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Mother Tongue: Part IICharmaine O'Brien

Mother Tongue: Part II

I am often asked for recommendations for 'good places to eat Indian food' in Melbourne and Sydney. This essay (in several parts) is a lengthier version of the response I usually provide as a preface to providing the requested information: this is Part II . You can read  Part I here 

spices for a Bihari 'curry'

Food styling

The country of origin of the food commonly served in Indian restaurants is Anglo-India[1]: that is the homes, clubs, offices, parade grounds, army cantonments and the like occupied by the British in India- first as the British East India Company and after 1857 as the Raj. In these places a unique culture, and food style  developed that was a hybridization of Britain and India. It was from here the first messages about Indian food were carried back to Britain by returning East India Company men:  And the message that was communicated was ‘curry’. There are various theories about the origin of the word ‘curry’, the most commonly accepted being that the British derived it from the Tamil word kari meaning sauce or wet dish. What is indisputable is that the word is a British invention that they applied, or caused it to be applied by their use of it, as a descriptor for all Indian cuisine[2]. More than two centuries after the British introduced the term ‘curry’  Indian restaurants are still alternatively referred to as ‘curry houses’, and  if I tell someone that I am cooking Indian food, their response will typically run along the lines of:  ‘ oh I love curry, what sort of curry are you going to make?’ Here then is the root of our first expectation: Indian food = curry (sauced spiced dishes).

The British continued to narrow down the expectation of Indian food when they invented ‘curry powder’  in the late eighteenth century. The inspiration for this product likely came from the masala or garam masala used in Indian cookery. A masala is a freshly prepared blend of spices, and other flavouring ingredients, specific to an individual dish. A garam masala is a composite pre-ground spice mix that is commonly added to a variety of dishes, but the spices that go into it are different throughout India. For example a north Indian garam masala is typically blended from cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper and coriander seeds; in Bengal[3] it comprises black mustard seeds, fenugreek, fennel, cumin and nigella seeds.  The key point here is that the use of spice blends to flavor food in India is of enormous variety.

Despite being marketed under a variety of different brand names British style curry powders were largely comprised of the same spices: turmeric[4], cinnamon, cayenne pepper, mustard, ginger and fenugreek.  Once available it became commonly prescribed in British recipes to provide the ‘spice’ component of a ‘curry’, be it meat, fish, fowl or egg[5]. The story of the transformation of ‘chutney’ in British hands is a similar one to curry. In India, ‘chutney’ is a side dish employed to add additional flavor and relish to food; typically these are freshly prepared for each meal. The types of chutney eaten throughout India are so varied that they are deserving of their own classification system. They are made from all types of fruit, vegetables, herbs and spice; mixed or ground with yogurt, coconut, nuts, seeds or legumes and they can be sweet, savoury, sour, sweet and sour, pungent or mild. All this diversity was boiled down —quite literally—by the British into one version of ‘chutney’:  a sticky sweet and sour mix of fruit, sugar, vinegar and spices.  What we see then with curry, curry powder and chutney is the distillation of the complex and sophisticated cuisine of India into standardized tastes by the British. This raises the obvious question:  ‘Why did they do this’?

When the British set sail for India in the sixteenth century they were driven by commercial intention. They wanted to gain direct access to the abundant resources of the subcontinent to trade elsewhere, and they were particularly interested in spices. These were an exotic and expensive commodity in Europe and were in great demand for use in preserving  and flavouring food , and purportedly  to disguise the taste of rotting meat. Colossal profits could be made by those with spices to sell. The Portuguese explorer Vasco De Gama pioneered the sea route to India in the late fifteenth century and on his return journey he brought back a cargo of black pepper  from Kerala  that is said to have netted him a profit equivalent to 40 times that of the cost of the expedition (so you can see the incentive). Prior to De Gama’s plotting the aquatic way spices reached Europe via overland  trade routes through central Asia, the middle east and Mediterranean. Along the way various taxes and margins were levied on them by a string of officials and agents, all of which added to their considerable ultimate price. By the early seventeenth century the British had followed De Gama (as had the Dutch and French) and established a trading post on the west coast of India. From here they were able to ship spices directly to home ports cutting out the overland middlemen; access at the source also enabled them to increase supply into Britain (and Europe). Both these factors brought down the price of spices making them more affordable. This served to create a larger market for spices but reduced profit margins. Creating a value added product such as curry powder could have been an attempt to rectify a declining bottom line.

There would have been a ready market for curry powder amongst those returned from India such as Colonel Solatopee[6]. Whilst stationed in India  the Colonel  would have enjoyed a selection of ‘curries’ at each day at  lunch table ( Indian food was rarely found on the dinner table of Anglo-Indians). He returned home with a taste for curry and often mentioned to Mrs  Solatopee how much he longed for a good ‘tiffin’ (curry lunch).  This presented a problem to his wife as she had little idea how to prepare ‘native food’ but wanted to satisfy her husband’s craving.  Several attempts to reproduce a curry from a recipe had not been successful. Imagine her delight to discover ‘curry powder’ to help her satisfy the appetite of her sahib.  Here was a product that any British cook could use to create the exotica of a ‘curry’, assured that this ‘British’ product would result in an acceptable replication of a dish they may have had no direct experience of; a guarantee of safety when pressing into unknown culinary lands.

By the time curry powder appeared in the British marketplace the East India Company had evolved from doing a ‘quite trade’ in goods to supplying military support and protection to Indian rulers (for a price) and annexing territories and collecting taxes and revenues from the local inhabitants: their goal had morphed from purely mercantile to nothing less than complete control of India[7]. The land the Company was set on conquering was not yet a country but of collection of various kingdoms and principalities: a collection of various languages, customs, laws, administrative systems, currencies and cuisine.  One of the Company strategies to gain control was to standardize currencies, laws, administrative systems, roads, rail and other aspects of civic life across all the British controlled territories (and after 1857 across the entire subcontinent). Looked at from a broader perspective it could be argued that standardization of Indian food by the British mirrored, or was part of, their agenda to standardize India. Another of the Company’s strategies was hegemony over what came in and out of India. While this meant goods, and people[8], on a more subtle level it also meant controlling the image of India; shaping the expectations of Indian food outside of India could be seen to have been an aspect of this. I am not suggesting that the Company undertook a deliberate strategy to standardize Indian food as part of this – they didn’t.  What I am suggesting is that the way Indian food was represented in Britain was an outcome of this overarching attempt to control India. I see a psychological conflict between the desire to control and the labyrinth complexity of India: it is just so much easier to narrow things down to stereotypes. What the British gave the west were stereotypes of Indian cuisine. These stereotypes first appeared in recipes and products and later on the menu of the ‘Indian restaurant’, which itself is an invention designed for the westerner.



[1] The term Anglo-Indian has changed in meaning over time. The term was first used to describe all British people domiciled in India. It could also be applied to any person of European descent living in India such as the French, Portuguese and Dutch. During the colonial era it was more commonly, but not exclusively, used to describe people born in India of British parentage who were born and raised in India. Its modern usage is for people who have mixed Indian and European parentage (previously  called Eurasians).

[2]The term curry  has also come to be commonly applied throughout India when translating menu items into English.

[3] The correct name for this mix is panch phoran (five spice). By using the term garam masala to describe this I am aware that I am committing the literary equivalent of  narrowing down the cuisine and simplifying it so as to avoid making it the text too complicated and therefore easy to read (easily palatable!).

[4] In her 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, Eliza Acton complained that most curry powders contained too much turmeric, probably because it was one of the cheaper spices and would have been used  to ‘pad’ out the more expensive ones. Turmeric is widely used in Indian cookery as it is believed to impart a wide range of medicinal benefits; even so it is used in judicious amounts.

[5] The demand for items/foods that provide  ‘shortcuts’ in cookery is not a new one.

[6] An entirely fictitious couple who may bear a strong resemblance to long deceased persons.

[7] This is a simplification of events and intention but the story of the British takeover of India is a complex and complicated one that is beyond the scope of this essay to narrate.

[8] Even Indian royalty had  seek the permission of the Company to travel outside of India, although doing so was of small interest to devout Hindu  Maharajas as going ‘over the seas’ was considered to be a  sacrilegious act.


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