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.
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”.