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  • Miranda Brown

The Curry Conundrum

A few weeks ago, ‘curry’ popped up on my YellowDig feed. I had just released a blogpost about Massaman curry, and that prompted a question about terminology. One student wanted to know whether we should even use the word ‘curry’.


The question came from a good place: an interview by cookbook author Priya Krishna. Krishna thinks that we should ditch the term curry altogether. Here’s what she says:


Curry was a word that was popularized as a way to make blanket assumptions about a cuisine that’s actually really diverse. There are actual names for those dishes. I would love for us to never use it in the context of Indian cooking.


Krishna could have gone a lot further. Lizzie Collingham asserts that the term curry was a British colonial invention. For some, that fact alone would be grounds for avoiding the word (and dodging “inauthentic” Anglicized dishes like chicken tikka masala).


Over the last couple weeks, I've thought about the question: to retire 'curry' or not. While I’m largely sympathetic to Krishna, I’m not yet ready to take the plunge. I'd rather educate people about the history.


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Like many foods, curry did not start its career under auspicious circumstances. It was born from English colonialism in India. In the eighteenth century, the East India Company had become the de factor ruler of much of the Sub-Continent. Its control emanated from cities like Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay. (For a quick run-down of the initial phase of British rule, check out this BBC video). By the mid-nineteenth century, the British had taken over the administration of India from the Mughuls. The results would prove especially disastrous in the twentieth century. Some historians believe that British wartime policies contributed to millions of Bengalis starving.


The British entanglement in India would leave its mark not only on Indian eating, but also on the English diet. From the British, the Indians got the potato for their samosas and chai tea (Collingham covers the history of the latter).


From the Indians, the British acquired their national dish: chicken tikka masala, a red gravy now a staple of the British diet. One statistic claims that the U.K. eats 18 tons of it per week. The British also got a whole slew of stews and treats. There’s Rogan Josh, palak paneer (fresh cheese in a green gravy), and chaat, a snack consumed throughout the Subcontinent, but now served in British fine diners. In those restaurants, chaat becomes fancy artisanal (“Haryali Spiced Potato and Date Samosa Chaat”), vegan, and Michelin-starred chaat. The last item, incidentally, features blueberries.


The British engagement with Indian foodways (plural) was not only long lasting, but profoundly transformative. In this respect, the British empire was unlike any of its competitors. Take Spain: My husband and I scoured the Iberian peninsula, in search of traces of Mexican or South American cooking styles (as opposed to raw ingredients). The closest we came were the potato chips we consumed at a nice tapas bar in Granada. With the obligatory serving of jamon serrano. You would also never know from eating in Lisbon that the Portuguese had run Macau for centuries. Ditto for the U.S. and the Philippines.

Granada in Dec 2014 (tapas = potato chips & ham)

To see why England became so influenced by Indian cooking styles, we must better understand the nature of that culinary exchange. What follows below is my summary of Collingham's discussion in Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2006):


The two and half centuries of British rule brought people from the United Kingdom into the Indian Subcontinent: Traders, soldiers, and colonial administrators. Like the Portuguese, the British had initially attempted to recreate a European lifestyle overseas. But those settlers were unable to resist the pull of India for long. Many of them hired Indian cooks, and soldiers often married native women.


These arrangements spurred the creation of a distinct culinary culture. As one would expect, the meals prepared by the Indian women represented a mish mash of influences. To be sure, there were recognizable South Asian elements, but they came with can’t-miss European accents.


In this regard, Mughlai Beef Curry offers a case in point. It marries the South Asian penchant for using aromatic spices with the strong British preference for beef and mutton. In the nineteenth century, the average Briton chowed down on a whopping 154 pounds of red meat per year -- a feat that set him apart from his Indian counterparts.


Anglo-Indian dishes were also eclectic. Collingham refers to this "unsophisticated" cuisine as the first truly pan-Indian form of eating. Indian foodways were diverse, something that reflected the country’s sheer size and varied topography. The British administrators of England, however, mashed together those influences, flattening out differences in local cooking traditions. As they rotated rapidly between posts across the Sub-Continent, the administrators (or their cooks) combined ingredients from different parts of India and deposited them into new recipes. For instance, they introduced coconut milk from the south to the Northern Muslim areas. This is why you find coconut milk in some versions of Mughlai Beef Curry.


Perhaps most importantly, Anglo-Indian food was curry heavy, meaning just about everything was a curry. The term curry, of course, was *not* a native category. The British had appropriated a Portuguese loan word from a South Indian language for black pepper and spices. With the British, 'curry' came to mean any Indian gravy. In Anglo-Indian cookery, curry comprised butter-fried onions, marinated meat, aromatic spices, and tomatoes.


Is this curry? Picture and Food by Ashira Chugh

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Anglo-Indian cuisine, however, did not stay with the Anglo-Indian community. Like ketchup, curry decided to see the world and traveled to Britain. It came back with Indian cooks who moved to the United Kingdom to serve Britons who wanted a taste of India. It also traveled through the mail and in boxes. Britons in India often wrote letters about their meals. Family members at home were eager to try the “exotic” and “healthy” foods they read about. This led to an early nineteenth-century vogue in Indian food. By 1831, there were best-selling books about Indian cuisine in English. The British also imported enormous amounts of spices from India. Consider just turmeric, which increased from 8,678 to a startling 26,458 pounds between 1820 and 1840.


According to Collingham, curry’s popularity in England owed much to the flavor vacuum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century, French cooks initiated a revival of Roman foodways. This meant more olive and fish sauce, less cardamom. As a result, European cooks banished many of the aromatic spices used in medieval cuisine. The British eventually followed suit, leading to blander and virtually veggie-free eating (the potato, though, remained a safe choice). As a result, the British became obsessed with indigestion. (If I were a betting woman, I would guess this was code for constipation). We do know, though, that the British looked to Indian cooking for solutions to their tummy troubles.


The popularity of Indian cooking also inevitably led to further adaptations. Apples began to replace the mangoes (which did not grow well in tropical England). And lemon juice substituted for the hard-to-source tamarind. The British also added more familiar herbs like thyme and marjoram to their gravies.


The differences began to show themselves in the cooking process, too. British cooks adapted stew recipes to reflect more established ways of doing things. For example, they thickened the gravy with a flour-based sauce, just like they did when preparing European stews and casseroles. This is the basis of the roux that some of us made the other day in Japanese curry lab.


Above all, British cooks got addicted to curry powder and prepared spice mixes. Originally, Indian cooks had added spices at different stages of the process. Some spices like coriander are slow releasing. They go into the oil early on. Others like turmeric tend to burn. As Collingham puts it, “spices thrown into hot oil simultaneously cook unevenly” and can lead to unfortunate results. But the philosophy behind curry powder was different. It did not require a lot of grinding, or spice know how.

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Certainly, it’s easy to diss Anglo-Indian cooking. Collingham does a fair amount of it. She thumbs her nose at the flattening of the palate – and the use of premade spice mixes. The latter was something, she writes, that “no self-respecting Indian cook would have allowed in their kitchen.” She also bemoans the “insensitive” British palate, which drove native cooks to simplify their complex dishes. As a result, the British had little appreciation for the “endless variation of flavor that was achieved by adding spice to the food in different combinations and at different stages in the cooking process.”


And it’s true that Anglo-Indian cuisine enjoys little of the renown of its colonial counterparts. Today, foodies wax poetic about the riches of Goan cooking and sing the praises of traditional Macanese food. Anglo-Indian cookery, in contrast, has the dubious distinction of giving the world chicken tikka masala and other watered down “curries.”


I agree with Collingham’s assessment -- up to a point. But I resist the idea that curry is a monstrosity, because it is different from the foods in India. And yes, curry did start its career as a crude British construct. But that construct has taken a life of its own and now reproduced. Many of us enjoy its progeny.


Curry is now a big thing in East Asia. The Japanese eat it all the time. There it’s a called kare カレー, after the English. It’s a British dish inspired by an Indian one, adapted for a Japanese palate. In concrete terms, that means the curry is sweet and not too piquant. The British features are all hard to miss, as there's a strong family resemblance. There’s a premade spice mix (curry powder & garam masala), a roux cube (made with flour and more premade spices), some grated apple, and a dab of Worchester sauce. The curry's best over sticky rice, with a daikon relish.


Japanese-styled curry, in fact, is so popular that it pops up all over the world: In China, folks call it ga-li 咖喱. My first encounter with curry, in fact, was precisely in this form, in an American Chinatown.


Last year, the largest curry chain in the world, Coco Ichibanya, opened its doors in the Indian city of Gurugram. Its specialty? Japanese-styled curry.


Coco Ichibanya now claims that curry has finally come home.


Talk about one heck of a round trip.


Japanese styled curry (picture by Leanne Martin)


Source (not hyperlinked):


Achaya, K.T. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (Oxford University Press,1998).


Collingham, Lizzie. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Chapter 5, “Madras Curry: The British Invention of Curry,” Chapter 6, “Curry Powder: Bringing India Back to Britain,” Chapter 7, “Chai: The Great Tea Campaign” (Basic Books, 2006), 108-216.


Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (Basic Books, 2017), Chapter 19, “How the Empire Supported Britain During the Second World War,” 249-61.


Recipe Resources:


If you are interested in a complex (but straightforward) Indian chicken stew, check out this family recipe presented by a former student in ASIAN 258. She calls the dish curry, interestingly enough. Many recipes call for garam masala, which you can make by yourself.


For Japanese-styled curry, you can find a recipe and video in JustOneCookbook. There's a beef and chicken version. I would also recommend giving "Singaporean" rice noodles a try. It's made with curry powder. It was a staple of my childhood, served by my Singaporean-born mother who had zero beef with the name. Fun fact: this dish is now a part of Sino-Indian cuisine, and here's the recipe.

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