Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Story of Curry Powder

Everyone who's not completely demented about cooking knows there is no such thing in Indian cooking as "curry powder".

Yet, this yellow-looking vaguely Indian-ish powder is a global phenomenon showing up everywhere in menus from the finest French restaurants to Japanese fast-food ones serving kare raisu — curry rice that is gloppy, disgusting, and the staple of Japanese businessmen everywhere!

It should be noted that the fastidious Japanese with their ethic of purity and order eat this extraordinarily sloppy dish that would never show up on a kaiseki menu. And the main ingredient is an extraordinarly gaijin thing known as "curry powder".

So what's the story anyway? How did "curry powder" (which doesn't even exist in India) become French and Japanese? Why are there "curry ramen noodles"? Why are there Singaporean "curry noodles"? Which Frenchmen first served "curried cauliflower soup" and "curry vinaigrette"?

To answer this question, we're gonna have to rewind the clock and examine the mores of the 19th century. And we're gonna find that the people behaved, quite unsurprisingly, like people at any other time and place.

In short, they craved novelty.

And once novelty was provided, an equivalent market opened up to serve the novelty at the cheapest possible price, or to phrase it in modern lingo, they "commoditized the consumption".

There are virtually no cultures that don't appreciate novelty. Once novelty is provided, instantaneously the influence becomes "indigenized" - converted into the "native" framework of cooking. This is as true of tomatoes in Italy as green peppers in Thailand as potatoes in India. None of these are native to any of the regions (they are all "New World".)

The short story is that with the rising power of the British Empire in India, it became fashionable to serve all things "Indian". Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, was photographed wearing stereotypical "maharani" regalia. She even went as far as to appoint an Indian khidmatgar (servant), Abdul Karim, who rose to be her chief confidant. Poems were written (see here) and balls held in London where the guests dressed up in "Indian" costume and ate "Indian" food.

Needless to say, the British East India company did everything it could to market this phenomenon. When men go mad, avenues open up to supply them with the very objects that they need to go mad with so that profits can be made.

Enter "curry powder" — marketed to busy housewives so that they didn't need to concern themselves with the details of the "very foreign, very difficult" yet "deeply desired, and exotic" cuisine.

Unsurprisingly, the cheapest stuff correctly marketed turns out to be a monster hit. Same today as in the 19th century.

Commercial curry powder consists of the four cheapest ingredients in Indian cuisine -- coriander, cumin, fenugreek and turmeric (the latter giving it its yellow color while the fenugreek carries the characteristic bitter edge.)

That it spread to France from Britain should come as no surprise to anyone. Les rosbifs have always exhibited more than a little cultural fascination for "the Frogs" (ditto for the reverse.)

But the fastidious Japanese?

Kare raisu singlehandedly fails every Japanese culinary norm. Unsubtle, pungent, oil-based — the muddy yellowish sludge poured over rice could not be less Japanese. And yet, it's to be found in every train station and shopping district. It's chowed down by locals at lunch like it was going out of fashion. Irony of ironies, it's one of the most-requested "home-cooked" dishes in Japan.

How did this inauthentic powder turn Japanese?

The answer, of course, is the East India Company that nakedly peddled this powder all through the West and the East. Imported verbatim from the British idea of the dish, one can clearly see echoes of the dish in the 1872 Seiyo Ryōri Tsu ("Western Cooking".) The recipe is nearly identical to modern concoctions.

However, that explains the origin of the dish but not its overwhelming popularity. For that, you must look at the dish itself. It's warm, cheap, soothing, hearty, filling — all qualities that the Japanese have traditionally respected as an agrarian society must. Cheap sustaining fare that fuels the working masses. Does that or does that sounds Japanese?

The origins aside, the brute fact is that "curry powder" is global. Has been global for more than two centuries now, and authencity be damned, quite delicious.

Curry Cauliflower Soup


1 head cauliflower (cut into florets)
1 red onion (diced loosely)

1 tbsp curry powder

olive oil
sea salt
black pepper


Toss the cauliflower florets with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a 400°F oven for 30 minutes until lightly browned.

Fry the onion at a low heat for 10 minutes. Toss in the cauliflower, water, and curry powder and purée.


Varsha said...

Very interesting. But what I want to know is, why is it called curry powder, when it has no curry leaves? (Here I'm assuming that curry leaves got their name from a distortion of their names in the local languages... Or am I wrong?)

ShockingSchadenfreude said...

You are entering a linguistic mine-field!

Sure you want to?

Here goes...

The word "curry" unambiguously comes from the Tamil kare which means "wet dish" as opposed to a "dry one".

Curry leaves are kariveppalai which means "curry + neem + leaf" — leaves used to make curry — related but inaccurate as you can figure out for yourself.

Sadly, the Persian word for "wet" is tar from which a dish can be tari which is you were linguistically-challenged like the typical East-India Company employee was wont to be is easy enough to confuse with kari.

Then, of course, there is the marketing component. Shouldn't you dumb it down for Victorian English hausfrau's so you can better market your product?

(The CC is shameless in introducing a fourth language here but no word captures that feeling correctly minus the German.)

Then, there was the whole globalization thing which as was noted took place too centuries ago. Virtually, every South-East Asian language uses the word "curry". This is marketing adapted to local taste.

At this point, it's just simpler to accept the word as is.