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Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
Oxford University Press, 2007
352 pp., $16.95
Robert Eric Frykenberg
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. ...