Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Curry, the 'Glorious Bastard' (A Biography)

Via Sonia Faleiro, a review of Curry: A Biography at the Guardian. The key paragraph for my purposes might be this one:

What this smart little book does is unpick some of the pathways by which various meats, fish, fruits and rice came together at particular moments in history to produce, say, a lamb pasanda or even our own particular favourite, chicken tikka masala ("curry", it turns out, is a generic term that Indians themselves would never use). In the process she neatly undercuts our fantasies about origins, beginnings, and authenticity, the possibility that there is a place somewhere high up in the hills where you can still taste these dishes in their original form. For Indian cuisine, it turns out, has always been a glorious bastard, a repository of whatever bits and pieces come to hand.

This is generally right -- people generally misuse the word 'curry' -- though it's not strictly true that Indians never use the word.

Manish had an excellent and informative rant about this in May, clarifying what "curry" (or kari) is in north Indian cooking:

Let’s put that trope out of its British Raj-induced misery. Indian dishes as a whole are not called curry. They’re called sabzi or khana in Hindi, or just plain Indian food. In Punjabi cooking, curry is one specific dish: a thick yellow sauce made with yogurt and garbanzo flour, spiced with turmeric and eaten with rice. Some stir munchies like vadas, chicken or mutton into this base.

Calling all Indian food ‘curry’ is like calling all American food ‘Jello’: it’s nonsensical. If you tell me, ‘Let’s get some curry!’ and then order saag paneer, I’m going to laugh at you. Loudly.

But back to Lizzie Collingham's Curry book. The book definitely looks like fun, though from Kathyrn Hughes' review I'm a little confused as to whether it's really all about curry, or Indian culinary hybridity in general:

In 17th-century Goa, for instance, it was the visiting Portuguese who taught the local Indians how to make the exquisite egg and milk-based sweets that have since become part of the fabric of eating on the western seaboard. By way of reciprocity, the natives taught the Portuguese how to be clean: not previously known for their personal daintiness, the settling Europeans started lathering up and changing their pants with a regularity that amazed newcomers as they reached for yet one more helping of bebinka, a delicious mix of coconut milk, eggs and hunks of palm sugar.

There again, 300 years later, it comes as a shock to learn that Indians of all castes were indifferent to the pleasures of tea-drinking until the beginning of the 20th century. It was only when their British rulers insisted that they try it for themselves, sweetening the experience with the promise of all the money that was to be made from this new cash crop, that the subcontinent gave itself over to the cup that cheers.

Tea? Portuguese hygiene? It's all sort of relevant -- in kind of an irrelevant way.

One question I have from this is exactly what the origin of the word "curry" is. Many people have suggested it's really a British word (or a British usage imported into Hindi), but doesn't it originally come from an Indian language?

(My own instinct is that it might have something to do with the word kadai -- the pot in which it's cooked. But I am hardly an expert on the subject.)

This Indian food site has a different theory:

Curry is an English word most probably derived from the South Indian word Kaikaari. Kaikaari, or its shortened version Kaari, meant vegetables cooked with spices and a dash of coconut. It may have become the symbolic British word for Indian dishes that could be eaten with rice.

In India curry means gravy.

In America many believe curry is an Indian spice. Curry powder is sold in many supermarkets. Many dishes in America call for curry powder, which is actually a blend of spices (mainly garam masala) that is mixed with coriander powder and turmeric. In India, Indians would be confused if you mentioned curry powder.

There is a plant, however, that has leaves that are called curry leaves or in Hindi meetha neem or Kadhi leaves. They look like miniature lemon leaves and grow wild in most forest regions of India and are used as a seasoning.

The brilliant Hobson-Jobson entry for "Curry" also starts the etymology with Tamil, though they don't mention anything about Kadhi leaves. However, they do find a way to bring in, with characteristic randomness, Richard the Lionhearted:

In the East the staple food consists of some cereal, either (as in North India) in the form of flour baked into unleavened cakes, or boiled in the grain, as rice is. Such food having little taste, some small quantity of a much more savoury preparation is added as a relish, or 'kitchen,' to use the phrase of our forefathers. And this is in fact the proper office of curry in native diet. It consists of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric; and a little of this gives a flavour to a large mess of rice. The word is Tamil kari, i.e. 'sauce'; [kari, v. 'to eat by biting']. The Canarese form karil was that adopted by the Portuguese, and is still in use at Goa. It is remarkable in how many countries a similar dish is habitual; pilao is the analogous mess in Persia, and kuskussu in Algeria; in Egypt a dish well known as ruzz mufalfal , or "peppered rice." In England the proportions of rice and "kitchen" are usually reversed, so that the latter is made to constitute the bulk of the dish.

It is possible, however, that the kind of curry used by Europeans and Mahommedans is not of purely Indian origin, but has come down from the spiced cookery of medieval Europe and Western Asia. The medieval spiced dishes in question were even coloured like curry. Turmeric, indeed, called by Garcia de Orta, Indian saffron, was yet unknown in Europe, but it was represented by saffron and sandalwood. A notable incident occurs in the old English poem of King Richard, wherein the Lion-heart feasts on the head of a Saracen-

"soden full hastily
With powder and with spysory,
And with saffron of good colour."

Moreover, there is hardly room for doubt that capsicum or red pepper (see CHILLY) was introduced into India by the Portuguese and this spice constitutes the most important ingredient in modern curries.

Two quick thoughts. First, I'm always amazed as to how much lingering Portuguese influence there is on subcontinental culture -- both the old Hobson-Jobson entry on 'curry' and the Collingham book on the same subject testify to it. (Maybe the topic for another post.) And secondly, Richard the Lionhearted? In an entry on "curry"? These guys were out of their minds.

The Hobson-Jobson definition of "Mussalla" is much briefer, but also interesting. According Yule and Burnell, the word comes from the Arabic Musalih: "things for the good of, or things or affairs conducive to good."

It's all good.


Anonymous said...

Another splendid post!It is really fascinating to read the history of food. I should check with my Tamil friends if the word kari has any currency at all in the language today. I have a friend in medieval studies who is working on a recipe book from the Mughal times. Wonder what North Indian food would have tasted like without chillies and tomatoes.

tris said...

In some Tamil Brahmin households the 'dry' vegetable dish still goes by kari - short I guess for 'kaikari' (veggies)- leading to some amount of confusion .

The non-meat eaters call their veggies "curry" while for most of India (particularly the Goans) any dish with meat is the curry.

The Tamil-Goan connection or more correctly the Tamil-Portugese connection is quite mystifying in some ways.

Since this topic is food related I will leave off the particular word which comes to mind for now :-)

tris said...

Also in Indu Sundaresan's "The Twentieth Wife" (about Noorjahan) she speaks of women in the Mughal Court drinking tea/chai which of course is historically inaccurate.

Anonymous said...

Amardeep - not sure about TN but in Kerala we still use the word "pachakari" to refer to vegetables.

electrostani said...


Hey, thanks for the Tamil knowledge!

But what do you mean when you say

Since this topic is food related I will leave off the particular word which comes to mind for now :-)


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

This excellent book on history of Indian food has a lot of excellent information.

One nugget of information for example I love to use on Indian is that chilli was introduced to India by the Europeans.

I've had long arguments with Indians about it. I pointed out there is no Sanskrit for chilli, to no avail. Its so ingrained in Indian cooking that the notion that it wasn't around before 1600 or so is outrageous to most Indians.

tris said...

The word I had in mind is not food related - it is the Tamil word for latrine "kakoos" - it is the same in Konkani as well.

so we did not have latrines before the Portugese got there. Don't know.

Did not want to bring it up when we were discussing curries :-) but you asked for it.

Anonymous said...

"lingering Portuguese influence....on subcontinental culture"


Most of this influence is food related, whether it's the introduction of chilis, tomatoes, potatoes, cashew, papaya, chickoo...or even the turkey bird, which went from Goa to Agra via the Jesuits, and thence to the Ottomans, and thus got its (woefully inaccurate) English name. The French, among others, label the gobbler a bit better, though still focus on the wrong continent.

And then there's the a-ha moment, triggered by the Portuguese, that led to all those fine Bengali "sweetmeats".

But beyond that? What do you have in mind? The word 'caste'? the introduction of the modern printing press? The first lighthouse in Asia? The Inquisition? Not much there, I'm afraid.

Sunil said...

Amardeep....the origin for the word curry is most likely "kari", used by most Tamilians (not just tam brahms, as Tillotama points out). "kai-kari" or "Kari-kai" means vegetable. Usually, "inniki yenna kari" means "what's the vegetable cooked today"....

It's likely that the Brits picked it up while in the Madras presidency.

Speaking of food the Brits's not too unlike another British creation...."mulligatawny soup".

Comes from "melagu" (pepper) and "tanni" (water) in Tamil. Melagu tanni is just a spiced, dilute soup (with lots of water, and pepper), or even perhaps a dilute rasam. It morphed into mulligatawny.

tris said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
electrostani said...

Idle speculation,

The following paragraph from the Preface to Hobson-Jobson is actually what I was thinking of. Not all of it makes sense (and I must say that I don't know some of the words they cite), but some things ring true, and are surprising.

It may from these remarks be easily understood how a large number of our Anglo-Indian colloquialisms, even if eventually traceable to native sources (and especially to Mahratti, or Dravidian originals) have come to us through a Portuguese medium, and often bear traces of having passed through that alembic. Not a few of these are familiar all over India, but the number current in the South is larger still. Some other Portuguese words also, though they can hardly be said to be recognized elements in the Anglo-Indian colloquial, have been introduced either into Hindustani generally, or into that shade of it which is in use among natives in habitual contact with Europeans. Of words which are essentially Portuguese, among Anglo-Indian colloquialisms, persistent or obsolete, we may quote goglet, gram, plantain, muster, caste, peon, padre, mistry or maistry, almyra, aya, cobra, mosquito, pomfret, cameez, palmyra, still in general use; picotta, rolong, pial, fogass, margosa, preserved in the South; batel, brab, foras, oart, vellard in Bombay; joss, compradore, linguist in the ports of China; and among more or less obsolete terms, Moor, for a Mahommedan, still surviving under the modified form Moorman, in Madras and Ceylon; Gentoo, still partially kept up, I believe, at Madras in application to the Telugu language, mustees, castees, bandeja ('a tray'), Kittysol ('an umbrella,' and this survived ten years ago in the Calcutta customs tariff), cuspadore ('a spittoon'), and covid ('a cubit or ell'). Words of native origin which bear the mark of having come to us through the Portuguese may be illustrated by such as palanquin, mandarin, mangelin (a small weight for pearls, &c.) monsoon, typhoon, mango, mangosteen, jack-fruit, batta, curry, chop, congee, coir, cutch, catamaran, cassanar, nabob, avadavat, betel, areca, benzoin, corge, copra A few examples of Hindustani words borrowed from the Portuguese are chabi ('a key'), baola ('a portmanteau'), b�lti ('a bucket'), martol ('a hammer'), tauliya ('a towel,' Port. toalha), sabun ('soap'), basan ('plate' from Port. bacia), lilam and nilam ('an auction'), besides a number of terms used by Lascars on board ship.

Again, this may not be 100% reliable. Also, they are acknowledging that some words that ended up in Hindustani parlance were Portuguese-ised variants of Dravidian (South Indian) words.

tris said...

Everyone in Bombay still says batata never aloo for potatoes.

also the portugese bread pao lives on in pav-bhaji

Suresh Venkatasubramanian said...

although at least in my grandmother's place, we had two different words for the 'sabzi' of the day. 'Kari' was reserved for the dry vegetable (like a beans 'kari') and 'kootu' was reserved for anything with gravy (my tamil is non-existent, so I am spelling it like it sounded).

tris said...

Thanks Suresh - that is what I was trying to say also. dry veggies- still curry -though there is no gravy to speak of.

kai-kari is shortened differently in different families:
as kari
or kai-----------

and then some side-step this whole issue by referring to the method of cooking the veggies instead as Perratal/poriyal

(sauteed/ fried?)

Anonymous said...

I think Tilotamma is right here. It is only the tambrams who refer to the vegetable dish by "kari." Among the general populace, "kari" refers to a meat dish ("kOzhik-kari") and the dry vegetable dish is called "poRiyal."

The Tamil dictionary bears out both meanings:

2. vegetables, raw or boiled; 3. meat, raw or boiled;

In addition,
kAykaRi - unripe fruits, vegetables and the like used for prepearing curry

Interestingly, the R in the Tamil "kaRi" (கறி) becomes the retroflex D (ड़) in the Hindi version (कड़ी).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the correct dictionary link is this.

jimvj said...

Interesting discussion on the Mexico-India culinary connection etc.

Anonymous said...

Kadhi leaves are called kari vaepilai in Tamil.

Aniruddha G. Kulkarni said...

If chilli was introduced in India only in late 15th century, some of the greatest names in Indian literary world missed out on using it as a metaphor! For example, in Marathi, I wonder what that master of metaphor Dnyaneshwar would have done with it!

Anonymous said...

There are many portugese words still popular in bombay...interestingly chiavi another latin based language Italian has similar word chabi in Hindi and chavi in Gujarati for Keys. Curry or Kari has tamil brahmin origin in iyenger & Iyer for dry vegetables say kari as popular spicy side dish. Black pepper used to play main role as spicy stuff in south india instead of chillies. same is true in Andhra food where black pepper plays significant role as spice in both veg. & non. veg. curries.

Anonymous said...

Kai Kaari in the article can be changed to Kaai kari, as a tamilian, pronunciation of kai kaari looks a bit weird and took a while to understand what is written.

Anonymous said...

Yes...Karikai or Kaikari means vegetables in tamil.
Specifically all stir fried (dry prepartion)of vegetables is called kari in tamil brahmin households today also. Other communities will call this as "poRiyal".
Kari also means meat to other communities.
So kari is never a gravy dish.