Indian

Does Embracing the Word "Curry" Make Me a Bad Indian?

by:
July 25, 2016

A couple weeks ago, I read the wonderfully informative article "The Problem with Curry" by Annada Rathi. It explained the history of the word, a British catch-all phrase that, much like British versions of Indian dishes, simplified and reduced India's diverse and complex cuisine into something easier to digest.

While reading the article, though, I felt a little uncomfortable. I am an Indian, who grew up in India. And curry is central to my own vocabulary when describing Indian food. Am I a bad Indian? Or has "curry" truly become a part of India's culinary culture?

Other indicators that I might be a bad Indian:

  • I use packaged spice blends as much as I use fresh whole spices. Often together.
  • I cannot keep a curry leaf plant alive.
  • My favorite pickle is kimchi.

Maybe I am a bad Indian. Or maybe the way Indians think about and eat food is changing, for better or worse. Judging by the number of brands and the sheer variety of spice blends available on Indian grocery store shelves today, I am not in the minority in my appreciation of their convenience. Those rows of spice blends have for years been a gateway for people from different regions to sample dishes from other areas. Sambhar masala from “The South” sits next to dal makhani masala from “The North.”

Even Indians, exploring the cuisine of another region, sometimes reduce it to its simplest parts. There is, happily, a growing appreciation for the diversity of regional cuisines. Restaurants with region and community specific menus (Bihari, Malabari, Goan, Parsi) rather than umbrella “North Indian” and “South Indian” menus have been popping up with increasing frequency in India’s major cities, and the spice mix shelves keep expanding with blends for more specific regional dishes.

Maybe I am a bad Indian. Or maybe the way Indians think about and eat food is changing, for better or worse.

The word "curry" is so ingrained in our cultural lexicon that the first time I realized that it isn’t an “Indian” word was in college, while watching an interview where Madhur Jaffrey delved into its history. And I understand the annoyance that comes with the way the word is sometimes seen as synonymous with Indian food. It is not. To me, even though “curry” has become an important part of Indian food, it does not even begin to scratch the surface of the country’s diverse culinary cultures. Still, I wholeheartedly embrace the word.

I was born in the North: New Delhi, capital city, home to people from all over the country. To most of the people I grew up with, “curry” brings to mind a much narrower group of dishes than it does elsewhere. If someone says “butter chicken” (a more authentic version of chicken tikka masala), I picture a plate of butter chicken. And while butter chicken can be classified as an Indian "curry"—it is saucy and (mildly) spicy—“chicken curry” typically describes something different: a rustic homemade dish that’s made in a similar manner and with similar proportions by most households in the region, but unique to each.

“Curry” is the word I use to describe my mother’s signature mutton and chicken dishes. They are not specific dishes with specific names. To call them “mutton curry” and “chicken curry” gives these rustic home-style dishes an identity. Every home in the part of India where I grew up has a mutton and chicken curry that goes by no other name, and it’s often the house specialty.

So I probably am a bad Indian, but more likely because I don’t watch enough Bollywood movies than because I use the word “curry”.

17 Comments

moop July 26, 2016
An awesome well-researched book on the history of the term is Lizzy Collingham's "Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors." It also tracks the evolution of "the curry" through India and how various trade routes and cultural influences changed what, for example, a basic mutton curry meant in different regions. My personal favorite is the story of Vindaloo, possibly because it is also my favorite "curry."
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 26, 2016
Thank you for this! I need to get my hands on a copy. And find a place that makes a good vindaloo nearby.
 
Nancy July 26, 2016
Very brave of you to write this article when there are so many ways we set very high expectations of ourselves to be pure, authentic, dedicated in our cooking. <br />Also, very helpful for me who loves Indian cooking from various regions but is an outsider, to hear that those immersed in it, like you and your family, cook and name your dishes as various curries.<br />I think we also sometimes get so enamored/enchanted with food history that we imagine there is a pure starting point which has been lost and needs to be recovered. Then beat ourselves over the head trying to recover the (maybe mythical, maybe good, maybe superseded) starting point.<br />So, all-in-all, lovely to have both recent articles...how the word curry has been used and abused by history & outsiders, but also used and loved and useful to insiders.
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 26, 2016
Nancy, thank you so much for this comment. You really get to the heart of my feelings on the topic!
 
Smaug July 25, 2016
From all I've ever heard (though I haven't really cooked much Indian food in a few decades) curry plant isn't actually much used for cooking- it's actually a Mediterranean native. It does have some medicinal uses.
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 25, 2016
Thanks for your comment. I'm not clear on where the plant originally came from, and it looks like there is a difference between curry leaf plants - used in Indian cooking - and curry plants, which are not considered edible. The curry leaf plant is indeed used extensively in Indian cooking. Here's are a couple of Food52 articles on the herb and how to use it:<br />https://food52.com/blog/9821-curry-leaves-and-your-favorite-ways-to-use-them<br />https://food52.com/blog/14638-madhur-jaffrey-told-me-to-use-my-curry-leaves-pronto
 
Smaug July 25, 2016
The plant you generally see in nurseries is Helichrysum Italicum, mostly used medicinally. There is a Curry tree, don't know the species, whose leaves are sometimes used in cooking. I tried a couple of cookbooks (One of Jaffreys' and Julie Sahni's "Classic Indian Cooking", but neither mentions it). I did find this comment from Jaffrey- "To me, the word "curry" is as degrading to India's great cuisine as the term "Chop Suey" was to China's", but I guess you already knew about that viewpoint.
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 25, 2016
True - the curry leaf plant is very difficult to find outside India. Shortly after moving to the US, I found it online, but unfortunately was too negligent to keep it alive. One of my favorite regional cuisines is form the state of Kerala, and it makes exetensive use of the herb. A great book on the cuisine is The Kerala Kitchen by Lathika George: https://www.amazon.com/Kerala-Kitchen-Recollections-Christians-Hippocrene-ebook/dp/0781811848/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1469493669&sr=1-2&keywords=the+suriani+kitchen. I love and respect Madhur Jaffrey, and understand why she may feel that way, but am not offended by the word at all. Perhaps this is because by the time I was growing up in India, the word had already been adopted by many communities in the country. <br />Thanks for your comments!
 
Annada R. July 25, 2016
Bravo to you, Tanya, for taking the discussion forward and bringing a different point of view. I really enjoyed reading your article as it made me dig deeper into where I was coming from.
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 25, 2016
Annada - Thank you for starting the discussion! Your piece was so well-researched and articulate, and really got me thinking about my own relationship with Indian food. I will be referring friends who want to learn more about Indian food for years to come!
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 25, 2016
*to your piece :)
 
PHIL July 25, 2016
If it tastes good who cares how it is made. I feel spice blends or premade sauces , like training wheels help to build a person's confidence in a particular cuisine until they try making it from scratch. I am not ready to make Indian food from scratch yet.
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 25, 2016
"Training wheels" is such a good way to describe it (though I continue to use them long past my training stage). A great way to build confidence with spices is to start experimenting with one or two at a time, to supplement your spice blends. Cumin is a favorite of mine - it's best when toasted in whatever fat you're using before adding other ingredients.
 
Anita104 July 25, 2016
Isn't it better to use spice blends and explore new dishes than to be intimidated by a long list of spices and not try new tastes? (I am a non-Indian who enjoys making Indian dishes.) I'm sure many modern Indian women are busier than in generations before, and find the spice blends allow them to make traditional dishes in less time. As I see it, this is a good thing. Progress.
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 25, 2016
Absolutely! I understand the impulse to preserve the traditional way of doing things - and have to admit that some of the depth and complexity of the spices can be lost when using blends (ground spices quickly lose flavor on the shelf). But spice mixes are hardly flavorless, and are great stand-in's for those who are short on time or ingredients! (A tip from an Indian - pick up a few whole spices you like to supplement the spice mixes. I often use whole black cardamom, cumin and cinnamon to "wake up" my chicken curry).
 
AntoniaJames July 25, 2016
No, of course you’re not a bad Indian, or a bad person, for this or any other use of terminology that causes no harm to another person, or because you buy spice blends. End of story. ;o)
 
Author Comment
Tanya July 25, 2016
Thank you Antonia! I debated a few times whether or not to mention my reliance on spice blends - as someone who truly enjoys making things from scratch, its difficult to not feel guilty about taking shortcuts sometimes!