My review of Lizzie Collingham’s “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” appears in the April issue of the zine Eclectica. Here’s an excerpt.
When I first left India for a holiday in Britain, the friends I was staying with took me to an Indian restaurant where I discovered, as have countless visitors from the subcontinent before me, that Indian restaurants in England weren’t Indian. One, they were mostly owned and run by Bangladeshis, and two, several items on the menu such as tikka masala sauce and balti dishes were unknown in India. On my subsequent visits to England, I never again tried a British-Indian restaurant, regarding their patrons with amused contempt for their willingness to be satisfied with “false” Indian food.
O, how I repented of my folly, when I moved some years later to a small town in the United States for graduate school. I had, perforce, to learn to cook, and with little chance of finding Indian ingredients in the local Price Chopper, I soon learnt to substitute Old El Paso tortillas for chapattis, to make curries with zucchini rather than snake gourds, and to mince jalapeno peppers instead of green chilies into sauces. Rice came from Uncle Ben, rather than Punjab, and I squirted a green glop of sweet relish on my dinner plate each night. And having now lived several years in the West, innovation rather than authenticity forms the touchstone of my cooking.
My treasonous taste buds inevitably dismay Indian friends and family; few fields are as rigorously tyrannized by purists as the culinary arts.
It is therefore with much delight that I read Curry: A History of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham. The author picks apart the recipes of common Indian dishes to trace their evolution, and the results are either shocking or reassuring, depending on your position in the authenticity debate. Collingham analyzes the historical development of Indian food, starting from ancient Hindu texts dating from the first century BCE that describe an ideal diet, to the cuisine’s latest avatar as posh nosh. Few dishes from the Indian kitchen seem to have emerged unscathed from the wave of invaders and colonizers—Persians, Central Asians, Portuguese, Dutch, and British, to name a few—who washed upon on India’s shores; authenticity, Collingham reveals, is as much a part of Indian cuisine as, say, beef drippings. The subcontinent’s food has eagerly absorbed “foreign” influences in the past two millennia; that it continues to do is no aberration, but a continuation of the cuisine’s traditional dynamism.
The full text of my piece can be found here.