Mystic Curry

This article of mine was printed in the Sep-Oct 2008 issue of Reesha, Bahrain Air’s in flight magazine.

They danced a quickstep and did a foxtrot. Their feet barely touched the ground as they floated and shimmered across the stage in a television reality show called, “So You Think You Can Dance“. The judges observed, stern-faced, noting the framing, the aesthetics, checking for the elusive element of “connection” between the partners and delivering the verdict, often harsh, often showing discontent; some aspect of each performance always found lacking, in their opinion. Most contestants walked away dejected.

And then it happened! They came to do The Bollywood!

A pretty young woman of Chinese descent and an African American gentleman appeared on stage, dressed in traditional Indian clothing; exquisite jewelry, brocaded lehnga and chunni and proceeded to dazzle the audience with an energetic and beautifully choreographed dance from a recent Bollywood production called “Om Shanti Om”. The judges were awed, the audience screamed and the dancers couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces. The judges were thrilled with the global focus on this popular primetime TV program in America.

Watching the show the other day I couldn’t help feeling somewhat pleased that something so uniquely Indian could be so appreciated by a global audience. For some reason that brought curry to mind…a place called “Curry in a Hurry” on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan or curry being offered at an Indian restaurant in a little whaling town in Connecticut. For what are the songs and dances that the world will come to identify as “The Bollywood” if not a hybrid presentation of musical influences from the different parts of the Indian subcontinent; a choreography assimilating various influences in an attempt to please a global audience.

Curry. Confluence. Convergence. Cumin. Cardamom. Cinnamon. Coming together. Curry is all these things and more. If it wasn’t for the trade in spices and pepper, trade in the very ingredients that make up curry, there wouldn’t have been an East India Company; created to provide Britain a competitive edge over the Dutch when it came to spice trading, there wouldn’t have been a British Raj, the jewel would have been missing from the imperial crown. Christopher Columbus, Vasco Da Gama, they all set out in the search of spices, how different would our world have been if it wasn’t for these intrepid voyagers? It isn’t hard to see how curry, a combination of spices that tickle the palate and provide the sensuous and pleasurable experience that can only come from delectable food, shaped our world.

The origins of the word curry are not clear. Some say it originated from the word karai (a cooking wok), some attribute it to kari patta (a certain kind of leaf used for flavoring) or the south Indian kari (a word for sauce). But I have also read some reports about it being an English word all along, with its roots in the Latin word cuire. Whatever its origins when we attach the word “curry” to anything, chances are we are referring to the perception of a uniquely Indian experience.

As a child I remember chicken curry or goat curry being a perennial favorite. Even vegetable preparations were called curry; to our family curry was synonymous with gravy. Which is why when I migrated to the United States, some twenty years ago, I felt confused when at the mention of Indian food I got asked, “You mean you add curry?” I had considerable difficulty understanding that question because in my mind curry was gravy – how could curry be “added”? Gravy, after all, wasn’t something that got “added”, the food was prepared in gravy. I recall being puzzled about their notions regarding curry. Only later, while browsing supermarket aisles did I see the little vials of spice, usually quite exorbitantly priced, labeled “curry powder”; a homogenized mixture, a reduction to a single unremarkable entity, its features dimmed and blurred, generalized and simplified.

I was never quite sure what was in this mixture called curry powder. I used it to cook some standard Indian dishes but the taste was never quite reminiscent of Mom’s cooking. It felt artificial, like McCurry in a jar – a term I attribute to a friend to whom I was explaining curry.

Here’s what he said after hearing me out, “It’s probably that combo of spices, not often used in the American kitchen, which lends that oh-so-familiar smell to Indian restaurants. The smell which makes me say, “mmm…smell that curry?” Which is probably a reasonable thing to say, although until you set me straight, I was smelling the smell but incorrectly attributing it to just one spice…McCurry, assumed fresh, as if the restaurateurs had a mystical place to which they trekked to pluck fresh curry…like using fresh parsley instead of parsley flakes…”

The generous sprinkling of just such a powder probably goes into the chicken tikka masala, declared a British national dish in 2001 by Robin Cook, then foreign secretary. Mr Cook intended it as a salute to the multicultural nature of present day Britain, a reflection of how Britain adapts and absorbs external influences but his comment attracted considerable criticism, challenging the “authenticity” of what many perceive as a mongrel dish that doesn’t have much to do with India.

Somewhere in the flurry of criticism, the critics missed the point Mr Cook was making about Britain’s cultural plurality, about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The fact remains that chicken tikka masala is a very popular dish there and it undoubtedly represents a collaboration, a confluence, a convergence of complementary tastes just like curry itself – a pleasing and tantalizing mixture of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, curcumin and anything else, the recipes of which moms whisper in daughters’ and daughters’-in-law’s ears from one generation to the next.

My supermarket curry powder was tasteless, bland, formulaic-created over an assembly line. I was indifferent to its taste, unable to make a mental adjustment whereby a certain culinary richness was about to be traded off with blandness; the price to be paid for leaving home. However, I wasn’t inclined to think of the experience as lacking authenticity. In fact, the words “authentic Indian cuisine” make about as much sense as the words “curry powder” made when I first heard them. Even the things that are now perceived as Indian, for instance, chili peppers and tea, were brought over from other places in the 1600s. The Moghuls brought over Persian flavorings, the Portuguese brought over the Goan Vindaloo preparations; cuisine now circling the world as authentically Indian was acquired and seamlessly integrated over the last several centuries.

South Indian cuisine bears no similarities to North Indian cuisine, Eastern Indian preparations are distinct from Western Indian ones. Southern and Eastern Indians are rice eaters, north Indians prefer breads. I was once asked by American friends who had neighbors who hailed from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal if I required a daily diet of fish. I was surprised at the question, I am not a vegetarian but fish doesn’t feature as prominently in my daily diet as it would in the diet of someone who is from that part of the country. In the Western Indian state of Gujarat sugar is added to almost all preparations, people from the north or the south find that practice distinctly odd. The permutations and combinations of spices and the proportions in which they can be combined are dazzling in the distinctions they achieve across regions.

This may be the reason why “curry” continues to serve as a metaphor for cultural identity. In an American context, Indians are often stereotyped as the IT professionals, call center employees, motel and convenience store owners, doctors and engineers or people who still arrange the marriages of their children. There are second or third generation Indians in the US who are even more prone to generalizations that enable a distancing from other Indians who have just arrived, or from their own parents and parents’ friends who attend desi parties bedecked in Indian finery and seat themselves in a segregated arrangements of males on one side and females on the other.

This to them is an “India in the ubiquitous spice jar”, a perception of Indian-ness that’s easily discarded in assimilation drives.

“Curry” however, cannot be defined and discarded as a bland, homogeneous mixture in a spice jar on a supermarket shelf.

This hot, spicy, tantalizing sauce is made from fresh spices, mixed in different proportions, improvised constantly, in the hands of gourmet mothers, aunts and other cooks, who go about adding a pinch of this and that and coming up with something very subtly different from a similar preparation in a different hand. Each rendition is unique, distinct just like wine in the hands of a vintner or French perfume with its distinctly identifiable floral notes or like American Jazz and Indian Classical music, improvised at each step, defying expectations, surprising the audience, evolving at each instant, adapting and changing with times, places and persons.

1 Comment

  1. Like a good curry, your article blends music, dance, food, history, social comment, perceptions, nostalgia into one fragrant whole.

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