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Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
Lizzie Collingham
Oxford University Press, 2007
352 pp., 16.95

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Robert Eric Frykenberg

Cosmic Cuisine

Curry in the great scheme of things.

Seated cross-legged on a grass mat spread upon the cool, smooth stone floor of a traditional Brahman house, we waited as aromatic basmati ("Brahman") rice was doled out onto each stainless-steel plate. Tiny stainless-steel bowls of curry (dhal, sambar, rassam, vegetable, etc.), curd, chutney, and other delightful dishes followed. Only the fingers of one's scrubbed right hand could touch the food. Our hosts hastened to make sure that each dish was constantly full. Yet they themselves ingested nothing, lest strictest protocols of purity be violated. "SNR" (S. N. Ramaswamy) was a strict Sri Vaishnava of the Tengalai (Southern) School. With a university degree in engineering and a high position in the largest motor transport firm of South India, he was an authority on automotive history—and an ardent admirer of the late John F. Kennedy. He also visited the huge temple complex of Sri Venkateshwara at Tirupati once each month to have his head shaved (hair being gifted to the deity), and scrupulously bathed in the Triplicane temple each morning before ever touching food. And, when he ate, he ate alone, accepting food and drink only from the hand of his beloved wife (or daughter), neither of whom ate until he had been fed. His mouth received food and drink without ever coming into direct contact with fingers, utensil, or vessel. His family ate what was left after he was fed. The family never ate together; nor were meals an occasion for sharing. Eating in any "public" place was unthinkable—restaurants were a modern invention and "polluting." Indeed, while in my house for avid scholarly discussions, his hand never strayed close to the chai and biscuits I invariably placed before him. Cosmic purity of birth required no less. Pollution brought cosmic ruin. He could only take leftovers, ritually pure food, offered to the deity. His wife could take food left by him (her deity). We could receive food "given" or offered us. This was part of the hierarchy of prasadam: grace.

Such complexities, while not always fully explained in Lizzie Collingham's story of curry as a cuisine and its conquests, lie just beneath the surface. The result is a superb combination of culinary, cultural, and political history. While "curry" itself is never fully defined, what is presented is an exquisitely enlightening intellectual curry. Curry is a spicy sauce or stew—or, rather, it is a category of sauces containing an rich array of intricately blended ingredients. What these pages contain is an intermingling and layering of entertaining, fascinating, and vivid anecdotes and narratives that, in themselves, convey a history of the entire subcontinent. It is hard to imagine a more delicious way to gain an understanding of India's many cultures, peoples, and their history. Best of all, in almost every way, the fare is both pukka (genuine) and often insightful.

Discriminating between flavors and fragrances is not simple. Refined senses, sensations, and sensibilities—tastes—call for sophistication, a mingling of science and art. Cosmic properties and propensities are involved. Essentials of "heating" and "cooling" occur at three levels: physical, chemical, and cosmic (mystic or spiritual). Classical treatises codified over two thousand years ago in Aryuvedic principles govern what is a proper food for each occasion. "The idea of hot and cold foods to achieve a sublime blend of the six essential tastes (pungent, acidic, salty, sweet, astringent, and bitter)" lies at the heart of all cooking in India. Meat is heating. Milk, especially curd, is cooling—conducive to calm and cheerful contentment. Combining tamarind and pepper or chili peppers and condiments with hot water produces a hot broth or "pepper water" known as rasam, put on rice at the end of a meal but also drunk for health-giving or medical benefits (if only to clear sinuses). Curd and rice end the meal.

 Curries are a hybrid of cultural and culinary influences. Not long after Vasco da Gama arrived in India, Portuguese ships brought chilies they had acquired in America from the Spanish conquerors of Mexico. The indigenous spices of India, including their own black pepper and chili peppers, had been nothing like as hot as this new red pepper (or cayenne). But red chilies soon conquered India: no other country consumes as many. While Telugu-speaking people say that the hottest curries of India are in Vijayawada, a city in the Krishna Delta not far from Bay of Bengal, Vijayawada people say that even hotter curries can be found in Tadikonda, a few miles away. A visiting missionary executive from New York compared the taste to putting a Bunsen burner in one's mouth—and when he tried to put out the fire with water, he found that this only increased the heat. What cools such heat is milk, curd, banana, or plain rice.

Vindaloo originated when tamarind and spices, especially chilies, were mixed with Portuguese carne de vinho e alhos. Cooks of the Grand Mughals, coming from nomadic encampments in Central Asia but already refined by Persian tastes, developed biryani. This combined fragrant forms of fried basmati rice, known as pillau (elsewhere known as pilaf), with pungent spices and meats, especially chicken or lamb, nuts, and raisins. In its finest form, a royal feast of diwani-biryani or nabawi-pillau was followed by sweets (halwa, mittai, or laddu) covered with purest gold or silver. Kormas (quararamas) of Lucknow, with meat marinated in curds, spices, and ghee (clarified liquid butter that does not spoil), evolved in the north and west. Fish curry dishes developed along the shorelines, especially in the Sundarbans of Bengal. Curries, in various forms, came out of a blending of Tamil and Telugu cultures in the south. Every local culture within the subcontinent, from Kashmir to Kaniya Kumari (Cape Comerin), evolved its own unique forms of cuisine—and its own curries.

Curry's conquest of the world began with the conquest of India by the East India Company. Madras curry in its various forms (the word deriving from the Tamil kari and the Telugu kara, as also from similar sounding terms in Kannada and Malayalam), became the most hybrid and ubiquitous of all India's spicy (masala) sauces and stews. Normally this was served with rice in the south and with soft wheat breads such as chapattis, parathas, puris, or simple nan in the north. The author is not quite correct when she says that the British invented curry: there is not a respectable household anywhere in the countryside that does not produce its own unique curries, with secrets handed down from mother to daughter. But it is true that, starting in Madras, a hybrid Anglo-Indian cuisine spread and became ubiquitous, not only throughout all of the subcontinent (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka), but gradually throughout the rest of Asia and Africa, and finally to Europe and the Americas.

 The earliest, most elegant, and famous Indian restaurant abroad is Veeraswamy's of London (just off Upper Regent Street), founded by a descendant of William Palmer, who flourished in Hyderabad in the early 19th century. But this fabulous eatery is a far cry from the "curry and chips" shops that spread into every high street and leaped the Atlantic to our own shores. The world conquest of curry became manifest in 2001 when Robin Cook, the then-foreign minister, declared chicken tikka masala to be the new national dish of Great Britain. In curry's wake have come many other common condiments and relishes long since known in the West: chutney, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and various forms of curry powder.

 But unsung was the conquest that accompanied curry: chai or tea. We all know that tea originated in China. We also know, from a famous "tea party" held in Boston Harbor over two centuries ago, that tea was exported from China by the East India Company. "Tea houses" had become fashionable for social gatherings even before American Independence. But few know that "Indian" or "black" tea, grown in Assam, Darjeeling, Niligiris, and "Ceylon" (as well as now in Kenya and many other places), not only conquered the world but also India itself. No country on earth consumes more tea. Moreover, India's people not only drink garam masala chai ("hot spiced tea")—the drink made with milk (sans water), mingled with spices and sugar—but also equal quantities of ordinary black (English) tea, which they also call chai.

When all is said and done, nothing can compare with the simple vegetarian curry made in a village household, prepared by someone whose curry lore has never been written down. Lizzie Collingham has produced a fitting tribute to this protean dish. While one might quibble over a few lapses within this history—such as the author's confusing Arthur Wellesley (the sepoy general who became Duke of Wellington) with his elder brother Richard, as the Governor-General—these tiny errors in no way diminish the value of this truly delightful book.

Robert Eric Frykenberg is professor emeritus of history and South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His latest book is Christianity in India: Earliest Beginnings to the Present (Oxford Univ. Press).

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