by Nada Nassereddin
Abstract: This paper argues that through cultural appropriation, the British constructed the term “curry,” which led to the creation of their own perception of Indian cuisine. After exploring the origins and the development of the idea of curry, the paper shows how the British reduced Indian cuisine to curry and reshaped Indian identity and culture.
In 1998, a song titled “Vindaloo,” which is a spicy Indian dish, became the national anthem of the British football team and reached number two on the United Kingdom Single Charts (Westcott & Sims, 2014). In 2001, the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, declared chicken tikka masala as Britain’s national dish (Collingham, 2006). Britain is known to be a nation of curry lovers since one in four Britons eat an Indian meal once a week (Kanjilal, 2016). These dishes, considerably regarded as South Asian, are signature meals in restaurants across the UK. This shows that while certain foods tend to be associated with certain places, cultures still borrow, appropriate, and recreate from one another. Among the major actions that have altered culinary cultures, cultural appropriation stands out as the most common. It occurs when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of another culture, and it generally results from colonialism, globalization, and interconnection (Cole, 2017; Dirlik, 2002). While some argue that to appropriate cultural food elements is to express appreciation, it is problematic when the people of the dominant culture decide the narrative that surrounds the culinary experience (Cheung, 2019). One of the most enduring appropriated food concepts is the British idea of curry (Kanjilal, 2016). While curry is the British expression of Indian cuisine, the word curry has no real meaning in authentic South Asian cuisine. Therefore, this paper aims to present the different perceptions of curry in Indian and British context. It will also elaborate on the origins and the development of the idea of curry. Finally, the paper will argue that throughout the British construction of the term “curry,” the trade of curry powder around the world, and the use of cookbooks, the British appropriated the culinary wisdom of the colonized and constructed their own perception of Indian cuisine. Through that, the British reduced Indian cuisine to curry and reshaped Indian identity and culture.
The Term “Curry”
The word “curry” is widely misunderstood and is defined differently in separate regions. Initially, it is important to acknowledge that there exist curry leaves along with the famous curry spices or powder, and that curry could also refer to a type of stewed dish. This means that a “curry’s consistency varies anywhere between a soupy concoction to a dry mixture that coats the meat, fish, or vegetables in the dish” (Waldrop, 2007, p.32). Curry powder, which is a combination of different spices, is regarded by the British as the main ingredient in making a dish Indian (Thomas, 2014). They created the curry powder to have a quick and ready flavor that resembles the South Asian tastes that the British colonists of India experienced. However, in India, the idea of singular curry powder is nonexistent since numerous spices with varying formulas are prepared to suit different tastes (Balaramdas, 1966). Furthermore, “the range of culinary styles within India means that authenticity is more accurately tied to a region” (Collingham, 2006, p.3). Through the notion of curry powder, the British homogenized distinctive Indian foods into one concept (Narayan, 1995). Consequently, the British reshaped an aspect of Indian culture by regarding the word curry as a collective term that encompasses the cuisine of an entire and widely diverse nation.
There are conflicting opinions on the meaning and the origin of the term “curry.” One possibility is that it was derived from the word “Kari,” which is a common etymology for the word sauce in Tamil, a South Indian language (Sen, 2009). The word “Kari” is also used as a terminology for the different ways locals prepare their food (Davidson, 1999). However, the meaning of curry in the Victorian cookbook that first officially used the term is different. In the book, The Forme of Cury, “the English word curry is used to describe cuisine based on French ‘curie’ meaning to cook, boil, or grill” (Kohli, 2015). This is assumed to have led the word to become popular, and it was slowly associated with stew. Alternatively, for Collingham (2016), “Kari” means to bite and can be used as a noun for meats and vegetables. While the meaning of the word is debated, it is affirmed that the Portuguese initially encountered the spiced “curry” dishes. In 1498, the Portuguese sailed to India, more specifically Kerala, a South Indian state, in search for spices and commodities. Therefore, it is also believed that the Portuguese were introduced to the spicy, thickened stews and then named it carel and applied it to many Portuguese dishes. However, it is also important to acknowledge that Indian cuisine was also influenced by goods that the Portuguese empire brought in and infused into the country’s culture. For instance, the Portuguese introduced spices such as sweet and chili peppers that are seen as an essential part of Indian food today (Ramos, n.d.). Moreover, Portuguese dishes, similar to British dishes today, were adapted to Indian culinary techniques and tastes. While the concept of curry evolved through a process of transculturation before the British reached South Asia, it was only until the British settled that curry was fully constructed under British terms. With regard to the term, some concluded that “the British Anglicized the term into curry when they colonized the subcontinent” (Waldrop, 2007). Regardless of where exactly the word originated from, curry eventually embodied Britishness under the guise of being authentically Indian.
Demand for Curry
Curry became more than just a beloved taste; it also was a successful commodity of British production. Demand rose from housewives in London to British subjects in India. Furthermore, curry has eventually gained a lot of popularity in Asia. For instance, in Thailand, cooks have taken in a local dish, “transformed” it into an Indian dish, and referred to it as yellow curry by adding curry powder and other Indian spices (Synder, 2018). It is important to note that these spices were not new to the region, but rather they were traded with them years ago. However, the term “curry” that has come with the powder was unfamiliar. Still, curry became assimilated into the cultures of Fiji, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, Jamaica, Guyana, and it even made its way into Germany, Scandinavia, and America (Sen, 2009). Curiously enough, India was one of the few countries in the world without a dish with “curry.” This was due to the fact that “curry” is not a valid representation of Indian cuisine since the food, like the country, is not a homogenous entity, rather it stems from multiple regions. As can be seen, while it might be easy to identify the source of curry powder, the origination and the reason for the term “curry” are more complex.
Appropriation through Cookbooks and Households
In British India, cookbooks have weighed in on the creation of the British construction of curry. The British have taken over this nation-building tool in India and further strengthened their hold on Indian culture and identity. By identifying what belongs to a certain cuisine and what does not, cookbooks have the ability to create a unique relationship between food and nationalized boundaries (Kanjilal, 2016). Through a means of cultural exchange, appropriation of Indian culture became more prevalent in British households. British women had an important role here, since they incorporated Indian food, mostly rice and curry, into their national diet (Zlotnick, 1996). By their efforts, any dish with curry powder was identified as Indian. One example of a British Indian dish could be curry mixed with chicken and mayonnaise placed in slices of spongy bread or onions, apples, stock, and curry powder stewed with meat, thickened with butter and flour, and finished with a mortifying splash of cream (Collingham, 2016). Furthermore, in the nineteenth century, it would have been difficult to locate a British cookbook without a curry recipe or a food store without curry powder. To entertain colonizer terms in cookbooks that reduce the complexity of Indian cuisine is critical as it recreates a culture on the colonizer’s terms.
In order to further demonstrate British ownership over curry, it is important to look at how curry recipes began appearing in British middle-class cookbooks. While some authors emphasize that the dish is foreign by calling it Indian curry, it is still evident that the British have already appropriated their favorite aspects of Indian cuisines to create curries. Whether it was for the taste, its practicality, or its nutritional values, the curry was firmly established as part of the British culinary landscape by the 1850s (Colllingham, 2006, p.72). Curry was completely nationalized in Britain, where Englishwoman at home converted exotic flavors into familiar ones, and that was possible through their use of cookbooks, especially those authored by women (Zltonick, 1996). This shows how Indian culture started to enter the homes of ordinary British people through the appropriation of curry into the national diet and the transmission of aspects of Indian culinary culture.
Eliza Acton’s book, Modern Cookery for Private Families, first published in 1845, acts as the perfect example of a cookbook that transforms curry into a national dish of the British Isles. Initially, Acton provides definitions of certain cooking items but she does not define the term curry. However, she still features curry in many of her recipes, and uses it together with many British ingredients like eggs and oysters. For instance, in one of her chapters, she presents the recipe for “Brown Apple Sauce,” a dish that contains marmalade, which is a preserve made from citrus fruits, apples, pears, and a pint of rich brown gravy. Acton (1845) then states in her cookbook that “Curry sauce will make an excellent substitute of the gravy when a piquant accompaniment is needed for pork or other rich meat” (p. 125). The author’s use of curry with ingredients common for the British shows that the recipe was adapted to suit the palates of the British at home. Furthermore, Acton offers the recipe of another form of curry, referred to as “Bengal Currie Powder no.1”. The recipe provides specific proportions of different spices such as black pepper, coriander seeds, and cayenne seeds that should be finely reduced and mixed to create her own version of curry powder (Acton, 1845, p.614). These recipes make it clear that during the nineteenth century, curry was used as both a powder and a paste: the British were dependent on the flavors of India in their dishes, and they properly appropriated and perfected them to their interests (as cited in Waldrop, 2007). Finally, Acton showed her ownership of curry in her cookbook by presenting it both as a British idea and a British meal, where most of her recipes include British ingredients being curried.
Another popular cookbook is The Wife’s Help to Indian Cookery, written by W. H Dawe in 1888, which provides recipes for curries from different regions in India. “Dawe seemingly appreciated the foods that he experienced in India, so much that he not only made notes about the regional differences that he noticed but also of the construction of the meal, down to the correct process of adding ingredients” (Waldrop, 2007, p.65). Therefore, he primarily offered recipes to show the differences between Madras curry, Bengali curry, and Malay curry. For the Madras curry, it was a powder that consisted of turmeric, ginger powder, coriander seed, cayenne powder, black pepper, cumin seed, and cardamoms. On the contrary, the Bengali curry was a paste that was composed of onion, cayenne pepper, and coriander seeds (Dawe, 1888). Throughout his cookbook, he went into detail on how each curry was cooked and mixed using the exact pieces of cooking equipment. For the Malay curry, it is different because it includes garlic and coriander. While Dawe tried to present curry in the most Indian way possible, he still incorporated British ingredients such as breadcrumbs and fruits to his curry recipes. Furthermore, despite his careful emphasis on the regional differences in curry, the British palate was still unaware of the subtle variety of different dishes. To conclude, the women of the British empire and cookbooks were active actors in incorporating Indian elements into British cooking and making curry, in essence, culturally British. Through this process, cookbooks have worked in popularizing the British idea of Indian cuisine on a global scale.
To complete this overview of the discussion of British cultural appropriation of Indian cuisine, this section will examine other arguments with respect to the construction of curry. It could be argued that over four hundred years of interaction, Britain celebrated tolerance and appreciation of Indian culture by incorporating Indian cuisine. In a sense, sharing another culture’s food allows one to experience a taste of familiarity and comfort. This becomes all the more positive as one acknowledges the presence of Indian diaspora in Britain. In the 1950s, a significant number of South Asians have found themselves in Britain (Waldrop, 2017). Many Indians have found jobs as chefs in Indian restaurants in Britain (Trueger, 2018). With that, the authenticity of traditional Indian food would be preserved to an extent by Indian cooks, and Indians would become appreciative of a familiar element of culture from home. Therefore, the British creation of curry can be seen as a symbol of a multicultural Britain that opened its borders and culture to Indians. Some scholars also argue that “although curry was adopted and adapted by the colonizers, it was not invented by them. Essentially, curry ﬁgured prominently in the colonial imagination; its culinary creation was a collective but haphazard eﬀort of both the colonizer and the colonized” (Leong-Salobir, 2011, p.40). Furthermore, with the collaboration of women who cook in households, there was respect for Indian and Southeast Asian foodways (Leong-Salobir, 2011).
However, while the British might have not deliberately set out to appropriate elements of Indian cuisine and construct curry in order to domesticate the colonial environment, they still managed to oversimplify Indian food and impose the notion of curry on India’s food culture. For instance, while Indian cooks served the British Indian dishes like rogan josh, dopiaza, and qorma, the British “lumped all these together under the heading of curry” (as cited in Chaki, 2019, para.2). Instantly, the diversity and range of Indian cuisine were disregarded, and a British construction is created based on British terms. Furthermore, several instances prove that there was not much respect for the foodways of Indians. The army officers and the wives of the British Army used to refuse to eat the curry and rice served at dinners hosted by families of the Indian Army regiment (Leong-Salobir, 2011). Furthermore, the British gave French names to curry dishes as an effort to add prestige and sophistication to a menu, “further demonstrating that the British, having appropriated curry as part of their culinary repertoire, went one step further and formally legitimized it, by giving the different curries French names”(Leong-Salobir, 2011). This was a deliberate attempt to elevate Indian food, particularly curry, to high culinary art. For example, in Nancy Lake’s book of 1930, the recipe of Kabobs à l’Indienne includes pieces of curried mutton on skewers with small whole onions and slices of tomatoes, served with rice and curry sauce (as cited in Leong-Salobir, 2011). By giving a French name to a dish that is supposedly Indian, the British further expanded the power structure that surrounds the appropriation.
For centuries, food culture has been heavily co-opted and appropriated, and this is not limited to Indian cuisine. Many other post-colonial, marginalized or minority cuisines have been appropriated and reinvented to appeal to other tastes to the extent of disregarding were the origins of these foods came from. Once the acknowledgment of a country’s traditional cuisine is taken away from it, the nation loses a part of its identity. Two other popular examples would be that between Palestine and Israel and China and the United States of America. Firstly, Israel has taken multiple Palestinian dishes such as jameed, freekah, and za’atar, and called them its own (Zion, 2019). Similarly, in the United States, elements of Chinese cuisine have been taken and reintroduced to suit the likes of the public (Cheung, 2019). This is harmful in that it takes away from the genuine recognition of Chinese identity and culture. In many cases, there is a lack of respect that goes hand in hand with cultural appropriation.
The process by which curry became one of the most popular dishes in the UK is a complicated one entailing appropriation, invention, and transformation. While many look into the incorporation of curry in British cuisine as a celebratory act of tolerance, it can still be argued that curry is a pure British construction. Although it is certainly common for cultures to borrow and recreate from one another, appropriating part of cuisine and representing it as one’s own acts as a continued form of dominance and is disrespectful to its legitimate owners. By creating the term ‘curry,’ trading curry powder, and incorporating the dish into national cookbooks, the British misrepresented the complexities of Indian culture and overlooked the nuances of multiple Indian culinary paradigms. Many Indian culinary traditions have yet to be explored, and what is a rich and diverse cuisine remains reduced in foreign minds to the meaningless category of “curry.”
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