For most of us, the word curry is synonymous with Indian food. We think of them as hot and spicy, and we might recall some of our favorites – like chicken tikka masala. But almost everything we think we know about curry is wrong.
The story of curry is a fascinating one – not just in India but across the world. What we know as modern curry is large parts colonial England, part Portuguese and – inexplicably – Glaswegian!
In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham describes curry as one of the most internationalized foods on earth, and says it has borrowed ingredients and methods from dishes of other cultures for its entire history.
Living in a culinary capital of San Francisco, I was really surprised by the dearth of Indian (and that which I did find was well below par). When I started researching why, I found this astonishing suggestion from a Yahoo! question about why Americans don’t like curry.
“(Americans have an) unconscious perception of Indians based on misery, starving cattle, Mother Teresa’s lepers, temples to rats, cows walking around defecating the instant the urge hits them … that make squeamish Americans infinitely prefer something a little more akin to the American experience.”
While that is perhaps a simplification of the situation, New York food assistant professor Krishnendu Ray told Salon.com that Indian food is unlikely to hit its zenith in the US until 2065. His calculations are thus: it takes roughly 100 years from the first wave of migrants to have a major impact on food culture, as the Italians did starting in New York on their centenary in he 1980s.
While I wait, I’m brushing up on my palak paneer skills.
The British, however, eat a ton of it.
The Times of India estimates there are 10,000 Indian restaurants in the United Kingdom, which keep about 80,000 people in jobs, serve 2.5 million customers weekly and have an annual turnover of US$5.6 billion. (For comparison, that is more than the annual turnover of the Home Depot chain of stores.)
There are more Indian restaurants in London than in Mumbai and Delhi combined.
The word is not even Indian. British traders bastardized the word caril into caree, to mean a sauce poured over rice.
A canned history of chicken tikka masala
Besides the traditional Sunday roast, the most popular meal in England today is chicken tikka masala. The mildly spicy, creamy curry heads a juggernaut of insanely popular Indian curries served within stumbling distance of almost every pub on the British Isles.
Britain’s National Curry Week estimated there were almost 43 million portions of chicken tikka masala served there each year.
So what if I told you it wasn’t Indian?
In 2009, a Scottish MP backed a Glasgow restaurant’s bid to have the Scottish city recognized by the European Union as the home of chicken tikka masala.
Legend has it, the popular dish was born in the 1970s when Glasgow’s Shish Mahal chef Ali Ahmed Aslam made a sauce from the remains of his dinner – Campbells tomato soup – after a customer complained his meat was too dry.
But Indian food historians said the claim was preposterous.
Delhi street food expert Rahul Verma said he first tasted the dish in 1971 and its origins were in the Punjab, and emerged less than 40-50 years ago.
Zaeemuddin Ahman from the Karim Hotel in Delhi told the Telegraph in London the recipe had been passed down through several generations of his family.
If it is from Scotland, it’s an incredibly popular export – it is even now very popular in India. Indeed, the Times of India has an entire section devoted to chicken tikka masala.
Let’s look at some other curry myths.
This may be true at your local takeaway but chili is, historically speaking, a relatively new ingredient in Indian curries.
Lizzie Collingham points out that before the Portugese arrived on the island of Goa in the 15th century, Indians had never seen a chili pepper. Prior to that, Indian dishes got their spice from the common black pepper and long pepper, which is barely used these days.
This is also garbage. Curry powder, usually a mix called garam masala, was an English invention from the days when spices had to be dried and ground for long-term transport on ships back to the Motherland. Indian chefs and connoisseurs scoff at the idea of using a pre-made spice mix and the taste difference is palatable.
But there is hope on the horizon for English curry.
British Curry Awards founder Enam Ali told the Times of India last week that curry in Britain had come of age.
“The primary change is in people’s perceptions,” he was quoted as saying.
“In the beginning, curry houses were nothing more than places to drink cheap beer in. Curries were considered to be pungent smelling; now the British call them fragrant.”