Lizzie Collingham's fascinating new cultural history, Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors, traces the multicultural roots of dishes widely perceived as indigenous to India, now spread across all corners of the world.
"Curry," now widely known as a favorite meal of Japanese schoolchildren and harried commuters, actually encompasses them all.
"In the present day, I think it's really hard to define curry," says Collingham in a telephone interview from her home in Australia. "Basically, it's a catchall word that's used to describe any dish that comes from India that uses spices to make a gravy in which the main ingredient is cooked."
Curry is a study of cuisine that results from cultural assimilation. It asks: "What does authenticity really mean? And is authenticity really the right yardstick by which to judge an Indian meal?"
In precise language and lavish historic detail, Collingham explores the enduring legacy of the British Empire, the Raj in India, and the development of Anglo-Indian dishes that have survived and thrived across centuries and cultures. It also looks at Portugese, Central Asian and Persian influences of the explorers and Mughal emperors who settled across India.
While a student at Oxford, Collingham developed an interest in the proliferation of Indian restaurants in London, wondering where they came from. As a research fellow, she traveled to Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Delhi and Rajasthan. The bulk of her work, however, was done in the national library in Canberra, Australia.
"With this kind of book, you think you have to eat a lot," says Collingham. "But the place you need to go is, to the books."
Each chapter offers historic recipes as well as contemporary takes on classics such as biryani and vindaloo, both culturally assimilated dishes. Portugese explorers brought the concept of vinegar-marinated meats to the subcontinent, and mixed them with local spices to eventually create vindaloo. Biryani essentially is an Indian-spiced version of Persian pilaus from Central Asia, brought across India's northern border by the Mughals.
Collingham traces the Europeans' introduction of cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, chilies vegetables now universally included in westernized Indian dishes and the profound British contribution of tea to Indian culture. The chapter on tea culminates with recipes for chai and buttermilk mango lassi.
Much is made, too, of the commercialization of curry, which has resulted in the bright yellow canned powder used as a shortcut for carefully tended fresh spice mixtures and marketed across the world. Brits sprinkle it on their chips and Samoans make a pasty gravy of it, in which they simmer canned corned beef.
What was the best meal she ate during her research? Collingham says it was a simple curry that she suspects tasted so good because she'd just gotten off an airplane and was tired and hungry. It was comfort food, plain and simple, prepared in Singapore by a Chinese-Malaysian woman "who got the recipe from her Tamil mother-in-law, a chicken curry that really came from their home country.
"It's really all about locating identity, isn't it?"
(Visit Appetite at csindy.com to snag the recipe for Susan's Chicken from Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors.) capsule
Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
By Lizzie Collingham
Oxford University Press, $25/hardcover