that curry meant hot food. Little did he realise that about six or more spices are combined to give dishes a rich, deep flavour and colour. That the use of spices brings life to what otherwise would be balderdash. An accidental encounter with curry made our foreign friend a complete convert to South Asian style of cooking. The change flummoxed his cook. The servant’s dilemma rested precariously on whether to take his master seriously or to take his enthusiasm for curry with a pinch of salt. Was it a test or a joke meant to cost him his job? The cook stayed and so did the curry.

There are any number of ideas conjured up by the term ‘curry.’ It could mean Indian dishes that are eaten with rice. Or it could refer generally to Indian spice. Such ideas come packed to the West as curry powder. What we were serving the said diplomat friend was freshly ground spices chosen according to the nature of the dish.

Portuguese interest in spices dates back to the time of the Discoveries. Black pepper was a precious commodity in Lisbon way back in the sixteenth century. Over half of Portuguese state revenue came at that time from West African gold and Indian spices. Lure of the spices goes further back in time when Arab traders plied between Calicut and Goa and the spice markets of Africa.

Curry is a sellable, magical word here. Friends are ever-willing to accept an invitation that has a hint of curry to colour it. Any talk about curry remains incomplete without reference to ‘Curry Curry Curry’ (Penguin) by Ranjit Rai, a known Delhiite, whom we had the privilege to know. His other book ‘Tandoor’ often came handy when we ran short of ideas while cooking for a fastidious foreign guest.