|Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.
Oxford University Press. 2006. 304 pp.
When I first left India for a holiday in Britain, the friends I was staying with took me to an Indian restaurant where I discovered, as have countless visitors from the subcontinent before me, that Indian restaurants in England weren't Indian. One, they were mostly owned and run by Bangladeshis, and two, several items on the menu such as tikka masala sauce and balti dishes were unknown in India. On my subsequent visits to England, I never again tried a British-Indian restaurant, regarding their patrons with amused contempt for their willingness to be satisfied with “false” Indian food.
O, how I repented of my folly, when I moved some years later to a small town in the United States for graduate school. I had, perforce, to learn to cook, and with little chance of finding Indian ingredients in the local Price Chopper, I soon learnt to substitute Old El Paso tortillas for chapattis, to make curries with zucchini rather than snake gourds, and to mince jalapeno peppers instead of green chilies into sauces. Rice came from Uncle Ben, rather than the Punjab, and I squirted a green glop of sweet relish on my dinner plate each night. And having now lived several years in the West, innovation rather than authenticity forms the touchstone of my cooking.
My treasonous taste buds inevitably dismay Indian friends and family; few fields are as rigorously tyrannized by purists as the culinary arts.
It is therefore with much delight that I read Curry: A History of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham. The author picks apart the recipes of common Indian dishes to trace their evolution, and the results are either shocking or reassuring, depending on your position in the authenticity debate. Collingham analyzes the historical development of Indian food, starting from ancient Hindu texts dating from the first century BCE that describe an ideal diet, to the cuisine's latest avatar as posh nosh. Few dishes from the Indian kitchen seem to have emerged unscathed from the wave of invaders and colonizers—Persians, Central Asians, Portuguese, Dutch, and British, to name a few—who washed upon on India's shores; authenticity, Collingham reveals, is as much a part of Indian cuisine as, say, beef drippings. The subcontinent's food has eagerly absorbed “foreign” influences in the past two millennia; that it continues to do is no aberration, but a continuation of the cuisine's traditional dynamism.
Take the Vindaloo curry, famous for its heat levels (my British friends would insist on refrigerating their toilet paper before stepping out for this dish). The chili pepper—the ingredient perhaps most closely identified with Indian cuisine in general and with Vindaloo in particular—is shown up to be the new kid on the Indian spice rack. Christopher Columbus, while insisting he'd "discovered" India upon landing in the Caribbean, found the islanders spicing their food with hot peppers that he brought back to the Iberian Peninsula. Six years later, Vasco da Gama successfully set sail from Portugal for India, and the chilli pepper found its way into the subcontinent's cuisine a mere five centuries ago. Vindaloo incidentally happens to originate from the garbled pronunciation of the Portuguese vinho e alhos (wine and garlic).
Collingham is obviously a foodie, but not one of those who'll lecture on the proper way to pronounce ciabatta just as a crust hovers at the edge of your lips. She's also a Cambridge-trained historian, and the edge of her scholarship is in no way blunted by her crowd-pleasing style. The book offers several nuggets of trivia weighty enough to quash the friend who dismisses your favorite Indian restaurant in favor of a little gem a two-hour drive away which serves real chai, exactly the way she had it while backpacking through Varanasi in her gap year. After reading Curry, you'll be able to mention casually that chai is actually a parvenu British invention adopted by Indians just a few decades ago… I'm planning on memorizing the entire book before my next trip to India.
The sole flaw of this book, to my mind, is the paucity of vegetarian curry recipes. Vegetables are the heart rather than the vestigial appendage of most Indian cuisines, and Collingham's curry recipes, apart from a rather perfunctory one for Bengali Potatoes, are meat-based. Where's the paneer butter masala, the holy grail of every Indian vegetarian protein-seeker? How about a recipe for okra, which annihilates the slime of this otherwise disgusting vegetable? There are recipes for chais and chutneys, but that's not curry. Buy a Madhur Jaffrey for recipes, then, and savor instead the surprises Collingham reveals in her culinary excavations.
And yes, I'd like some mayonnaise on the side with my dal, please.