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Books Curry, curry, everywhere, and not always in sync. S Subramanian maps the masala diaspora.

Curry, curry, everywhere, and not always in sync. S Subramanian maps the masala diaspora. Curry: A Global History Colleen Taylor Sen Reaktion Dh60 One way to reach the Isle of Skye is to ride the West Highland railway until it terminates at Mallaig, a lonely port on the corrugated western coast of Scotland, and then progress across the waters by ferry. Mallaig is a fishing town that believes firmly in eating the product it so painstakingly pulls out of the ocean. When some friends and I entered a restaurant one evening in 2002, we were buffeted by a dense aroma of batter-fried fish, lifting in golden, fatty waves from nearly every plate on every table. Our waitress handed us menus and chanted the day's specials, but nothing we read or heard about had ever lived on dry land. This posed a significant problem to our party, none of whom ate fish.

"Is there anything else?" a friend inquired, his voice bereft of hope. "Anything other than fish?" Our waitress looked stricken for a few seconds. Then she brightened. "Ah," she said. "We could do you a chicken curry and rice." The spread of curry - or, to be precise, of the concept of curry - to locations as far-flung and un-Indian as Mallaig has been useful for the defenders of globalisation. The mechanics of our shrinking world are typically assumed to push food from West to East, and "bad" food at that - fast, unhealthy meals that swell the arteries of an unsuspecting world, one cheeseburger at a time. Curry appears to provide a neat riposte, an example of a traditional food that has swum in the opposite direction, introducing its subtleties to new palates and marrying agreeably into local cuisines to rear progeny like currywurst and curried chicken salad. Curry, in other words, is an immigrant with more impeccable breeding and manners than a Triple Whopper with Bacon could ever be.

Curry: A Global History, by Colleen Taylor Sen, musters up a skeletal story of the evolution of curry, its Darwinian spirit in keeping with its participation in the Edible Series. Published by Reaktion Books, the Edible Series is a collection of what, in an earlier era, might have been called monographs. Each slim volume announces its subject with a single word - Pizza; Pie; Cheese - that sounds like it could be the name of the next new minimalist-chic restaurant in Brooklyn. But the ambition of the Edible Series is difficult to understand. The books include recipes, but too few to count as cookbooks. They have attractive illustrations that might have fared well in a coffee-table book, had they not been shrunk to Post-it note scale; the single large photograph in Curry purports to show a man making kebabs, but the gentleman in question is actually deep-frying a plate of vegetables. All the books in the series promise "global histories", but they are not nearly exhaustive enough to justify that grand subtitle. (I look forward with particular curiosity to the upcoming: Fish and Chips: A Global History.) In a pinch, the books could perhaps serve to scratch the sort of mental itches that strike us all when, for instance, you know that you know what goes into a bobotie, but cannot recall it just at the moment. Even then, however, they can only wait patiently as a fail-safe for that black day when the Wi-Fi ruptures on your desert island.

Defining a curry can be more complicated than preparing it. In the introduction to her 1974 book, An Invitation to Indian Cookery, Madhur Jaffrey acidly calls "curry" a "vague, inaccurate word" perpetuated by the British: "To me the word 'curry' is as degrading to India's great cuisine as the term 'chop suey' was to China's." Even its etymology is uncertain. A survey of English cooking, compiled in 1390 by "the Master-cooks of King Richard II," was titled The Forme of Cury, but that word likely derived from "cuire", the French verb for "to cook", referring at the time to any application of heat to food. Another theory pulls curry out of "kari", the Tamil word for "gravy" or "sauce". This sounds compelling, but I struggle to reconcile it with the curries served at my own Tamilian family's dining table - dry-spiced, sautéed mixes of vegetables without a drop of gravy in sight. I tend to favour an explanation I heard in my childhood: that curry comes from "karivapelai", the peppery and mildly bitter leaves that are used in south India to lend bite to the dishes we recognise today as curries, and that, to come happily full circle, are now known in English as "curry leaves".

Sen decides to describe a curry as "a spiced meat, fish or vegetable stew, served with rice, bread, cornmeal or another starch", and secondarily as any dish enlivened by pinches of curry powder. But curry is more than just spicy food; Sen's vast latitude spoils her with too many opportunities to wander. Towards the final few sections of her book, in which she tracks the spread of curry to South East Asia, Sen is talking easily about the Indonesian semur (beef in a sweet soy sauce with nutmeg, cloves, tamarind and palm sugar) alongside Singaporean spiced rice noodles, both seemingly entering the discussion only because they contain spices. A curry may be a protean thing, but Sen's breadth is the product of a flawed syllogism - all curries are stewed, all curries have spices, ergo all spicy stews are curries - and one that might well pull even a mildly peppered borscht into its orbit.

The creation of curry began in a subcontinent-sized test kitchen quite unparalleled in history: colonial India. Sen skims briefly through this complex, surprising process, but for nuance and detail one looks to Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, a terrific 2005 book by Lizzie Collingham. In the early 16th century, when Babur invaded northern India to establish the Mughal dynasty, the prevailing culinary style was dictated by Ayurvedic principles of balance but also by the frugality imposed by poverty. Into this giant larder of vegetables, legumes and spices, the Mughals brought their heavy meats. Babur's son Humayun imported cooks from Persia, whom Collingham credits with the popularisation of dried fruit, saffron and the silky minced meat called kheema. By 1600, when the East India Company was incorporated, Mughlai had become a nimble, creative cuisine. Edward Terry, a chaplain to the British ambassador and a willing eater, remarked after a dinner at the court of Jahangir that "our feast... was better than Apicus, that famous Epicure of Rome, with all his witty Gluttony... could have made with all the provisions had from Earth and Air, and Sea".

In turn, the arriving Europeans were bearers of new ingredients and influences that Indian cooking could absorb and reflect. Via the colonists, the New World sent India the potato and the chilli, both of which have since become essential vertebrae in the backbone of Indian cuisine. The Portuguese introduced to Goa a fiery stew of pork, red wine vinegar and garlic, and named it "vindaloo" - now probably consumed in larger quantities in Great Britain than anywhere else. Along with these novel foods, the colonists brought their adventurous appetites. Both Sen and Collingham laud the openness to Indian food of the country's first British residents, the people for whom the generic Indian curry was created. Collingham quotes a British surgeon's rapturous ideal of curry, with a surprisingly intense amalgam of spices: "a most heterogeneous compound of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander, Cayenne pepper, onions, garlic and turmeric, ground to a powder by a pestle and mortar, made into a paste by ghee... and added to a stewed kid or fowl." The opening of the Suez Canal made it considerably easier for British wives and children to move to India - and at around the same time, the insistent finger of Empire prodded the colonists to set themselves apart from the natives. Thereafter the British returned to the dining habits they had left behind. On sultry Indian nights, large parties sat down in uncomfortable formal wear to eat kidney soup or large saddles of ham or beef, with bland, cloying sauces of cream - "the melancholy ceremony," as one British wife put it, "of an Indian dinner".

But even as curry "lost caste" among the British in India, Sen writes, "the situation was very different in Britain, where all things Indian... became the fashion among a new cosmopolitan middle class. By the end of the 19th century, curry had become thoroughly integrated into middle-class British cuisine." Curry came condensed into powdered flavourings in jars, or at the clubs and coffee-houses that existed as little pools of nostalgia for the India-returned. Queen Victoria ate it; William Makepeace Thackeray wrote poems about it; restaurants fought over who served the most authentic versions of it. An outsider looking afresh upon the late 19th century could have presumed that curry had somehow leapfrogged British society in India and landed directly into the heart of London life.

Throughout, curry continued to shift shape, always prepared to alter its accents to become intelligible to a whole new audience. This was how, for instance, an immigrant cook from Bangladesh could improvise yoghurt-and-spice gravy for an otherwise dry chicken recipe and invent Britain's national dish. Chicken tikka masala's true triumph has not been its staggering popularity, but rather its masquerade as antique ethnic food in an alien land - so persuasive that the British foreign secretary Robin Cook saw in its sunset-tinted gravy "a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adopts external influences". Mulling Cook's self-congratulatory remark, Ziauddin Sardar observes in his book Balti Britain: "What a fine piece of nonsense this was... It was not Britain that had adapted to chicken tikka masala but countless Indian restaurants that had manipulated their cultural repertoire with ingenuity to find a niche in British life."

Sen assiduously shadows her quarry beyond Britain, to the Caribbean, Africa and South East Asia, where migrating Indian labourers held on to their distinctive food as if - and perhaps this was true - it was the only vivid reminder of the land they had left behind. But Curry is far more perfunctory about these destinations than it is with Britain, as if a drill sergeant were making Sen cross a certain number of countries off a checklist to earn the adjective in her subtitle. I especially longed for Lizzie Collingham's depth and colour during Sen's dryly narrated sections on the West Indies and South Africa, with their own histories of British colonialism and, no doubt, their own storied encounters with the roving British palate. For it was, in the final irony, the British imperial project that considerately and unwittingly helped deliver Indian food from one colony to the others, building for it a reach and legacy that Yorkshire pudding or jellied eels would never quite achieve.

S Subramanian, a regular contributor to The Review, is a journalist based in New Delhi.