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.