How The British Created "Curry"

How The British Created "Curry"

The citizens of England display phenomenal facility with their language every day, but historically speaking, their ancestors didn’t do so well with other languages.

Wine alone gives us multiple examples. Where does the word “Sherry” come from? English businessmen trying to pronounce Jerez. How about the designation “hock” for wines from the Rheingau? Apparently, “Hochheim” was too difficult for the English merchants to say…so all “Rhine wines” became “hock.”

And when it came to India, where the British hd, ahem, a presence…oy vey!

I can’t think of another cuisine in the world whose fundamentals, outside of India, are so strongly based on a falsehood. And it was the English who brought that falsehood to us.

The cuisine—or more properly, the cuisines—of India, are mindblowingly varied. Imagine what it was like in the 18th century for good English boys, raised on porridge and mash and pudding, to encounter the food of the subcontinent. Their minds must have been blown, their woefully unprepared palates bewildered.

In a quest for order and comprehension, they must have started poking their noses into various kitchens and asking questions. “Whassat’, mate?” they’d ask, and words that sound like “curry” kept reaching their ears. I speculate that the pivotal misunderstanding occured in Tamil Nadu. To the highest caste there, a kaari is a vegetable dish cooked with spices; the lower castes, who pronounce the word with a stress on the second syllable, use it to mean meat. If the meat is in gravy, they’d call it kaaree kolambu.

Further confusion was sown by the widely used Indian cooking pot, the kadi, which sounds similar, and by the important culinary leaf called kari in various of India’s languages. (To this day we call it “curry leaf,” which has nothing to do with curry.)

After some years of investigation, the English came to the conclusion that all that spicy stuff bubbling in pots all over India was curry; the Indians had never used that term. But another English misunderstanding proved even more harmful to the international perception of Indian food. The good old boys in Madras (now called Chennai) were probably sitting around at the Raj club, drinking their gin and tonics, praising the Indian table fare and suchlike and wondering how they might be able to get this food once they returned home. Someone perceived that Indian chefs were always putting spices in their food, and someone must have said, “Royght! That’s blinkin’ curry powder!”

So, straightaway, some enterprising lefttenant with too much time on his hands starting packing up tins of “Madras Curry Powder” and sending them back to London. And to this day, millions of chefs worldwide think that Indian food is made by sprinkling curry powder into whatever’s on the stove.

That approach to Indian food is about as authentic as sprinkling Parmesan over everything and calling it Italian. The glory of Indian cuisine is its attention to the details of spicing. A good Indian chef has, among many other decisions, these to make: Which spices to use? There are dozens of common ones to choose from: cumin, cardamom, fenugreek, etc.

Which ones whole, which ones coarsely ground, which ones fine? Which spices to roast, which to fry, which to add raw? When to add? Before the other ingredients? Early in the cooking? Mid-preparation? Latepreparation? As a final flavor boost? The possible permutations are endless, and that’s why a good Indian dish from a good chef tastes only like itself and not like some generic commercial preparation called curry powder.

It is true that the English finally won, even in India, where chefs today will call things curry, because they can’t keep fighting the whole world. But do notice next time you’re in a good Indian restaurant how the menu may shy away from the designation “curry.” You will have vindaloos, bhunas and kormas, yes, but only in go-with-the-flow places will you see the spiced main-course stews described as “curry.” As great Indian chef and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey once told the New York Times, “Curry powder is the villain!”

Published on October 11, 2010