Curry Powder : Britain

In this series, we will explore three global derivatives of the India’s most important culinary export. On the way, we will dabble in history and etymology, food science and philosophy, and a lot more. May is going to be all about the globalisation of curry.

As an Indian, I absolutely detest the word “curry”. Think of a Kashmiri rogan josh, a Bengali machher jhol, a Mangalorean prawn ghee roast and a Keralan kozhi varutharacha. Although these four dishes are as different as the four seasons, they call count as “curry”. No self-respecting Indian would use this term to describe their dish; it’s too limiting, an attempt to pigeonhole an entire culinary culture into a five-letter word. So where did the term come from?

The Tamil word “kari” means sauce or relish. The Kannada and Malayalam “karil” refers to spices for seasoning as well as the dishes made with them. The Portuguese picked up the term from these Dravidian languages. Later, under the Brits, the word got Anglicised to “caril” or “carree”, and eventually into “curry”, a blanket term used to describe these spice laden dishes served with a sauce or gravy. Although the term was first used 1598, the first recipe of a curry published in British was much later, in a book called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, first published in 1747.

The first curry recipe (1747)

“Anglo-Indian dining tables would not be complete without bowls of curry which, eaten like a hot pickle or a spicy ragout, added bite to the rather bland flavours of boiled and roasted meats. No Indian, however, would have referred to his or her food as curry. The idea of a curry is, in fact, a concept that the Europeans imposed on Indian’s food culture. Indians referred to their dishes by specific names… for example roganjosh, dopiyaza or quarama. But the British lumped all of these together under the heading of curry.”

—Lizzie Collingham, Curry.

A quick aside on a fun etymological exchange. The word “curry”, as we’ve seen, roughly translates to “sauce”. A Western “gravy” refers to a sauce made using meat drippings off a roast cooked with stock, aromatics and cream, the traditional accompaniments to roast chicken and beef. In India, the term gravy now refers to the “saucy” part of a curry. So, while the Brits borrowed our term for sauce to describe Indian dishes, we in turn borrowed theirs to re-describe our own food.

The Western “gravy” (Courtesy: All Recipes)

Although we Indians don’t use the word curry, it is a term used worldwide to describe our food. The Jamaican curry goat and the Malay curry puff both allude to the use of spices in the dish. In this series, we will talk about three very different curry derivatives from different parts of the world. Although all of these originated from the Indian source, they are a separate class of dishes on their own.

The word “curry powder” does not exist in the culinary lexicon of Indians, except for that annoying Indian guy pretending to be a white person trying out Indian food. Indian cooks use spices from scratch to make their dishes, the choice and proportion of spices depending on the dish. Even back then, Anglo-Indian households employed a masalchi, who would grind fresh spices for the day on a heavy flat grindstone with a stone shaped like rolling-pin.

The Masalchi (1889), artist unknown (Courtesy : Artsy)

For someone who is new to spices, the wide variety can become incredibly confusing. This is what happened with the Anglo-Indians who, when trying to recreate their favourite Indian curries back home, failed to properly harness the power of the spices. As they slowly started thinking of curries as variations on a theme, they started collecting recipes for spice mixes which they dubbed “curry powder”.

One of the popular varieties was the Madras curry powder. The earliest version was sold at the Oriental Depot shop in Leicester Square in the mid 19th century. Some of its components include coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, fenugreek, chilli, curry leaf, black pepper and turmeric. It was on the spicier side, and a pretty popular variant of the curry powder. Even today you get Madras curries in British curry houses in the UK.

Components of a Madras curry powder (Courtesy: Food52)

The ubiquity of curry powder turned British curries incredibly monotonous, a stew-like concoction flavoured with exotic ingredients. The subtlety of the spices was lost because not only was the same sort of spice blend used in almost all dishes, but also because the ground spices in a curry powder lose their flavours incredibly quickly over time.

Like Darwin’s finches, the British curry started to speciate into a form that is almost unrecognisable to us Indians. The recipe for curry from the English Heritage YouTube channel shows just how far this British curry had strayed from its Indian roots. Chunks of beef coated in flour seasoned with salt and curry powder, and cooked with onions, cucumber and apples, this is a fry cry from the dishes I’ve grown up eating. Queen Victoria, however, employed Indian chefs in her kitchen to get a more authentic curry.

Mrs. Crocombe’s Victorian Curry (Courtesy: English Heritage)

Although there were Indian eating houses serving up curry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the popularity of curry skyrocketed after the partition in 1947, with a large proportion of Indians from Punjab and Sylhet migrated to Britain, and again after the Bangladesh War in 1971, which is why a lot of the curry houses in Britain are actually run by Bangladeshis.

The usual fare at a British curry house is rather formulaic, churning out dishes like vindaloo, korma, jalfrezi and dhansak, the spice levels toned down to satisfy the British palate, mopped up with “naan bread” (perhaps the best example of food tautology,closely followed by “chai tea”) and washed down with a pint of lager. Papad, or poppadoms as the Brits call it, are eaten as starters instead of an accompaniment. The modern Brit is as enthralled with the exotic flavours of curry as their Victorian ancestors. With 9000 curry houses across the UK. “Going out for a curry” is as British as fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Going out for a curry (Courtesy: TripAdvisor)

If there is one dish that encompasses Britain’s obsession with curry, it is chicken tikka masala. Although chicken tikka is a skewered meat dish dating back to the Mughals, chicken tikka masala was invented in the 1970s, in a restaurant called Shish Mahal in Glasgow, Scotland. When a customer returned a dish of chicken tikka saying that it was too dry, the owner, Ali Ahmed Aslam added in a can of tomato soup, which he had lying in the back of the pantry since he was recovering from a stomach ulcer. The customer liked this new dish, and the rest is history.

In 2001, Robin Cook, the secretory general of the UK, called chicken tikka masala “a true British national dish”, epitomizing “multiculturalism as a positive force for our economy and society”. From a misunderstood and bastardized translation of a Tamil word from the turn of the 15th century to its elevation to a national status in a country 7.5 thousand kilometers away from its land of origin, curry has had a rather interesting history.

Next week, we will look at yet another distinctive curry derivative from a different culture which has become an integral part of its cuisine.

The original chicken tikka masala (Courtesy: Shish Mahal)

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