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History of Indian curry

Zubin Dsouza

Travelling through the United Kingdom is always a pleasure. I have never really come here for pleasure, it has almost always been a work associated trip. The short escapes from the confines of my kitchen however are extremely enjoyable.

I enjoy the sheer beauty of the place; both the created and natural sceneries. I am totally in love with the history and the pomp that surrounds it.

The people are so incredibly welcoming and open that it defies all stereotypes that folks have mentioned about the citizens.

Any mention of Indian food seems to excite the average inhabitant of this cold and grey island.

They have unfortunately been exposed to what is technically the wrong version of Indian food which was served in restaurants run by Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants.

The misconceptions would take a generation to clear.

They still think that vindaloo contains potatoes; a korma sauce is sweetened with pineapple juice and that England would beat India at cricket.

However, nothing comes close to the warped thinking that all Indian food is only composed of curries.

I have been trying to battle this stereotyping menace about Indian food for close to two decades. People would always look at any dish on the menu and say “I will have anything as long as it is a curry”.

Now they can’t really help being in that situation. The curry has been marketed and exported to such an extent that world over the first word that people associate with Indian food or the entire cuisine for that matter is curry.

The history of curry is a tale full of subterfuge, sheer stupidity and foolish acts that all got together to create this huge identity for the Indian cuisine the world over.

Curry was coined during the period of the British Raj. A couple of seafaring explorers, eager to conquer and subjugate the strange lands beyond the distant seas, dropped anchor off the coast of South India and came gallivanting to shore, eager to sample the local offerings.

Well, after being at sea for a couple of months in a creaky wooden ship and having survived the worst inclement weather that nature could devise for you, it is pretty understandable if you feel that you are wearing a cloak of invincibility. I am sure that the first group of sailors chucked caution to the winds and did not pay any attention to the danger signs around them until it was too late and they had already dipped their grubby fingers into the bowls set in front of them.

What they were served, burnt the palates of their mouths, ripped a hole through their gullets and ultimately shredded their intestines. It was only natural that they returned to explore it more the next day. After all, it had a more pleasurable sensation and bigger servings than the daily rations of salt beef and grog.

What the sailors probably ate was kari, a word used for black pepper. Pepper smothered meats and food flavoured with the kariveppilei or curry leaf. In due course, the word was anglicised to curry.

Now, everyone was a curry chef. Stews and soups got magically transformed into curry stews and curries.

In India, the ingredients of the curry vary according to the region that they are prepared in. In the North, the gravy gets smothered with onions, in Kashmir they emanate the fragrance of star anise and saffron, in Goa they use a paste of coconut and chillies, in South India there is a prevalence of coconut milk and black pepper.

Gastronomically a curry implies a specific process of cooking in which meat, vegetables, poultry or dairy are simmered along with spices and condiments, to form a sauce or gravy whose consistency varies according to the chef’s discretion or to the accompanying rice or bread.

As far as Indian food goes there are one billion critics, almost an entire population. At the conclusion of just about every feast, a group of women would gather and dissect the merits of the meal. I have heard them moan about how the cloves were not roasted enough, the onions not browned enough and even gleefully announce to the world that the desserts were so perfect that they managed to down three helpings.

Curry, being the main focus of a meal, receives special attention. Since there is no basic curry and many variations to the same, purists insist on specific proportions and balance of spice for each type of curry produced. No one would dare repeat the same combination of spices for the rogan josh in the makhani fearful of incurring the wrath of the self-styled critics.

Though the art of creating a curry is not a difficult one, there are some who feel the pressure, and require help. Nothing better than a simple cookbook to help ease the burden, and let you carry on cooking. As one of my masters taught me “Remember if all else fails, use the magic mantra ‘Takeaway!’”

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