Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Food : April 30, 2000

And now fusion curry

Among the many misconceptions about India doing the rounds in the world, is one that hits us straight in the stomach. The misconception that the Indian curry is a single dish. A single, downmarket wet dish that helps to put down a plateful of rice.

It's enough to raise anybody's hackles. More so Camellia Panjabi's. Given her passion to take Indian food to the world on a platter of understanding and respect. "I want the world to know that the so-called Indian curry is a type of cuisine which covers a huge spectrum of dishes. And has a depth and complexity people know little about," says Camellia. "For instance, our most simple curry is much more complex than the best French sauce!"

Historically speaking, the curry is a little younger than the dhal as a part of our staple diet. Created in South India where lentils did not grow in great quantities like they did in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar or Punjab. Necessity thus became the mother of invention. And the cost of importing lentils from the north led to the creation of vegetables cooked in gravy, wet enough to perform the function of dhal when eaten with rice.

Phonetically speaking, the curry dates back to the South Indian kaari, which originally referred to a vegetable gravy dish. Later, it included meat and fish, having travelled across the entire length and breadth of the country.

"Contrary to popular belief, the curry is much hotter and spicier now than it was in the Mughal era," says Camellia. "For they had no chillies then and used only pepper. Of course, it was much greasier for equal quantities of meat and fat (in the form of charbi) went into a curry. Today, we use barely ten per cent or less of that amount of fat."

Siddhartha Mitra

And yes, the curry has become fresher too, with increasing availability of fresh herbs and spices all over the country. For instance, Kashmir, which could only get ginger powder earlier, now has access to fresh ginger. The same goes for tomatoes which were not around at all 200 years ago, but are used in many curries today. "What we have today is a redder, herbier, spicier form of the original curry," she concludes.

Curries of all regions have been intermingling within India for centuries, yet it remains a cuisine traditional enough to keep western ingredients consistently at bay. "That there has been a lot of fusion within the country is apparent from the fact that the Kashmiri chilli is actually grown in Karnataka," says Camellia with a laugh. "The use of coconut has also spread from the coastal areas to the interiors. Just as dahi and fresh cream have permeated to coastal states. But there is no scope for fusion with western food here, for western ingredients just do not gel with the curry."

Camellia's book Fifty Great Curries Of India, printed in five languages (Swedish, Dutch, Norwegian, German and, of course, English) takes the Indian curry to the world in fifty great forms. And just as she explodes myths about the curry in the book, she also explodes a few myths of world taste by it. "It may sound difficult to believe, but the English eat far hotter food than we Indians can ever imagine eating!" she reveals. "In fact, some of the hottest new curries have been created for English taste by cooks in U.K.! For example the Phal. A Mutton Phal or a Chicken Phal is so hot that you and I can't eat it. But the British enjoy it."

No doubt, it's for the same reason that the Madras Curry is made hotter in London than in Madras. And the Goan Vindaloo is such a favourite in U.K. "The vindaloo hasn't travelled in India so much because other parts of India find it too hot for taste," she says. "But it has gone to the U.K. all right."

That Germans too like the hot curry is obvious from the fact that Camellia's book has gone into many prints in German. "It's only the Japanese who like their curry bland - and thickened with flour," she continues. "Indonesians, Thais, Malayans cook similar to us. Except that they don't fry their spices as much as we in India do. Americans too, have a palate that more or less matches ours."

Surely, a perfect setting for the popularity of the Indian curry?

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