Curry – a tale of cooks and conquerors

By Vidya Pradhan

Curry has to be the most misunderstood and most misused word in the food lexicon. Even in South India, where the word first originated as ‘kari’, it could mean a dry vegetable dish or meaty gravy. And of course, the British have adopted it for their very own in a form that is probably unrecognizable to most Indians. Author Lizzie Collingham traces the evolution of British ‘Curry’ from the time of the Mughals to its various avatars in the early days of British and Portuguese occupation in India. In her epicurean voyage, she discovers that there is no such thing as an authentic Indian meal. Indian food as we know it today is a product of our history of occupation and the fusion of various traditions brought in by the many nations that sought to conquer us.

For instance, did you know that chilli powder, which is almost universally associated with Indian cooking, was unknown to Indians before the fifteenth century and was introduced to the Indian palate by the Portuguese? Till then, pepper was the hottest spice known, both in its long and round form. Once the chilli plant was introduced, Indian cooks took to it right away, specially in South India and in just a few years, chillies began to be known as the ‘Saviours of the Poor’ because they provided a cheap way to add flavor to the basic meal of rice and lentils that the poor could afford. Many such fascinating facts make the book a gripping read. There is a long chapter on biryani, which is able to weave in Mughal history from Babur to Aurangzeb. By the time the Mughals arrived in India, the Indian diet had evolved into a primarily agrarian one, with the cow becoming a sacred animal. But the new rulers considered food a pleasure, and in the clash of

Recipe for Zard Birinj from the Ain-i-Akbari by Akbar's courtier Abu'l Fazl 10 seers of rice; 5 seers of sugar candy; 3 1/2 seers of ghee; raisins, almonds and pistachios, 1/2 seer of each; 1/4 seer of salt; 1/8 seer of fresh ginger; 1 1/2 dams saffron;2 1/2 misqals of cinnamon. This will make 4 ordinary dishes. Some make this dish with fewer spices and even without any; and instead of without meats and sweets, they prepare it also with meat and salt. One seer was equivalent to about 2.5 lbs and a dam was about 3/4 oz.

civilizations was born the Mughlai style of cooking with which Indian food is most associated outside India. The Mughals introduced many nuts and dry fruits from the mountainous regions they belonged to into the Indian style of cooking. Several accounts from British travellers to India from that period recount elaborate multi-course feasts at the palaces of the noblemen. Another chapter is devoted to chai or tea, which was introduced to Indians by the British as an import from China. An aggressive marketing campaign by the British was needed to get their subjects to try this new drink. Ms Collingham points out that though the British hardly made a dent in the way Indians eat, they had a profound influence on what we eat. Many new fruits and vegetables were introduced during their rule and even today the tomato is known in the east as ‘vilayati baingan’( foreign eggplant). The book also explains why most ‘Indian’ restaurants in Britain today are run by Bangladeshis and how and where chicken curry was introduced in North America. It traces the spread of Indian food throughout the world starting with the export of spices. With a rich masala of unusual facts about Indian food and a collection of recipes from Mughal times to now, ‘Curry – a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors’ is a feast for the gastronome. One last piece of trivia from the book –"the Japanese love curry. Every train station and shopping mall has a stand selling 'karee raisu'. There are even comic books in which the best ways of cooking curry are earnestly discussed by the main characters." * misqal – about 4 grams

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