The Indian curry is merely a figment of the British colonial imagination

Hot & spicy.
Hot & spicy.
Image: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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What we eat or don’t eat is always a continuing process of marking out cultural boundaries. Certain foods come to be associated with certain places. Fish and chips are quintessentially British. Bulgogi—definitely Korean. When in Spain, drink sangria. The opposite is true as well. Schezwan fried rice is not real Chinese food. You’re no French cook if you can’t whisk up a hollandaise, and only a heathen puts cream in their authentic Italian carbonara.

These stereotypes start to blur as cultures borrow, appropriate, recreate and re-consume. But what gets eaten, by whom, on whose terms and when? Which regimes of knowledge are at play in the matter of these exchanges? Among the major historical processes that have altered eating cultures, foodways and systems of production en masse in the last few centuries, colonialism stands out as one that raises many of these questions.

While scholars have long struggled with a definition for colonialism, here’s a general framework we can work with: colonialism is a form of domination, both economic and cultural, of an individual or group over another individual or group. And then there’s “postcolonialism”, a term that carries the promise that somehow an unpleasant chapter in history has ended. Look closely at what people around the world are eating though, and you might not be celebrating just yet.

Few colonial food concepts are as enduring as the British idea of curry. The British, and indeed plenty of others around the world, use the term curry not as a descriptor for a kind of dish—say a Kerala chicken curry—but as a collective term that requires no article. A term that encompasses the cuisine of an entire nation. “I’m going out for curry” is Birminghamspeak for I’m going out to eat Indian food. But is curry Indian food or is it really just British food? And if it is British, what’s the problem with that?

By examining the legacies of things we see around us today, it is possible to make the argument that the colonial form of domination has never really gone away. Moreover, it continues to reproduce itself in new, insidious and sometimes bland and gloopy ways. Let’s take curry as an example.

Cookbooks as markers of national identity

While the origin of the word curry is disputed, historian Alan Davidson traces it to the Tamil word kari, used to describe particular kinds of local preparations. Starting several centuries ago, the word curry truly sediments itself in the Victorian cookbook.

In his book Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson famously argued that the modern nation emerged as capitalism and print technology converged to create a new form of imagined community. The decline of Latin and the rapid spread of texts in vernacular languages from the sixteenth century onwards allowed for the formation of national consciousness around the printed word. In the same way, the cookbook is an excellent example of print capitalism and nation-building.

Cookbooks tell unusual cultural tales, says Arjun Appadurai, a sociocultural anthropologist. They describe what belongs within a particular kind of cuisine and in doing so define what does not. They tie food to a place, creating nationalised identities and boundaries.

Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1860, was a bestseller, and continues to be hailed as a favourite among British cookbooks written over the centuries. Amelia Simmon’s landmark American Cookery (1796) is now considered the first known American cookbook. Both Acton and Simmon’s works are fairly indicative of this ability of cookbooks to simultaneously integrate and exclude as political acts. Acton’s book has a long introduction on what makes British food British. Simmon’s book, published soon after the War of Independence, makes a strong anti-British statement by boldly calling itself American and constantly trying to detach its food from anything resembling Britain’s. Clearly, cookbooks are reflective of the politics of their time.

Victorian cookbooks served a particularly important purpose in the colonisation process. Susan Zlotnick, in a fantastic essay, describes how the cookbook became the way India was assimilated into the Empire. British women were given the task of bringing imperialism home in an easy-to-swallow manner. They used the medium of cookbooks and “incorporated Indian food, which functioned metonymically for India, into the national diet and made it culturally British”.

Acton does this quite clearly in her Modern Cookery for Private Families. She begins by bemoaning how English food is “far inferior to that of nations much less advanced in civilisation”, and thus provides easy curry recipes to make it more exciting. The key to making curry for her is “curry powder”—a British concoction that blends large amounts of turmeric with mainly cumin, chilli and fenugreek, and has little resemblance to anything you would get in India. All of Acton’s dishes use it—a curry powder-infused mulligatawny soup, which she says is “much recommended by persons who have been long resident in India”, veal cutlets à l’Indienne that are to “have a good currie sauce ready prepared to send to the table” and fried chicken à la Malabar, which is fried chicken coated in—you guessed it—curry powder.

This use of curry powder as the ingredient that makes a dish Indian is a common feature in many other British recipes of the time. The bestselling Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1888) uses this strategy to make curried beef. An Indian recipe from a Victorian manor in 1890, discovered in early 2015 at the East Riding College, reveals the same idea—chopped onions, lamb and a heap of curry powder.

Subsequently, by the time the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, curry and curry powder became established signifiers for Indian food, but on entirely British terms. Walk into a grocery store in India and you find that the singular curry powder does not exist, neither as material nor idea. In India, we use endless varieties of spice mixes instead. Uma Narayanan writes that British curry powder replaced varied local masalas and distinctive eating cultures and fabricated a homogenous notion of Indian food, in much the same way that the British rule fabricated a unified India.

A culinary ghost that refuses to go away

Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton wrote their cookbooks in the 1800s. Yet, the word curry has not gone away, and neither has the abominable curry powder. Manchester still has a “curry mile”, a road lined with Indian restaurants, and “currywurst”—sausages with ketchup and a sprinkling of curry powder—is still a Berlin favourite.

But if cookbooks could act as the medium to define national cuisines in the 1800s, few things do that better than television shows today. Britain’s cookery show boom in the 1980s has since given us Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson, alongside Jamie Oliver, Keith Floyd and Rick Stein. The last two are of particular interest in this essay, because both popular chefs undertook journeys to India to discover its food. Both their shows were directed by David Pritchard. Both subsumed a nation to their celebrity status by being called Keith Floyd’s India (2003) and Rick Stein’s India (2013). And both began their programmes with a treatise on curry.

“The Brits are a nation of curry lovers—one in four of us eats an Indian meal once a week,” says Floyd in his first scene. On Stein’s show, before he even starts speaking, the colourful opening credits include a song with just one repeated line that blares in an indiscernible accent: “Main curry pasand karta, main curry pasand karta”. As the song ends, a presumably Indian voice says: “That’s a mind-blasting curry Ricky!” Then Stein launches into it: “There’s something about a curry that’s all-pervading. Just the thought of it ignites a longing deep inside us.”

As if to drive the association home even further, Stein enters each city on his itinerary—Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow, Jaipur, Shimla, Madurai, Chennai, Pondicherry and Amritsar, each with vastly different culinary traditions—looking to see if he can find his favourite curry there. He asks locals in every city what they think of the word curry. Most of his Indian interlocutors are openly dismissive of the word. Here is an exchange that takes place in Kolkata, the first city Stein visits:

Stein: Do you mind me asking you this, do you mind using the word curry?

Food guide: I’m so glad you brought this up, I was wondering how do I bring this up to you (sic). I am sure every region has its name for a curry… and it is important for an international audience… but I do not think it correctly captures a sense of what we eat.

Stein smiles benevolently at him. Minutes later, he heads off to cook “a brilliant prawn curry”. In Chennai, he hosts a talk at the Madras Club with some of the city’s elite about what they think of the word.

Stein: What we really mean [by curry], I think is just spicy food.

Audience member 1: In Tamil, kari could mean meat or mutton.

Audience member 2: In traditional Brahmin households, kari might have meant vegetables.

Audience member 3 (to general laughter): When you went to a store, you wanted either meat so you said kari, you wanted vegetables, you said kai-kari. It could have been confusing for the British, so they just took the curry and left everything else.

It is this continued insistence on the homogenising term “curry” that undercuts Stein’s premise, to discover a nation, or show viewers the India they have not seen before. In doing so, the programme throws up important clues into how particular kinds of discourse dominate modern television production.

The media and their messages

This is further complicated by the limitations of popular television. The networks aren’t happy if you create subversion or controversy at home. On television, producers have to resort to capitalising on the visual medium to paint a picture congruous with what the audience already believes. In the first scene of Stein’s show, he is standing in a hut on a lagoon, working in a kitchen equipped with aluminum cookware, as a winnowing basket hangs in the background, crows caw loudly, snakes slither by and a man stands on his head outside on the patio.

Through the programme, Stein becomes the authority that does not speak of, but speaks for Indian food. By directing the show in a particular way, the producers also ensure that Stein re-enacts the norms within the coloniser-colonised relationship, thereby reinforcing them. This is particularly evident in some of his interactions with local people. He often proclaims that “everyone is just so nice” to him. The Indian chefs at restaurants he visits constantly call him “sir” though they belong to the same profession. Even more revealing, the Indians around him often stare silent and unblinking at the camera in blatant objectification, while Stein always has a voice as he animatedly describes the scene around him. In performing his quest for the authentic, Stein is reproducing the very structures of difference that he is appearing to dismantle. 

And finally, of course, his obsession with curry. Shrugging away the constant criticism of his use of the word by his Indian interviewees, in the final episode Stein declares as if to sum up: “In short, this trip to India has been, I think, the best trip I’ve ever had in filming land—and the curries have been pretty good too!”

The continued use of a colonial term to categorise a complex nation is both reductive and factually flawed. It takes a country, obscures it and creates an imagined community on the coloniser’s own terms. For a British audience to take to a show about India, it would be almost foolish to problematise the word they associate most with it. When a British man goes out to tell the rest of Britain what India really eats, it would not do to simply let locals guide the premise of the show, for that would undermine Britain’s powerful position in the equation between the two countries. And while things are perhaps changing—more localised restaurants are now serving up appams and vada paos instead of kormas and rogan josh in London, for the moment it looks like “going for an Indian” anywhere in England will continue to most often mean a cold glass of beer and a cloyingly sweet chicken tikka masala.

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