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060: What is Curry according to Collingham?

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Lizzie Collingham notes that the “idea of a curry is, in fact, a concept that the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture” (p. 115) in her book “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” (2005). Diverse dishes with varying regional ingredients and spices, and disparate cooking methods were all grouped under a monolithic category which was then exported back to Britain. From the centre of the Raj, it travelled the world to the colonies of Mauritius, British Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, South Africa and Fiji through indentured labourers and British officials (p. 242).

The word “karil” in the South Indian languages of Kannada and Malayalam (both of which have their roots in Sanskrit), as well as the word “kari” in Tamil “was used to describe spices for seasonings as well as dishes of sauteed vegetables or meat” (p. 115). These words were corrupted by the colonial Portuguese and British rulers in India, until the word curry stood for “any spicy dish with a thick sauce or gravy in every part of India” (ibid). When I contacted the author Elizabeth Collingham for a clarification regarding the words 'kari' and 'Karl', she said that since she unfortunately did not speak any Indian languages, she had to rely on other speakers to reach a compromise in the text.

Madras (Chennai) in the south, Bombay (Mumbai) on the west coast, and Calcutta (Kolkata) in the east, were the three epicentres of British Raj in India. Collingham writes how “Mulligatawny” soup evolved from the Tamil “molo tunny” or pepper water (rasam), and how the Anglo Indians in Madras were referred to as “Mulls” due to their fondness for this dish (p. 120). The British in Bombay were called “Ducks” since they loved to sprinkle the flaky, salty, sun dried and fried Bomelon fish (“Bombay Duck”) which swam close to the surface, on their food (p. 26). The British in Calcutta admitted that the “Bengal artist is greatest in fish and vegetable curries” (p. 116).

If we apply what Collingham has written about colonial India to the present, what could be some of the “caricature” dishes (thanks to Rushina for this term) available throughout the country today - generic dishes which lack regional variation and subtlety? Momos served on Bangalore street corners? Dosas served in Delhi hotels? Pav Bhaji made on the footpaths of Bombay? Do we as Indians have a fascination with a particular cuisine at the moment from outside the geographic borders of our country? How did “peri peri” masala become ubiquitous all over the country? How did Domino's pizza come to represent “American food”? And how does sushi even begin to encompass the diversity and expanse of “Japanese” cuisine?

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