‘Give me an English one!’ Matty Robinson said after tasting her first Indian curries in Bombay in 1858. She was 29, the eldest child of a Gloucestershire rector, and had gone to India as the wife of a British army officer, her cousin. As a third-generation Anglo-Indian, she was familiar with spicy food. Her problem was that the curries in India weren’t like the unsubtle curry-powder-laced stews she knew from home (in ‘A Poem to Curry’, written in 1846, Thackeray describes one made from three pounds of veal, three tablespoons of curry powder and half a pound of Epping butter). ‘I can’t touch the Indian fruits or the fish which they say is so delicious,’ Robinson wrote to her sister Fanny, ‘and as to the curries it makes me sick to think of them.’
As a child in the early 1980s, I believed that curry was synonymous with Indian food and that Indian food was synonymous with curry, or at least, with curry and rice and poppadoms and masses of sugary mango chutney and what we called naan bread (not realising it was a tautology since naan means ‘bread’). For a treat our family would go to Uddin’s Manzil Tandoori Restaurant on Walton Street in Oxford (long since closed down), where my sister and I would share a mushroom biryani which came with a mixed vegetable curry in a delicious oily red sauce that burned our tongues, but only slightly. The biryani was garnished with incredibly neat slices of hard-boiled egg and tomato. We would watch in wonder as our father attempted to survive a vindaloo, his face turning pinker from a pain that no amount of water could quell. Our mother usually chose a sickly sweet ochre-coloured korma, now said to be the most popular curry in Britain (having overtaken chicken tikka masala).
I’ve never felt quite the same about the charms of curry house curry since I first heard that these ‘Indian’ curries were created by Bangladeshi curry house owners with British palates in mind. My best friend at secondary school came from a Gujarati-Keralan family and told me that the food of curry houses wasn’t recognisable to her. It wasn’t like her mother’s delicately spiced vegetarian food or the coconut-rich dishes her father had grown up with in Kerala. She recognised the pleasure curry house food gave to others, but simply did not think of it – or taste it – as Indian.
As a teenager, I started cooking from Madhur Jaffrey’s books and saw with a jolt that, for Indian cooks, hearing British people declaring they loved curry could come across as a crass postcolonial misrepresentation. Jaffrey arrived in London from Delhi in 1955 to study at Rada, and taught herself to cook using her mother’s recipes because she disliked English food (except fish and chips). In England, Indian food was thought to be anything sprinkled with curry powder: a substance Elizabeth David described as ‘unlikeable, harshly flavoured, and possessed of an aroma clinging and as all-pervading in its way as that of English boiled cabbage or cauliflower’. ‘To me the word “curry” is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term “chop suey” was to China’s,’ Jaffrey wrote in An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973). ‘“Curry” is just a vague, inaccurate word which the world has picked up from the British, who, in turn, got it mistakenly from us … If “curry” is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, then “curry powder” attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself.’
Another Indian food writer who tried to reclaim Indian food was Julie Sahni, whose Classic Indian Cooking was published in 1980. Sahni is one of seven postwar American ‘immigrant women’ hailed in Taste Makers, Mayukh Sen’s perceptive group biography of some of the female restaurateurs and food writers who ‘revolutionised food in America’. As well as Sahni, Sen writes about Marcella Hazan, whose Italian cookbooks remain standard and who was ‘trying to free Italian cuisine from the dungeon of red sauce’; and Chao Yang Buwei, whose How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, published in 1945, introduced the American public to the concept of ‘stir-fry’.
How can you explain that a cultural phenomenon people know and love is really a cartoon version? And at what point do you give up and accept that the cartoon now has its own separate life? The main populariser of Indian food in the US during the first half of the 20th century was a chef called Ranji Smile, who arrived in New York from London in 1899 and gave Indian cookery demonstrations for the next thirty years. American newspapers called him ‘King of the Curry Chefs’. In the early 1970s in New York, Sahni found, according to Sen, that ‘Americans could seemingly understand Indian food only through the framework of curry.’ Sahni, who was born in 1945, learned to cook as a child in the north Indian city of Kanpur. When she was nine, she and her three sisters started cooking for the family every summer. Sen writes that ‘she spent her evenings making phulkas, watching the whole wheat breads inflate on burners like birthday balloons.’ When Sahni arrived in America with her husband in the late 1960s, she worked in urban planning, but as a sideline set up Indian cooking classes which became so popular that they were fully booked two years in advance. Classic Indian Cooking, still regarded as one of the best primers of Indian cooking, grew out of these classes. It didn’t include any recipes for curry. She explained this with steely precision: ‘Curry is the Western pronunciation of the Indian word kari, which can mean one of two things: the sweet, aromatic leaves of the kari plant used in southern and south-western Indian regional cooking, or the southern cooking techniques of preparing stir-fried vegetables such as green beans with coconut.’ She found it frustrating that dishes which already had perfectly good names were being renamed ‘curry’, even in India. One of the examples she gave was Murghi Ka Salan, ‘chicken in spice gravy’, which was now often called ‘Chicken Curry’ or ‘Chicken Kari’, although ‘the Indian kari bears no resemblance to the English curry, which is made without using Indian cooking techniques and using packaged curry powder.’
When I finally visited Mumbai in 2016, I ate crisp dosas and spongey idli for breakfast and tiny crunchy bhel puri filled with sour tamarind water for lunch. I ate Gujarati thali meals consisting of multiple dishes, each in its own tiny stainless steel pot arranged on a larger steel plate. There were many varieties of dals and pickles and vegetables sabzi sautéed with spices and different flatbreads and rice cooked with var-ious seasonings and fried dumplings. Only a small percentage of these dishes bore any resemblance to British curry with its copious dayglo sauce and, even then, the resemblance lessened in the mouth because these sauces were gentler and lighter and more distinct from one another than those in any curry house.
But when I returned home, I continued to yearn for something I could only think of as curry, by which I suppose I mean any Indian food cooked in a sauce. ‘There are many curries and each one is better than the other,’ Mrs Balbir Singh wrote in 1961 in Mrs Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery. I share this sentiment. It is a rare week I don’t eat at least one curry, usually one that I have cooked following the recipes of Indian or British Indian cookery writers including Chetna Makan, Nik Sharma, Meera Sodha, Roopa Gulati and Vicky Bhogal, as well as Jaffrey and Sahni.
One of the things that makes a curry a curry to me is that the amount of salt is always just right. Asma Khan – the chef and owner of Darjeeling Express in London – has said that what shocked her about British food when she arrived in the early 1990s wasn’t the absence of spice but the absence of salt. Western recipes speak vaguely of salting things ‘to taste’ or with a pinch here and there, but Indian recipes almost always stipulate the precise measure of salt. The original reason for this was that in many parts of India (according to Sahni) there are religious taboos against tasting food while it’s cooking, but the consequence is that if you follow a good curry recipe, it is almost impossible to underseason it. At the base of the dish, whether it is made with vegetables or fish or meat or a can of chickpeas, there is almost always a sliced or chopped onion, cooked until sweet and soft in oil. Then lots of garlic, finely grated, and maybe the same amount of freshly grated ginger. After that comes the spice: the warmth of cumin, the lemony brightness of coriander, the heat of cayenne and perhaps the citrusy scent of cardamom. Next comes the liquid, which might be in the form of tomatoes, cooked until pulpy, or coconut milk, or a combination of water and tomato puree with or without single cream, or maybe some yoghurt, stabilised with gram flour to stop it splitting as it heats. By the time all these ingredients have simmered together for the right amount of time they will have become a sauce with a thick velvety texture and a savoury perfume that to my British nose signals: curry!
For all its flaws, we seem to be stuck with the word because there are many occasions when there is no satisfactory synonym in the English language. Look at what a hash the OED makes of trying to pin it down. Curry, it says, is ‘a preparation of meat, fish, fruit or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric, and used as a relish or flavouring, esp. for dishes composed of or served with rice. Hence, a curry = a dish or stew (of rice, meat, etc) flavoured with this preparation (or with curry powder).’ This definition is both far too specific and too vague. The OED seems to suggest that curry can be any old stew flavoured with curry powder (which could describe many of the homemade British versions of the mid to late 20th century, the sort that came garnished with banana slices and with raisins on the side). But it also indicates that curry is a very specific ‘preparation’ made with ‘bruised spices and turmeric’. This is odd. Why are the spices ‘bruised’ and not ground or, for that matter, kept whole? Why is turmeric singled out and why say ‘turmeric and bruised spices’, which suggests that turmeric is not itself a spice. There is also considerable confusion about rice. Curry is said to be a ‘relish or flavouring, esp. for dishes composed of or served with rice’ but also ‘a dish or stew (of rice, meat, etc) flavoured with this preparation’. And why specify that curry should be made with ‘meat, fish, fruit or vegetables’ and fail to mention other ingredients on which a curry may be based, such as paneer, the universal cheese of India?
The most striking omission of all from the OED definition is India itself (though the section on etymology notes the word’s Tamil origins: ‘Tamil kari sauce, relish for rice, Kannada karil, whence Portuguese caril, and earlier English and French forms; modern French is cari’). It’s true there are now countless dishes that many people would now call curry which are not Indian: Thai and Malaysian curries, or Indonesian rendang or the strange but compelling Japanese karē raisu, or curry with rice, a thick brown roux-thickened curry sauce introduced to the Japanese by Royal Navy officers in the late 19th century, which has been reintroduced into Britain as a Japanese delicacy, notably by the Wagamama restaurant chain. But none of these curries would have been called curry were it not for the earlier history of Indian food (and the British relationship with it).
Sejal Sukhadwala, a London-based Indian food writer, sets herself the task of defining what curry is before tracing its history, its arrival in Britain and its export around the world. The word kari dates back to the Portuguese in Goa in the 16th century. It was they who brought chillies to India from the New World and in turn travelled home with a new word: caril. In 1563 the Portuguese physician Garcia e Orta observed that Indians in Goa ‘made dishes of flesh and fowl, which they call caril’. As Sukhadwala glosses, the word kari may mean many things in Tamil: ‘either black pepper, spices generally, a spiced accompaniment to rice, a sauce, sauteed meat and vegetable dishes or “to eat by biting”’. In the 18th century caril became curry, with the fall of the Portuguese spice monopoly in Goa and the rise of the East India Company. The first curry recipe in English – ‘To Make a Currey the India Way’ – appeared in the 1747 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (which also included three recipes for pilau). Chicken or rabbit is ‘cut as for a fricasey’ and cooked in butter with coriander seeds, onions and thirty peppercorns, simmered and then flavoured with lemon juice and cream. Glasse’s curry sounds dull on the page but is actually surprisingly delicious, with a pungency from the pepper and a silky richness from the cream.
What makes this dish a curry rather than a peppery chicken stew? Jaffrey comments that Glasse’s recipe is ‘hardly a curry and more of a gravy’. For Sukhadwala, the key to a curry is that it is ‘a spiced dish of Indian origin or influence’. It is this Indian influence – whether accurately rendered or not – that matters. Curry, she says, is a dish ‘in which vegetables or meat or other protein are normally cooked in a pot, usually with a gravy made from tomatoes, onions, coconut, yoghurt, gram flour, nuts, cream, water or stock’. This takes us a lot further than the OED, though not far enough, not least because modern curries are often baked on a tray in the oven – or blasted in an air fryer or a microwave or stir-fried, like the green beans Sahni mentions – rather than cooked in a pot over heat.
In her pithy and clever book, Sukhadwala mounts a persuasive defence of the concept of curry against a loose coalition she calls the ‘curry deniers’, ‘Indians, often from the diaspora, who hate the term “curry”’. She concedes that they have good reason. Objections to curry can be grouped into two main charges, both of which were touched on by Jaffrey in 1973: the word is a) inaccurate and b) offensive. If curry is a blunt misrepresentation of Indian food, this is a symptom of a deeper problem: its strong association with British imperialism. Is this what Jaffrey meant by ‘degrading’? Sukhadwala writes that, for some, the word ‘brings back painful memories of being told by other schoolchildren in the playground that they smell of curry’.
One of the earliest curry powders is recorded as being sold by Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse in Piccadilly in 1784. By the 19th century, the popularity of curry powder was such that imports of turmeric tripled from 8678 lb in 1820 to 26,468 lb in 1840. These powders – which usually came in three varieties, yellow, brown and fiery hot red – lacked the subtlety of freshly ground spices and must have often been pretty stale by the time they were used (some British cooks believed that curry powder improved with age, like a bottle of claret). The Victorian cookery writer Eliza Acton regretted that in a British curry powder ‘turmeric and cayenne pepper prevail’, in contrast to the curries made by Indian cooks in which ‘many condiments of different flavours’ were blended.
In 1845, Edmund White, the author of another cookery book, wrote that a British curry was ‘nothing more than a bad stew’. The spice mix was not tempered or fried, but thrown raw over the stock or water. To make matters worse, these stews were thickened with a flour roux, something never used in Indian food, where the thickening agents would be almonds or coconut or large amounts of onions cooked into a paste. They often contained weird ingredients unknown in India. In her 2005 book Curry: A Biography, Lizzie Collingham records that Richard Terry of the Oriental Club in London ‘not only added the by now standard apples to his mulligatawny but also bay leaves, ham and turnips’. If these were the curries Mattie Robinson knew, it’s no wonder that she found the curries of Bombay a shock.
And yet it is not clear, as Sukhadwala argues, that curry could or should be cancelled. As she writes, ‘for every Indian who says they didn’t grow up using the word curry or buying curry powder there are many others who did.’ At the same time, the Western ignorance about Indian food that Sahni complained about has gradually lessened, in large part thanks to writers and TV presenters like her and Jaffrey. ‘Many non-Indians have enthusiastically embraced chaat, dosas, samosas and all kinds of other non-curry items.’ Sukhadwala believes it’s ‘already too late’ to cancel curry: ‘Try telling a Japanese schoolboy tucking into his karē raisu, or a Trinidadian street vendor selling curry-stuffed roti that the dish they love doesn’t exist.’ Some of the curry deniers have softened their stance. As Sukhadwala notes, in the years since Jaffrey’s diatribe against curry in 1973, she has written a series of curry-themed books including Curry Easy, Curry Easy Vegetarian, 100 Essential Curries, 100 Weeknight Curries, Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible and Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation. Presumably, this was partly a way of luring as many readers as possible by seeming to offer something familiar. In Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation she wrote: ‘If Britain once colonised India, India has now returned the favour by watching spellbound as its food completely colonised Britain.’ That book was dedicated to Britain, ‘the Curry Nation that welcomed me all those many years ago’.