On the gravy trail: A brief and riveting history of the curry
What is a curry, where does the term come from, and how far has it travelled? These are some of the questions London-based food writer Sejal Sukhadwala seeks to address in her first book, The Philosophy of Curry, released in March.
For two decades, Sukhadwala has researched and written about food history and Indian food, tracing the origins of the latter and examining how it evolved in relation to the rest of the world. She has watched as recipes that survived thousands of years faded from view, appearing only at festivals and weddings. She’s tracked India’s food revolution, from the days when the thali was the norm in urban homes to the rise of dining out and cooking with international ingredients. “People are cooking their grandmothers’ recipes less and less,” she says. But it’s a complex issue, because how long can you hold on to tradition anyway?
The melding and morphing of traditions, influenced by new methods and ingredients from around the world — a trend dating back to the 15th century — informs much of her book on curries, which was commissioned by the British Library as part of its Philosophy series on food and drink.
The first thing Sukhadwala would like readers to know about The Philosophy of Curry is that it doesn’t treat change as the enemy, or “authenticity” as some kind of holy grail. “People’s tastes and palates have always been changing over time. International customs and habits have always influenced cuisine,” she says.
“Curry” encompasses, for instance, Goan dishes that combine South Indian ingredients with Portuguese techniques (think red chilli and vinegar). It includes Hyderabadi dishes that feature fresh coconut, kari patta and tamarind. It also has the coconut-based Kerala stew said to have been created by Syrian Christians who picked up the stew bit (ingredients cooked slowly in stock) from Irish monks.
There are the Persian-influenced korma and do-piaza, the jalfrezi of Bengali origin, the rogan josh of Kashmir, the fiery British-Bangladeshi phall. And local variations from Indonesia, such as the sambal goreng (literally, fried relish; an umbrella term for a category of curry-like dishes made from meat, seafood or vegetables flavoured with curry paste, with or without coconut milk). The Malaysian beef rendang, which itself has numerous recipes across the Malay peninsula. And Japan’s kare raisu (for curry and rice; made with chicken, meat or fish cooked with onions, potatoes and carrots in a curry sauce sweetened with apples or honey).
By Sukhadwala’s definition, a curry is any spiced dish of Indian origin or influence, in which vegetables, meat or other protein is cooked in a pot, usually with a gravy made from tomatoes, onions, coconut, yoghurt, gram flour, nuts, cream, water or stock. This broad definition unites curries around the world, but “curry” is ultimately a category just like bread or pie, she says.
Sukhadwala was born in India, to a banker and a homemaker, and moved to London with her family as a child. She remembers a childhood of her mother’s “exquisite” Gujarati food. “My mother bought ingredients daily, and cooked every dish from scratch, including all the pickles and snacks — something she still does,” Sukhadwala says.
She switched from a career in psychology to food writing in 2002. She had long loved food and writing “and I wanted to combine the two”, she says. Her writing (which has appeared in The Guardian, Time Out and BBC Food, among other platforms) led her into food research. She is currently working on an Indian food dictionary, an expansive effort that has already taken her four years.
One of the terms in that book, incidentally, is curry, which Sukhadwala traces to possible origins in the Tamil word “kari”, which means dark or black and refers to the black pepper used in curries, she says.
The hardest thing about researching curries, Sukhadwala says, wasn’t the vast variety or where to draw the lines. “The biggest and most problematic debates to navigate are the ones going on at a global level right now, including authenticity, culinary appropriation and decolonisation of food.”
Sukhadwala doesn’t believe in “authenticity” when it comes to food. “It’s a problematic concept. In literal terms the only authentic meal would be the barley or millet gruel that the earliest Indians ate,” she says. “I do use the word ‘traditional’. It is also problematic, but less so.”
When it comes to traditional recipes, Sukhadwala says, there is much that we should be preserving. She’s been happy to see a movement in recent years towards preserving lost recipes and discovering lesser-known dishes from marginalised tribes and communities, she adds. “Modern Indian chefs are researching and reviving forgotten regional specialities, so I’m hopeful that traditional dishes won’t completely fade away.”