Indians have a complicated relationship with the word ‘curry’? At one level, we resent the way in which it has come to define our cuisine. There is, we confidently assure foreigners, no such word as curry in any Indian language. We never even refer to gravy dishes as curries. We prefer a variety of terms, derived from Indian languages: Korma, gassi or whatever.
And yet, at some level we know that this is not entirely true. We do use the word curry in normal conversations. We refer to a Goan Prawn Curry. We say there is mutton curry for dinner at home. We discuss the sourness that is often part of a Malabar Fish Curry.
Not only that, we are also keen to claim ownership of all curries, wherever in the world we might find them. The curries of Thailand, for instance, which can be quite different from our own, are usually regarded by Indians as being no more than regional variants on our own curries. We invented the curry, we brag.
There are huge controversies about whether the curries of South East Asia originally came from India or whether they developed in their own homes, so let’s leave that aside. But what is true is that ‘curry’ was not, originally at least, much of an Indian word. All the evidence suggests that the term came into general use only after the British got here.
One theory is that they came across the Kari leaf, used to flavour gravy dishes and derived the term curry from it. This may sound strange to Indians because we think of curries in terms of masalas, not a single leaf. But some years ago chef Gaggan Anand set out to prove that the Kari leaf was really at the heart of curry. He invented a ‘scallop curry’ and made it with a gravy of only chilli oil and Kari leaf oil leaving out the masalas and the other things we put into curry. Amazingly enough, the dish was quite recognisably a curry, lending some credence to the view that the Kari leaf is at the heart of a curry.
Gaggan’s experiments with the Kari leaf notwithstanding, I am increasingly coming around to the view that curry is a British construct. It is a term they invented for a variety of existing gravy dishes they found in the subcontinent. In the days when most Indians did not speak English, we stuck to the original names of our dishes (kormas, gassis, etc.) but as English became a link language that united every corner of India, we adopted the term as shorthand for a variety of quite distinct dishes, all of which had gravies.
We sometimes forget how quickly the British took to curry. The first British cookbook to include a recipe for curry was The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse. The first edition included three different kinds of pilau. And later editions had recipes for rabbit curry and a curry made with fowl.
Glasse’s book first came out in 1747. To realise how far back this was, remember that the Battle of Plassey, which is generally considered to have laid the foundations for the East India Company’s domination of India, took place in 1757, 10 years after Glasse published her book. So long before the British annexed India, they had already appropriated curry.
Glasse’s recipes seemed derived from authentic Indian traditions. She asked her readers to “brown some coriander seeds over a fire’ before beating them into a powder. Early recipe books followed Glasse’s advice (and the Indian tradition) by instructing readers to use specific spices for each recipe and to add them at different stages in the cooking process.
But, as Lizzie Collingham points out in her definitive book Curry: A Biography, the principles of Indian cooking were abandoned as curries grew in popularity. By 1784, ready-made curry powder was available and between 1820 and 1840, the import of haldi, the main ingredient of British curry powder, increased three-fold. Crosse and Blackwell became early leaders in the field of selling curry powder and Brits, at nearly all levels of society (including the King), came to enjoy curry.
Very few Indians were involved in this boom. Our spices were the stars but the cooking, recipe compilation and the trading were all done mainly by Brits. This is the reverse of the process by which ethnic foods usually reach a foreign country. Italian food in the UK, for instance, was popularised by Italian immigrants. Chinese food in the US came with the Chinese workers who were brought in to work on the railroad.
I reckon that this explains why the British tradition of curry, which is now centuries old, grew up separately and distinctly from the development of Indian cuisines in the subcontinent. Curry had become their own dish. (For a parallel, think of India and Sino-Ludhianvi cuisine.)
When Indian cooks arrived, they tried to conform to the existing British tradition of curry rather than cook the food they actually ate at home. The boom in curry houses in the UK was spearheaded by Bengalis from Sylhet (in what is now Bangladesh but was then part of pre-Partition India). These enterprising Bengalis made no attempt to serve machher jhol, kosha mangsho or the classic dishes of Bengali cuisine.
Instead they evolved a menu of different kinds of ‘curries’ stealing Indian names – Vindaloo, Patia, Madras curry, etc. – for bogus dishes that bore no relation whatsoever to their Indian counterparts. Much later, in the 20thcentury, these restaurateurs invented other dishes that no self-respecting Indian would eat. Chicken Tikka Masala, a dish that incorporated canned tomato soup, is the British-Indian answer to our Chicken Manchurian, an Indian-Chinese dish that no self-respecting Chinese person would eat.
Though we don’t always realise it, there is one other country where curry is extremely popular. And no, they didn’t get it from India. It went there from Britain.
When we think of Japanese food, we think of sashimi, sushi, teriyaki, elaborate kaiseki meals and one of the world’s most refined cuisines. What we don’t realise is that the Japanese absolutely love curry.
It is a curry that no Indian will recognise, though.
And I imagine that you have to be Japanese to be able to enjoy it at all. The British writer Michael Booth tried it. Here is how he describes it: “It had all the spicy zing of workhouse gruel and the texture of baby food. I recoiled at its cloying sweetness, its one note flavour, the white-pepper after burn and its gloopy starch-thickened mouth-feel. I remember too that they offered me grated cheese as a topping. How could they even call this a curry?”
Booth is actually understating how revolting a Japanese curry is. The term I would use is puke-inducing.
But, this is one of the most popular dishes in Japan today. There are thousands – yes, thousands! – of restaurants specialising in Japanese curry and millions of Japanese people eat it every day. The obvious question: how can the people who evolved one of the world’s greatest cuisines, eat this swill?
The obvious answer: Blame it on the Brits.
In the 1870s, the British navy sent its ships to visit Japan. The British admirals were told by Japan’s naval chiefs that they had a problem with beri-beri, a disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin B. The British told the Japanese that they fed their sailors a diet of curry which was full of ingredients that were rich in Vitamin B. The Japanese were intrigued. How did the British make this dish?
So the British gave them the recipe for the Royal Navy’s curry and arranged for a regular supply of curry powder from Crosse and Blackwell. Not only did the Japanese navy start serving this bogus curry, it also added its own little variations.
At the heart of every Japanese curry would be a roux, a mixture of flour and butter that is traditionally used in Western cooking to thicken sauces. Japan’s surgeon-general declared that the flour in the roux would make the curry take longer to travel through the digestive system of the sailors, allowing the body to fully absorb the nutrients in the curry.
The Japanese navy still has ‘curry-rice’ days. But what nobody can explain is why the Japanese public, respected for eating Japan’s refined cuisine, took to this disgusting curry with such enthusiasm.
I guess that Japanese chefs and gourmets know how truly horrible their curry is. That’s why they never talk about it and it hardly features on Japanese restaurant menus abroad. It remains Japan’s dirty little secret.
So finally: is curry Indian? I think it is. It started out as shorthand for our gravy dishes, which is what it remains. But then, the British appropriated the curry, robbed it of all authenticity and flavour and took it around the world where it was submitted to further indignities.
I guess there are two curries. There is ours. And then sadly enough, there is the British version.