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Searching for authentic curry

Lamya Rahman muses on food

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Medieval curry powder – a mixture of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, and bay leaves – was a sought-after commodity during the late Middle Ages. It was so rare and in such high demand that the price of one sachet was almost equivalent to a bobbin of silk, leaving curry powder only accessible to the wealthiest members of society. Some historians argue that the demand for curry powder was rooted in necessity – spices were valuable preservatives in the time before refrigeration. But I argue that curry powder was so popular because it was just really really good. French nobles weren’t adding the powder to slabs of fresh meat and fish to increase shelf life, they were doing it to make delicious, spicy food; their own curries.

Unfortunately, the popular curry was effectively dismantled by British propaganda and its status didn’t last into the mid-1900s. Because colonialists considered the Indian Other as uncivilised, the curry was too. It became a messy dish fit for the lower rungs of society. In some ways, this colonial narrative was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The popularity of curry among the British working class saw Indian chefs compromise their original recipes in favour of making food that could be made faster and sold more cheaply. Gone was the laboured love of grinding chillies and slowly braising meat in spice mixes. In was bright red food colouring, standardised menus and packaged curry powders.

These adjusted recipes soon became the new standard of authenticity. Highbrow curry was a foreign concept. Now curry was fast food, drunk food, cheap food and hungover food all at once. It wasn’t until the 1970s that white patrons gradually realised that the curry they were consuming was unrecognisable to people in India. It made them wonder, if homeland couldn’t recognise it, was their curry actually authentic?

To mediate that concern, a greater emphasis was placed on how curry was made. It wasn’t authentic unless the curry was made in a tandoor (1970s), in a karahi (1980s) or in a balti (1990s). The reversion to more traditional cooking tools was meant to be emblematic of curry that would retain the traditional flavours of the subcontinent. Although largely indifferent, Indian chefs still willingly sold these new ideas of authenticity. Diversity in the market created competition and an opportunity for a higher profit margin.

It also created intrigue.

English people from all walks of life started trying curry. Indian restaurants, driven by the increase in interest, gained the self-confidence to shed their monolithic identities. Chefs returned to previously discarded recipes, focusing on creating a standard of authenticity that they too could sell and market. They began making curry that would invite actual Indians to try Indian food.

Today, the concept of authenticity has expanded to include restaurants emphasising strong connections to the homeland. High-end Indian restaurants often hire chefs trained in India and only cook dishes from that chef ’s home region. Naturally, the food became more expensive—great for raising the value of curry as an elegant cuisine, but not so great for those who can’t afford it. It became authentic Indian food, sure, but one inaccessible to everyday Indians.

For as long as they can, chefs and restaurants will continue to play with the authenticity of curry. They will bake biryani in the oven, serve murgh makhani with chips and swap tangy red chilli for something milder. Consumers will follow willingly, not just because of the strong allure of eating ‘authentic’ ethnic food in a Western country, but also because, if history has shown anything, it’s that curry is just really really good.