Book Review: Curry

I started reading Lizzie Collingham’s book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, last week, and finished it within a few days. It is a fascinating little book, filled with historical details and thought-provoking ideas, the most revolutionary of which is that curry, as a dish, has gone beyond its origin in India, and has in fact, become an international dish that means different things to different people.

Contrary to the blurb written by Oxford University Press, the publisher of the book, it is not the definitive history of Indian food. For that, we must turn to K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion. While it is sadly out of print, Achaya’s book still stands as the best history ever written about Indian food from the ancient to the modern worlds, filled with scholarly details and careful documentation.

Curry is a very different book, and I think one that is more limited in scope. Rather than give a comprehensive history of the totality of Indian cuisine as Achaya has done, Collingham explores various feelings many Westerners have about Indian food in general, and restaurant foods in specific. In the process, she explodes many myths and mistaken beliefs that Westerners hold about curry.

For those British folk who grew up eating curries, (or as they say in the UK, “having an Indian,”) it might come as a shock that many of what they think of as “authentic” Indian dishes are no such thing, but instead, were restaurant innovations that sprang from the need to make shortcuts in the cookery, or to adapt it to Western palates. Chicken tikka masala, for example, was a dish created in the restaurant trade after bringing the tandoor oven to Britain. It is said that a customer complained that the chicken breast bits cooked in the Punjabi style on skewers in the molten heat of the clay oven was “too dry,” so an enterprising chef concocted a cream and tomato-based sauce to go with it.

In 2001, chicken tikka masala was named as the new “national dish of Great Britain,” which caused a flurry of derisive commentary from food journalists who declared that chicken tikka masala couldn’t even be called authentic Indian food.

But isn’t the point that it is a national dish of Great Britain, not India, one could ask–and Collingham does.

This question, this essential tension between curry as it is cooked by Indians for themselves (in which case, it originally would likely not be called “curry” in the first place–it is a word that was coined by the British to describe the unfamiliar braises, stews and spiced fried dishes they found being cooked in India under a dizzying array of names), and curry as it is cooked by them for others in restaurants, or by others, is part of the central theme of the book. “What is authentic Indian food?” Collingham seems to be asking, before she adds, “and is it called curry?”

The answer that she provides is multi-layered, just as the history of the food of India is complex and multi-faceted. She correctly points out that while the very similar menus of Indian restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic seem to point to a single national cuisine of India, there is no such thing. India is a vast country, with very different microclimates and agricultural traditions that vary from region to region. These purely physical environmental differences alone have helped steer India towards having very disparate regional cuisines, but once the different religious and cultural dietary restrictions are added into the equation, the stage is set for it to become impossible for there to be one single over-arching cuisine.

As far as I am concerned, that is a good thing. I am all for diversity at the table, and I, like Collingham, believe it is important for food to reflect the heart and souls of the people who cook and eat it. Whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Parsee, Buddhist, Jain, Christian or Jew, food traditions are important components of cultural identity, and should not become homogenized into a polyglot that loses the power of its meaning.

So why do Americans and the British have this idea that “Indian” food is that which is reflected in the menus of their local restaurants? Collingham answers that in part, it has to do with the fact that most Indian restuarants in those countries are owned by Pakistani and Bangladeshi people, who bring their own northern Indian cooking traditions to the restaurant-going public, but it also has to do with the tradition of feeding the dishes of the Mogul Emperors to the British during thier occupation of India during the Raj period.

These very rich, primarily Persian-Indian fusion dishes, were developed in the royal courts of the Persian Mogul Empire which began with Babur’s conquest of Hindustan, as Northern India was called at that time, in 1526. Combining the Persian predilictions for using fruits, dairy products and nuts in savory, meat-laden dishes, with the Indian knowledge of spices, the use of dals and the principles of Auyervedic cookery, Mogul cuisine is rich, and filled with a complex parade of dishes meant to satisfy the rarefied palates of the emperors and their courtiers. It is only natural that elements of this cuisine was bequeathed to the kitchens of the British Raj, as local cooks and servants treated the “sahibs” and “memsahibs” as royalty.

Eventually, versions of these dishes, such as biryanis, kormas and pillaus ended up on the menus of Indian restaurants in the West, as they had already been proven to appeal to Western palates. Even the titles of many of these dishes as presented in the West harken back to the days of the Mogul Empire: “Navrattan,” which means “nine jewels,” refers to the nine most beloved courtiers of Emperor Akbar’s court, while “Shajahani biryani” refers to a biryani that was named for Akbar’s son, Shajahan, the builder of the great Taj Mahal.

The greatest theme that Collingham brings forth in her work is that of culinary change. As you read Curry, you come away with the understanding that no cuisine exists in a vacuum, and no cuisine is static. There is always change, adaptation, and development. There are always new ingredients, new political or social circumstances, new foodstuffs and new technology to be incorporated into the kitchen. These novelties ensure that no cuisine ever remains static, and instead is in a constant state of flux, which is, as far as I am concerned, the sign of a healthy living system.

Nothing in nature stays the same for long–all things grow and change or are left behind in the dust of history.

Why should cookery be any different?

In the end, Collingham’s view is that curry means different things to different people. Now that it has travelled beyond the borders of India, it has become popular in Japan, the West Indies, the UK, and the United States, and each country to which it travels, changes it to some extent. Curry powder has become integral to several Chinese dishes, and the tradition of Thai curry making is the result of trade and cultural exchange along the silk road between India and China through Thailand.

Curry is rooted in India, but has become a citizen of a global world, and has become a beloved part of many dinner tables among many peoples. In this way, I would say, that no matter how much India’s cuisines were changed by trade, invasion and occupation, tthe spices of India did just as much to enrich and enliven countless cuisines of the world.

And I think that Collingham would agree.


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  1. You’ve convinced me Barb! I’m getting the book :o)

    Comment by Meena — February 8, 2006 #

  2. Barbara,

    Thanks for this superb review. It leaves me with lots of questions. The main one being, how is Northern Indian food different from what I eat in Indian restaurants here in the Bay Area? What might I expect to eat if I go to Northern India?

    The Bay Area has some regional Indian restaurants, some of them serving Southern Indian cuisine (I don’t know whether it’s authentic), based more on wheat and dosas than on curries.

    Comment by Hadar — February 8, 2006 #

  3. Thanks for this review Barbara. I am tempted to buy the book. It has always surprised me how a very tiny fraction of Indian cuisine is generically considered to represent its whole in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. You have excellent insight into our food I must say! To answer a question by another reader if I may, most restaurants in the U.S. have north Indian food since the community (Punjabis), an enterprising lot came to the U.S. in the early 60s and set up restaurants. Here you would usually get palak paneer, kormas, naans and the like. Now that Indian food has gained popularity more people are willing to get into the business and this has highlighted other regional cuisines, such as from the South. The Southern states comprise of Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. In South Indian restaurants one will get dosas, idlis, pongal, sambar, lemon/ tamarind rice etc. This is because rice grows in abundance (unlike Punjab where wheat is the primary crop) and most of the dishes use rice flour/ batter. The other primary ingredient is coconut and is used in chutneys/ stews etc. Hope this helps.

    Comment by Ashwini — February 8, 2006 #

  4. Outstanding, Barbara. Worthy of a top notch publication.
    Well, what am I saying? T & S IS top notch.
    I will be quoting some of this in the NC’s Wise Words side blog – it’s on the queue.

    Comment by courtney — February 8, 2006 #

  5. Let me know what you think, Meena!

    Hadar–Ashwini got to answer you before I did–and a very good job was done.

    The food of Ajanta in Berkeley seems to represent accurate regional cuisines, Hadar, but I would say that depending on what part of Northern India you are visiting, the differences could be slight to huge. Kashmiri cuisine is well represented at Ajana–and what I tasted there and am looking at in their new cookbook that just came today–is very different than typical US Indian restaurant offerings. A good book to help explain these differences is World Food: India by Lonely Planet. I should really review it here–it is a handy quick and dirty guide to Indian food. Another book I need to haul off and review is Food Culture in India which is by Colleen Taylor Sen–it is written specifically for libraries, so it is as expensive as a textbook, but it is a good resource for the kinds of questions like you are asking. (Morganna used it for her final project in World Foods.)

    Ashwini, thank you for answering! And welcome to my blog–I do hope you stop by again soon.

    Courtney–thanks! I am going to be reading/reviewing some more books on India, curry, cooking and the like soon. Stay tuned!

    Comment by Barbara — February 8, 2006 #

  6. I agree with what you said about K.T. Achaya’s book. It is definitely the definitive book on the subject. I have only flipped through the new book, but I decided not to buy it because the pages I read smacked of too much of a British Imperialist perspective. I am more interested in the regionality of Indian cuisine. As far as the evolution of so-called curries throughout the world, I love the multi-paged intro to Madhur Jaffrey’s book “From Curries to Kebabs.” It doesn’t sound like this new book offers much more insight than MJ’s book.

    Comment by Brett — February 8, 2006 #

  7. You are right–it isn’t as much from an Indian perspective–for that, the Achaya book is invaluable, and necessary. Which is why I got cranky with the Oxford blurb–because she isn’t writing a definitive history of Indian food–she is writing about the concept, idea, dish and experience that is curry–and she is doing it from a British perspective.

    Which is what I found interesting–to be honest, I don’t know that much about the British perspective on anything regarding India. That is a part of history I know little about–I mean, I know that they were imperialist twits and that the British East India Company had the largest standing army in the world at the time–and Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot about India, but other than that–not much.

    So, that is part of what pulled me in. What amazed me was how much India changed Britain–and not the other way around–which is what one expects in that sort of situation.

    That is part of my fascination–learning something new from a perspective I know very little to nothing about.

    As for that Madhur Jaffrey book–guess what just came today? That very book.

    Expect a review in the future….

    Comment by Barbara — February 8, 2006 #

  8. Cool. I think you’ll like that book. I find the recipes and writing inspire me to cook. What more could you ask for in a book?

    Comment by Brett — February 9, 2006 #

  9. Thank you, I will be purchasing the book. I give cooking classes and I have tried my best to expalin these concepts in my persoanl notes posted at


    Kavita Mehta

    Comment by Kavita Mehta — February 13, 2006 #

  10. Barbara — I loved the book myself. I believe it is well-researched.

    I got disconcerted by the many references to Indian servants but she is talking about the days of the Raj…

    Comment by tilo — January 13, 2007 #

  11. Hello, tilo–

    I enjoyed the book a great deal and do think that Collingham did a good job researching it.

    What I most came away with was the understanding that when Britain set out to change India, of course, change happened. But India also changed Britain, and I think that is amazing and is a testament to the strength and beauty of Indian culture and people.

    What it made me think about was the ways in which humanity on both an individual and on a societal scale are always changed when they come into contact with each other. It is always give and take, even in situations of imperialism where one culture has all of the power and dominates another culture. The dominating culture is also changed–one hopes for the better–one hopes so strongly to the better that the dominating culture learns to stop forcing change on other people.

    Comment by Barbara — January 14, 2007 #

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