Curry by Lizzie Collingham: a review.

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. 

0195320018.jpgLizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.
Oxford University Press. 2006. 

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.

5 responses to “Curry by Lizzie Collingham: a review.

  1. Lovely review. Makes me want to know more about your take on authenticity in cooking. The ubiquitous chai is a foreign (and recent) import, and my own cooking involves substitutions and time-saving measures (like using bought garlic paste instead of crushing the stuff myself). Are we “authentic?” Does it matter, if it tastes good, or are there larger issues of tradition and identity which should be considered?

  2. Double posting because I think I didn’t state my question clearly. That is to say… I gather from your review that you are in favor of innovation, experimentation, adaptation, and change in cooking.

    But at what point does one have to stop calling it “Indian” food? ^__^

  3. Blue: Well, I guess my answer is that it depends–there are recipes I do NOT tinker with, and others where I’m happy to toss in a new ingredient and go where it takes me. This sounds a bit silly–but I think it depends on my relationship with the particular dish i.e. what I’ve personally invested the recipe with.

    I think my main argument is that authenticity oughtn’t be the primary standard by which a dish is judged, given that one person’s authentic recipe is another’s heretical shortcut (especially so in the case of “Indian” food.)

  4. Hi, Niranjana!

    You are right, this is a happy coincidence…I had no clue we were persuing the same book!🙂 I love your review and am very grateful you allowed me to link to your piece on Eclectica. I haven’t read the book in its entirety…my plan is to read it chapter by chapter and to cook along as well. As you know already, I have tried the vindaloo (not Collingham’s recipe) and I think I might want to tackle the “Dhansak” next. It’s a very interesting book and I am learning so much as I read.

    You are right to note there aren’t too many vegetarian recipes, but I guess the British in those days had little use for vegetables… they (the veggies) perished faster, atleast that’s my take on it.

    I would love to see you adapt more of these recipes to suit vegetarians because, to be truthful, I much prefer vegetarian.

  5. I’ve only just begun reading the book and find it endlessly fascinating for the history of the food we eat.

    You should also try reading anything by KT Achaya.

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