Book review: Curry

Curry: A biography
Lizzie Collingham
Chatto & Windus
Distributed by Rupa & Co,
POUNDS 11, 318 pages

Some years back, compiling an anthology of Indian food writing, I realised that the history of Indian food came by the tiffin-carrier system: one dabba at a time, its contents separate from its companions.

There were histories of Mughal or Rajasthani food; glorious food memoirs celebrating regional cuisines; a glut of Raj food books. But aside from K T Achaya’s authoritative companion to Indian food, too magisterial to be comfortable bedside or even armchair reading, there was little in the way of a friendly, useable Indian food history. Even Shraboni Bagchi’s Curry in the Crown was restricted to the Raj and then the revenge of the colonies we call “chicken tikka masala”.

The food anthology eventually took a contemporary literary turn, dispensing with the historical background reading. I still thought it saddening that a country with a score of sophisticated and distinct cuisines, where eating out was a passion and eating at home a form of duel-by-khansama, had no accessible food history of our own.

Lizzie Collingham’s Curry is the history of a dish whose very name is contested: most Indians sneer at “curry powders”, and yet, curry is probably the most significant Indian export, outdoing even that other popular export, the software geek. Collingham is a historian who drank her first Bombay lassi in 1994, fell in love with vegetarian thalis and out of love with mulligatawny soup. Her curiosity and passion fuelled this wonderful “biography” of curry.

If you’re about to question Collingham’s credentials on the grounds of authenticity, pause to consider that the Indian chilli was unknown before the Portuguese brought it here in the 15th century; it remained alien to the north until the Marathas brought it with them in the 17th century. Or consider the parable of the chicken tikka masala, its pungent tomato soup-onion-and-cream gravy invented to please a foreign palate by a harassed Indian chef in a British restaurant. The chef may have been rooted in the migrant community of Sylhetis, who got their start taking over fish-and-chip shops and selling curry and rice alongside the cod.

Collingham gets notions of authenticity out of the way along with caste rituals and food taboos, taking down a few sacred cows as she goes. (The sacred cow, she observes, was not all that sacred in the 1st century AD, but had become holier-than-thou by the time of Babur and Manucci.) Her chapter on Biryani is a romp through Mughal culinary history. The mango helps Babur and his men forget their much-missed melons, Akbar’s kitchens where Persian pilau meets Hindustani spices and creates biryani is as much an experiment in synthesis as his court, and Jahangir develops an equal fondness for Gujarati khichari as for his wine. ‘Vindaloo’ looks at the Portuguese influence, especially on baking, with those dariols, conserves and layered cakes like the bebinca; ‘Korma’ at the East Indian merchants who ate the staple diet similar to the Islamic and Christian worlds at the time, acquiring a taste for arrack punch and paan alongside; and ‘Madras Curry’ and ‘Curry Powder’ look at some of the more bizarre attempts to introduce East to West in British cooking. (My Constance Spry cookery book insists that an “authentic chicken curry” includes apples, raisins, dessicated coconuts, sultanas and cream.)

By the time we’ve got to ‘Chai’, a meditation on the humble cuppa, now reinvented as chai lattes, I’m gorged on Collingham’s comfortable scholarship. I’m no longer surprised to learn in the last chapter that Indian food is popular in Japan—where the “authentic” curry was introduced by a fleeing revolutionary. Rashbehari Bose was on the run from the British when he came to Japan and found shelter with the Black Dragon society. He helped his Japanese father-in-law open an Indian restaurant. Nakamurya, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, apparently still serves an R B curry. Revolutionary cuisine, anyone?


(Carried in The Indian Express, November 2005)

One comment

  1. I liked the book a lot — and learned from it. The long history of globalism — rather than the short one of look now we’re global — is really revealed in the ways food and ingredients moved around. Colonialism, imperialism, trade, you name it. And the book is inspiring for a cook who is not of Indian descent and is learning to cook related foods but trying not to be unduly appropriationist without coming to understand the cultures in new ways. The notion of food tourism is pretty yucky I think (hence the name of foodpornwatch) but on the other hand, can teach a lot . . . .

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