Recently, we posted about our trip to meet up with other Jersey food bloggers at an Indian market and restaurant in Plainsboro. I found the timing to be very fortuitous, because at that moment I had been reading Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham. Published in 2006, Curry is about the history of Indian cuisine, how outside forces influenced its development, and in turn how Indian food influenced the world. The reader is taken on a journey with well-known Indian dishes – back to their roots, through their changes, until they become the meals that we know and recognize. Along the way, we also get a history lesson on the development of India as a country over the centuries and its special relationship with England.
In addition to the rich and wonderful history that is told, the book makes very interesting points regarding a couple of subjects we hear a lot about food-wise: the concept of world cuisine and the debate over authenticity. In recent years, we have seen trendy restaurants popping up here and there that label their style as world cuisine – meaning that they essentially have no ‘borders’ when it comes to the dishes they prepare. While this may sound like a new concept, the reality is that world cuisine has been taking place ever since trade between regions has been happening.
Take for instance the spicy Indian dish known as vindaloo. Vindaloo is in fact based on a stew that was brought over by the Portuguese in the early 1500s when they held the territory known as Goa (on the western coast of India). The Portuguese dish carne de vinha d’ alhos was a stew that combined pork with vinegar. The recipe was given an Indian twist by the use of local spices such as cumin, mustard seeds, tumeric and tamarind. What gives the dish its spiciness is chillies, but as Ms. Collingham explains:
“In the West the chilli pepper is probably the spice most associated with Indian food. Dishes from every region of the South Asian subcontinent use fresh, dried, ground, or powdered chillies; it is difficult to imagine Indian cookery without them. And yet no Indian had ever seen, let alone cooked with a chilli before the Potuguese arrived in India at the beginning of the fifteenth century.” – page 47
And where did the Portuguese get these chillies? From the West Indies, of course. So, as you can see, what we think of as a very Indian meal has its roots in Portuguese cuisine and with a healthy assist from the New World. Sounds like world cuisine to me.
The subject of authenticity, trying to produce The Real Deal ethnic cuisine, is discussed a number of times in the book. The very first chapter on chicken tikka masala is a great case study on this subject. So widely known as a popular dish in Indian restaurants, chicken tikka masala was not born in India but rather came from a restaurant in Great Britain. A diner complained about his tandoori chicken being too dry, a resourceful chef from Bangladesh grabbed some cream and a can of Campbell’s tomato soup…and the rest is history. Authentic? Not really. Delicious? To many people, absolutely. In fact, chicken tikka masala became so popular in Britain that it was declared by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to be “Britain’s true national dish”.
According to the book, the recent trend in Indian restaurants is to try to find chefs that are skilled in cuisines of certain regions in India. The idea is to break away from how traditional Indian restaurants in the west have presented Indian food, which was more homogeneous, and to showcase more authentic dishes. To me, this raises an interesting debate: is the obsession with ‘being authentic’ such a good thing that it’s beyond reproach, or does it become a ‘can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees’ issue where just making dishes that taste good is simply not good enough. For Indian cuisine, Ms. Collingham offers this opinion:
“The focus on authenticity fails to acknowledge that the mixture of different culinary styles is the prime characteristic of Indian cookery and that this fusion has produced a plethora of versions of Indian food from Mughlai to Anglo-Indian, from Goan to British Indian.” – page 241
While I don’t believe that there’s a right or wrong answer, I think it makes for an interesting discussion. It also makes me more interested in the newer Indian restaurants that have opened in South Jersey, such as IndeBlue in Collingswod and The Nizams in Egg Harbor Township, and to see what direction in which they are heading.
Overall, I can recommend Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors to those who enjoy Indian food as well to those who like a bit of history served on the side. The book, while very well-researched, reads pretty easily (although you will be needing to use the glossary provided a few times for some of the words). If you’ve just started to dip your toes into Indian cuisine, Curry would be an excellent educational resource. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ms Collingham includes a number of recipies in the book, so you home cooks can dabble in making some of the classic dishes such as vindaloo, biryani and korma.