The moveable feast : Curry up


I have learned more about curries from Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible than from all my years of eating them. Besides recipes, The Curry Bible takes you through time and to anywhere that curry is found including Durban, Guyana and Japan.

Here are some excerpts.

Curry, according to a dictionary of Indo-British words published around 1882, was described this way: ‘In the east, such grain as rice has little taste and so requires a much more savoury preparation. And this is in fact the proper office of curry in native diet. It consists of meat, fish or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric, and a little of this gives flavour to a large mess of rice.’ The dictionary goes on to add that the origin of the word ‘curry’ could have been the Kannada language word, karil, or the Tamil kari, meaning ‘sauce’.

William Makepeace Thackeray who had travelled to India, offers his own recipe in his poem, Curry.

Three pounds of veal my darling girl prepares

And chops it nicely into little squares

Five onions next procures the minx

(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks)

And Epping butter nearly half a pound

And stews them in a pan until browned.

What next my dextrous little girl will do

She pops the meat into the savoury stew,

With curry powder tablespoons three,

And milk a pint (the riches that may be),

And when the dish has stewed for half an hour

A lemon’s ready juice she will o’er it pour

Then, bless her! Then she gives the luscious pot

A very gentle boil- and serves quite hot

PS- Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish

Lobsters or prawns, or any kind of fish

Are fit to make a CURRY. ‘Tis, when done,

A dish for emperors to feed upon.

England’s first curry house was called the Hindostanee Coffee House and it opened in Portman Square, London and was owned by Dean Mahomet also known as Mr Vindaloo. It closed a few years later, one of the reasons given it didn’t actually serve coffee.

Queen Victoria, who herself had Indian servants, served curries at her palace dinners, but under French names such as cailles aux pommes de terre a l’indienne (quail and potato curry). If the cookbook written by one of her chefs, Charles Elme Francatelli, is any guide, these were the usual period curries with curry powder, curry paste, onions and apples.

The spread of curry in South-East Asia can be attributed to labour from India going to Burma, Thailand et cetera and taking cooks with them. And so began a curry culture across entire countries spanning a vast landmass. One leap across the Ocean that is noteworthy was a curry for Nelson Mandela, who grew up on a kind of stew of maize and beans called Umngqusho. His colleagues in the African National Congress, the Cachalias invented a dish which Indianised Mandela’s food by adding onion, garlic, chillies and tomatoes. Today it is a favourite in Mandela’s household and is eaten with biryani.

Says Jennifer Brennan, food writer, “A good recipe travels well. A great recipe travels in time in addition to distance, appealing to so many cooks that it becomes part of many culinary repertoires. It is the substance of domestic lore passed from mother to daughter, or through a family of professional chefs or khansamers. Old soldiers fade away. Old recipes are merely translated, transformed and, sometimes, transmogrified; taking on a new lease of life and vogue in the process.”

And so it is true as Indian food evolves globally.