Two things are seemingly guaranteed in discourse around Indian food in the US. Many non-South Asians will refer to it with the shorthand “curry”, and just as predictably Indian Americans writing about Indian food will periodically rail against this shorthand, sometimes going so far as to issue denials of the very existence of curry. Here, for example, is Madhur Jaffrey in 1989 supplying a Chicago Tribune article with its dramatic title, “Let The Truth Be Known: There Is No ‘Curry’ in India”. And here now in 2019 is Khushbu Shah with a tweet that reads “Indians don’t eat curry, colonizers eat curry. Never forget.” And these are just two examples. If you do a quick bit of googling of phrases like “curry in India” you’ll find plenty of other denials of its existence. There is only one problem with all of this: it’s not true. Indians cook and eat curries happily and have been doing so for a long time. Why then do some people of Indian origin in the West keep denying the existence of curry as an Indian thing, and also relatedly the existence and use of curry powder in Indian kitchens? Let me try to explain.
The confusion begins with the origins of the word “curry” itself, and the complicated feelings the term arouses in some can probably be traced also to the fact that these origins lie in British colonialism in India. The prevailing theory is that the term “curry” first came to be used in colonial kitchens—i.e. the kitchens of colonial Englishmen and Englishwomen in India—to refer to dishes with peppery sauces. “Curry” may simply be a transliteration/corruption of the Tamil “kari”, a term for black pepper. In his A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, the venerable K.T. Achaya speculates, based on historical evidence, that the term may have first been used in colonial India to refer to spicy dishes served with South Indian food and later more broadly to refer to any South Indian dishes of a stew’ish consistency. This later, broadened sense of “curry” is probably what radiated out on colonial trajectories from India to other parts of Asia and the rest of the world.
I am not going to spend time here trying to disentangle the various strands of “curry’ in places like Malaysia, Thailand, Japan or Hong Kong (for one thing, I don’t know very much about all of that). I’m going to jump instead to the American context. Here we see two uses of the word “curry” which differ from the colonial British usage described by Achaya: 1) as noted above, “curry” becomes a metonym for all Indian food; and 2) “curry” comes to denote some sort of Indian flavour. Let’s take these one by one as these are two of the usages of “curry” in the West that Indians abroad are often bemused by or which Indian American food writers regularly object to—in my view, rightly. We’ll then get to how, having started out on the beachfront property of the correct, these objections over-reach and end up in the swamp of the incorrect.
You can see the first objection stated strongly and very clearly in a quote from Jaffrey in the Chicago Tribune article linked above: “‘To me, the word ‘curry’ is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term ‘chop suey’ was to China’s”. Jaffrey’s objection here is to a flattening out of a vast variety of dishes cooked in different styles, a heterogeneity of flavours and forms into the one catch-all term “curry”. (It should be noted here, by the way, that in colonial India “curry” did not have this singular sense.) Now, of course, meanings change as things move across the world but what we have here is a changing of meaning that emerges not from the usage of the people cooking the things that all get called “curry” but in the usage of people who can’t seem to be bothered to deal with the variety and complexity of Indian cuisines. The closest analogy I can think of would be if Italian food was not only identified in the US with pasta (which, of course, it is) but if all Italian food from actual pasta dishes to antipasto to salads to braises to polenta were all referred to as “pastas”.
Of course, pointing out these kinds of errors and generalizations does not make them go away and it is entirely possible that the war is un-winnable. But being vigilant against such oversimplification of complexity is nonetheless necessary and worthwhile, even as the objecting writers themselves have to work on the terrain of the oversimplifiers. I can only imagine how the divine Ms. M must feel about the fact that marketing requirements, presumably, have resulted in the word “curry” entering the titles of a number of her books since 1996—5/14 titles in this period have it whereas none of the 16 published before 1996 do*. Clearly, the rise in the profile of Indian food in the West in this period, which is also the exact period of the rise of the new food media and the new cosmopolitan foodie, has done little to help widen the understanding of the variety of Indian foods.
The second objection is likewise on solid ground. You can find “curry” listed as an ingredient or even deployed as a marker of a particular flavour on a number of restaurant menus and cookbook recipes in the US. But it is never clear what this usage refers to. What does it mean to say that something is flavoured like “curry”**? Do you mean that you added some turmeric? Some cumin? Some coriander? Some fenugreek? Some kind of garam masala? To say that something has “curry” flavour while simultaneously describing hundreds of different dishes as “curries” is meaningless at best and flies in the face of far greater nuance deployed in describing ingredients and flavours from elsewhere in the world.
But nuance also disappears when critics from the formidable Ms. M to Shah (and some far more incoherent points in between) move from challenging the flat view of Indian cuisine in the US to broader curry denialism of their own. Because, you see, despite what these widely followed writers would have you believe***, curries are cooked and eaten everywhere in India and in the diaspora. You can find recipes for curries in cookbooks written by Indians for Indians; you can find curries of all kinds on restaurant menus high and low all over India****; you can order curries on Indian Railways; you will find home kitchens cooking curries every day in India and the diaspora; almost every Indian food blog or Youtube channel aimed principally at other Indians has recipes for curries (see, for example, my own recipes). So, what’s going on? Are we all dupes of the Raj? Have we been so thoroughly colonized that we don’t even know that we are flattening our food culture? Nothing of the sort. The explanation is simply that curry in the Indian context means something very different than what it has come to mean in the American (and European) context.
In India “curry” certainly does not refer to all Indian dishes and it certainly does not refer to any particular flavour or set of flavours; it is no monolith. How could it be when curries abound in cuisines as wide apart in terms of ingredients and techniques as Malayali and Punjabi or Goan and Bengali? No, when Indians use the word “curry” we are referring to particular genres of dishes. In most parts of India a curry is any dish—though usually featuring meat or fish or eggs—that is cooked with spices in gravy. (“Gravy”, by the way, is the Indian English term for what is called “sauce” in the West; and “sauce” is our word primarily for ketchup.) Some curries may have thin gravies, some may be drier/clingy. In other words, dishes that resemble stews or braises or fricassees in the European culinary tradition are apt to be referred to as curries. If you order a chicken curry in an Andhra restaurant you will not expect it to taste like a fish curry you might order in a Goan restaurant or a mutton curry you might eat in a Parsi home, but you will probably be expecting a dish centered on gravy. Some dishes in the genre have so clear an identity of their own—vindaloos, for example—that they’re not referred to as curries. But others exist only as variations within a genre. Every non-vegetarian home has a chicken curry—they may be subtly or wildly different from each other in flavour but no one eating chicken curry in someone else’s home will be surprised to see it described as a curry.
I referred to Indian English above—I want to make two points about this. The first is that the use of the term “curry” in India is not merely an Indian English thing. Certainly, it works that way in some contexts. The Bengali mangsher jhol (or meat in gravy) might turn into “mutton curry” when referred to in English but the word curry is used as such in many non-English contexts as well. The Bengali for “egg curry” may be “dimer dalna” but in Hindi it is almost always going to be “anda curry” in common usage. Speaking of Bengali, one of the iconic Bengali dishes is called “Malai Curry”—there are arguments about what the “Malai” refers to—cream of coconut? Malay origins?—but no one finds the use of the second word to be un-Bengali. Similarly, in Kerala you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone that “kadala curry/kari” is not an organic Malayali thing.
The second point I want to make is that while the English language came to India with the English and became an Indian language through the disciplinary and hegemonic institutions of colonialism it did become an Indian language. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about go read Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, anything by Salman Rushdie, or, above all, G.V Desani’s sublime All About H. Hatterr. Indian English is not some mere colonial leftover, a mere dialect of metropolitan English. It is a vibrant, evolving language that speaks in many registers that represent indigenization and hybridization to create something new. You might think of the term “curry” in analogous terms. Even if you believe that the word “curry” is of colonial origin—and even this is not a settled thing—it is highly blinkered to think that any current use of the term “curry” by Indians is therefore in thrall to (neo)colonialism. If anything, that kind of conviction cedes too much ground and power to the discourse of colonialism, allowing it to always set the terms. It would be a very odd thing for most Indians to hear that there’s something embarrassing about eating something called a “curry” just because the word “curry” may have been popularized by the English; and I’d suggest that writers and chefs of Indian origin who want to represent Indian food more fully should not fall into the trap of saying or seeming to say that.
One more related thing before I go: curry powder. Go back and look at that Chicago Tribune article and you’ll see the following also attributed to Madhur Jaffrey: “No Indian uses commercial curry powder, she insists, nor do Indian cooks mix their own, because they use a different blend of spices for each recipe and insist on freshly ground spices instead of a bottled mixture that is powdered and possibly stale”. There is so much that is just wrong here. The only way I can account for someone as astute as Jaffrey believing any of this is her class background and the fact that India stopped being her primary home in the 1950s. I’d guess/pretty much know that Jaffrey grew up in a home with many servants and many cooks in the kitchen. For Indians in the middle class and below this is just not true. Middle class Indians may have cooks or maids coming in who prepare meals but this idea that all spices are being freshly ground in the homes of working women is a fantasy. That it is a fantasy can be seen quite simply just by walking into any Indian grocery store—in India or the diaspora—and seeing the vast variety of packaged pre-ground spices and spice mixes on offer. From a particular class position or privileged relationship to cooking the use of such spices may seem like a sort of fall from grace but it’s just the reality of most Indians. By and large the only urban kitchens in which all/most spices are ground freshly are those of hobbyists, the rich, or ones in homes where free domestic labour is available (usually from women).
I’m not sure when commercial spices mixes became a huge industry in India—I suspect it would have been in the post-independence period (India became independent in 1947, Jaffrey left India in 1955)—but it’s really not very hard to disabuse yourself of the romantic fantasy that Indian cooks are grinding all their spices to order (and if you think grinding spices without a coffee grinder or similar is fulfilling work then you have problems with your romantic fantasies). Another thing at play here is the role that Indian and other “ethnic” cuisines play in the foodie cultural imagination: their job is always to provide the authenticity missing in First World (post)modernity. But the hundreds of millions of working Indian cooks don’t have time for that.
And curry powder is very much one of those commercial spice mixes that is now as Indian as curry or Indian English. I started cooking in my mother’s kitchen in Delhi in my late teens and curry powder was an unembarrassed component of her spice box. It was only used to make certain kinds of meat curries but it was there and it was real. When I came to the US in 1993 boxes of curry powder were on the shelves of every Indian grocery store. These weren’t American or British brands but South Asian ones, made in South Asia and sold to South Asians. In the years since curry powder itself has gone through some evolution and differentiation in India. My mother tells me that it’s harder to find curry powder now in her market and that the two brands she used to like to use (she can’t remember their names) are long gone. But that’s at least partially because some curry powders have rebranded with names like Kitchen King. Others have fragmented into subsets to capture even greater market share (so you now have sub-genres of Meat Masala, Chicken Masala, Fish Masala, Veg Masala and so on)—but make no mistake, these are all curry powders too and they are not identical. That said, even now curry powder is made and sold in India and in the diaspora by that name. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the listings for curry powder on Amazon India—every major brand is represented. It may well be that curry powder and the other pre-made spice mixes are not being used by purist cooks but most Indian cooks are not purist cooks.
Indian American food writers and chefs therefore have to be a little more careful about how they talk about these things; some may need to educate themselves a little more, maybe consider seeing if their ideas are supported by things like evidence. I completely understand and am on board with the desire and need to combat the limited view of Indian food in the American mainstream; and I understand that for many young(er) Indian Americans raised in the US stereotypes of Indian food were intermingled with other racist stereotypes and insults. But in combating one kind of ignorance it’s important to not disseminate another. There’s more to Indian food—both in India and the diaspora—than the battles over it in the West. And the task of Indian American food writers and chefs should be to educate their readers—and in some cases, themselves—about how these issues play out differently in different contexts.
*See also Raghavan Iyer’s very popular book with a very embarrassing title, 660 Curries. Iyer lists as “curries” dishes that would never be thought of as curries in most Indian culinary contexts: dals and biryanis, for example, can only be thought of as “curries” in that flattened sense that sees all Indian food as “curry”.
** See, for example, “Vadouvan Sweet Curry Sauce” on the menu at Le Bernardin.
***And the problem is not just limited to Indian American critics. Here is the usually excellent Sharanya Deepak somewhat mystifyingly saying that curry “isn’t even a word” in India.
****The pictures in this post are taken from my write-ups of meals eaten in Bombay and Delhi in December 2018 (you can click on them to enlarge them slightly for easier viewing). In the order in which they appear in the post they are from the following restaurants: Highway Gomantak, a venerable Goan restaurant in Bombay; Just Kerala, a Malayali restaurant in Bombay; Bagundi, an Andhra restaurant in Delhi; Cafe Lota, a modern pan-regional restaurant in Delhi; Viva O Viva, the restaurant attached to the Goa Govt. house in Delhi; and Mahabelly, a popular Malayali restaurant in Delhi. All of these restaurants are aimed squarely at Indians; i.e things are not billed as curries on their menus for the benefit of foreigners who may be looking for them.