Is calling Indian food 'Curry' an outdated label?
This is national Curry Week 7 – 11th October. I have been debating with myself all week whether I should quietly let it pass knowing it will eventually end or stick my head above the parapet and lob a stone or two. Every time I write or tweet on this topic it unleashes a firestorm upon my head.
Curry is a dish eaten by millions of Brits every day and yet has no definition within the Indian sub-continent. As a child I was very confused by the term. I couldn’t understand what my friends were asking to when they wanted to know I what curry we ate home or if my Dad had an authentic “Madras” recipe. It certainly wasn’t anything we or any of my aunties and uncles cooked at home. This weird, over spiced, artificially coloured, dumbed down version of Indian food became a lazy access point to my whole food culture, the word shorthand for describing an entire sub-continent. However, we accepted it without question because it was easy. We were taught not fuss to and felt slightly apologetic about our overly complicated regional Indian home cooking. In the last few years this has started to change. An increased confidence has appeared within the emigrant diaspora, we are no longer content to serve an inferior version or definition of our food.
As a British woman of Indian heritage, I am increasingly conflicted by the this seemingly innocuous, very much ingrained in our culture word; “curry”. However, in this enlightened age with an increasing focus on building diversity and inclusion into our both our personal and public lives I think we must stop being so quietly accepting of outdated labels. True diversity is inviting people to the party and real inclusion is getting them all to dance and that happens when we have a deeper understanding and real insight into peoples’ traditions, history and customs.
As a chef and Indian cookery teacher I feel it is my responsibility to educate correctly. Tracing the journey of the term it is deeply rooted in colonialism, empire, and immigrant entrepreneurialism. Time has now come to understand how and where Brit Indian “curry” fits into the culinary lexicon. It has its place, however it’s not a shorthand for any dish from the sub-continent. When trying to describe Indian flavours I prefer to use the word “masala”. This can roughly be translated as a blend, either a dry spice blend or a wet sauce or paste blend. It is the mix of spices in the masala that bring the colours and flavours of various regions and communities. Below is my grandmother’s recipe for garam masala. The most used spice blend in my North Indian Punjabi family’s home cooking. This is what makes our Indian food Indian.
Nani’s Garam Masala Recipe
250g whole coriander seeds
180g whole cumin seeds
150g whole black peppers
20g cinnamon sticks roughly crushed
20g black cardamom pods split open seeds and husks roughly crushed
Preheat oven to 180C. Mix together the whole spices and gently toast in the oven for 15 minutes. Do not allow to burn.
Allow to cool and grind the whole spices in a spice grinder. Keep it ‘chunky’. Store in an airtight container.