- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

CURRY A TALE OF COOKS AND CONQUERORS

By Lizzie Collingham

Oxford University Press, $28,

304 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

Lizzie Collingham’s “Curry” has quite a few intriguing recipes, but it is not primarily a cookbook. It also has lots of information about the various peoples who have settled in different parts of India, and especially about their responses to the foods they found there. Yet it is not exactly a history of India. Rather, it is a series of essays that ponder Indian foodways, tethering them to both the religions of the country and to its many invaders.

Among them were the British, who probably did the most to bring Indian cooking to the West. The East India Company arrived in 1600 and the British Empire only folded its banners when India and Pakistan regained their independence in 1947. One effect is that Indian cooking has intimately shaped that of its former rulers.

As early as 1747 Hannah Glasse’s “Art of Cookery” had recipes for curry, and since then no cookbook aiming to capture the full range of British food has been without instructions for several curries and at least one pilau. Few tables in Britain lack a selection of sharp sauces and chutneys, most of which derive from Indian models.

The very word “chutney” derives from the Hindi chatni, making the origin of these spicy relishes quite clear. Worcestershire sauce was created by the pharmacists Lea and Perrins of Worcester in an attempt to mimic a favorite sauce brought back from India by Lord Marcus Sandys.

Most noticeably, today, no visitor to Britain can miss the numerous Indian restaurants. Indeed, Britons enjoy Indian-style food so much that supermarkets stash their shelves with Indian sauces, Indian ingredients, Indian breads, and ready-to-eat Indian meals. Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, had a point when he said in 2001 that chicken tikka masala was the new national dish of Britain.

A furor erupted. Chicken tikka masala is not “really” Indian: It’s an invention of Britain’s Indian restaurants designed to make dry tandoori chicken more appealing by slathering it in a spicy tomato sauce. Popular it may be, but sophisticated experts scorned it as a perverted effort of multiculturalism.

Thus is has ever been. When food travels from one country to another it suffers a sea change and emerges as something strange and new. Lizzie Collingham traces such changes, showing how newcomers to the Indian subcontinent contributed their favorite delicacies to the rich array of ingredients and cooking traditions that they found there.

The famed Mughal cooking of northern India dates from the conquest of Hindustan by Babur in 1526. He was Muslim from Uzbekistan, and his was a warrior culture where meat was central to the diet, cooking was a great art, and feasting was a favorite activity. In vegetarian India things were different. “There is no good … meat, grapes, melons or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets” he complained.

Over time, however, these mismatched culinary cultures borrowed from each to produce a superb cuisine that synthesized the foods of northern India, Persia, and Central Asia. Delicate Persian pilaus combined with spicy Hindu rice dishes and gave birth to biryani. Aromatic, colorful and artfully spiced, today it’s the favorite at Indian weddings.

Later in the hands of the cooks of Lucknow, pilaus were presented as plates of jewels: the rice presoaked in salt to that it has the crystallized look of diamonds or dyed red and green like rubies and emeralds. Cooks from Lucknow also took the Persian habit of marinating meat in spiced yogurt to new heights, adding cream to create quorma dishes.

The Mughals brought their love of fruit to India. So much did they enjoy fruit and other foods that it was de rigueur to send it as gifts. Thomas Roe, James I’s ambassador, was somewhat chagrined to receive 20 melons. “The Indians must suppose our felicity lyes in our palate,” he complained. “For all I have ever received was eatable and drinkable.”

But as Lizzie Collingham explains, for the Mughals delicious fruit was a nostalgic reminder of their more verdant homelands. As for the churlish Roe, he was entertained to banquets where the array of literally hundreds of dishes startled all European observers.

Among the dishes served to the Mughals were pastries and cakes from Portugal. While the British were settling themselves in for the long haul in Bombay, and later in Calcutta and Madras, the Portuguese were well-established further south in Goa. The brought with them chili peppers: The spice now most closely associated with fiery Indian cooking. But chilis originated in Central America and were unknown until the Spanish conquistadores took them back to Europe. Just as Europeans found them an appealing addition to the pepper and ginger and cinnamon they had been importing from India, so Indians soon found room for them in their kitchens.

They also found room for other good things the Portuguese brought with them such as pastries and confections made from wheat flour, butter and eggs instead of the boiled-down milk, which is the basis of most Indian sweets. Slaves trained by the Portuguese and bought by the Mughals spread this expertise to the northern courts.

The Portuguese also taught the art of making European-style wheat breads, at least in part because they needed bread for the Mass. Equally, though, the Portuguese who settled in Indiafavored Indian dishes. They even adopted the habit of eating with their fingers, and both men and women adopted lighter garments modeled on Indian clothes.

The British, too, took what appealed to them in Indian cooking, often changing it to suit their own desires. By the 19th century some returning merchants brought with them an Indian cook, and the first curry houses were opening in London, and English cooks were being instructed in the art of preparing curries. To aid them, commercial curry powders and curry pastes were already on the market. But the curries concocted for the British in India and those they ate when they returned back home were quite different from the spiced dishes eaten by Indians because British cooks relied on curry powder — spice mixtures often prepared in amounts sufficient to last for months and used any time “a curry” was called for — rather than spices ground fresh daily to complement whatever was to be served that day.

Still today, culinary teachers and writers implore Western cooks not to use packaged curry powders if they want an authentic Indian dish. Curry powder thus ranks with chilis as a supposedly Indian ingredient that actually is both foreign and relatively new.

More astonishingly, so is tea. The British began drinking tea in the mid-17th century. It was imported from China, and it was expensive. Nonetheless, it quickly caught on. A century later even the poorest people expected to have tea, at least occasionally. Clearly, a cheap source was desirable. But the Chinese were disobliging about opening their ports to easy access, and they completely refused to divulge the secret of the cultivation and processing of tea leaves.

It was not until the 19th century that the plant was identified, and then two brothers stumbled on a close relative of the Chinese tea bush growing in northeastern India.

It took at least two decades to establish plantations, but by the last quarter of the 19th century, India was supplying virtually all Britain’s tea — a disaster for the Chinese tea industry and the source of backbreaking work for the Indians who worked on the plantations, but a moneymaker for the British plantation owners, and eventually a comfort to Indians who took up tea-drinking habit with as much enthusiasm as the British.

Lizzie Collingham tells her tales of conquerors and cooks, ingredients and dishes with varying degrees of success. Her introductory chapter Chicken Tikka Masala rambles round her subject somewhat mystifyingly, and in the end does not really clarify the point of her book or even the origin of the dish. Her chapter on the food of the British in 19th century India is more focused: She clearly understands the difficulties of both memsahibs and Indian cooks as they struggled to create dinners like those being served in Victorian England.

But her writing is at its best when she discusses Mughal cooking, gathering pace and color from her evident enthusiasm for this cuisine, which is still very much alive in India.

Lizzie Collingham is a diligent researcher with an eye to a compelling or amusing detail or quotation. Her book is therefore packed with information, and perhaps best read in small portions, so each can be savored. Less metaphorically, her recipes are alluring. They come at the end of the chapters, and the history therein makes them all the more enticing. They are adapted to Western kitchens, so this is a book that serious cooks will enjoy, as will anyone interested in the many regions with their varied climates, histories and cultures that make up modern India.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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