How Curry Conquered Western Cuisine

As much as any flag, anthem, or coat of arms, a nation’s cuisine has long been a fundamental element of its identity. Millions of tourists flock to Italy every year to partake of its delectable pasta dishes; a flaky, buttery croissant is considered the quintessential French pasty; and there are few Mexican restaurants that fail to offer sizzling plates of fajitas at dinnertime.

But food is also one of the most malleable, and thus misunderstood, emblems of national distinction. Few visitors slurping spaghetti in Rome realize that pasta was originally developed in China and brought to Europe in the 13th century. The prototype for the croissant can be traced back to medieval Austria, and fajitas were born on a depression-era Texas ranch. No matter where you’re from or what’s on your plate, history has shown time and again that food culture is far more complex than we think. And few elements of cuisine have as intricate a backstory as a mainstay of British and American cooking – curry.

While curry is comprised of a diverse array of spices and herbs, and was originally developed on the Indian subcontinent sometime around 1700 BC, it gained worldwide recognition only after India was colonized by Great Britain in the 18th century. Suddenly, Indian cooks found their traditional recipes incorporating meat, vegetables, yogurt, with a delicate blend of spices added to enhance the flavors of an individual dish commodified by their conquerors and repackaged under the umbrella term of “curry.” This hijacking of a fundamental element of Indian food culture was by design, argues Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. She argues that the popularization of curry was something “the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture.” By adapting and domesticating an intricate blend of spices passed down through generations of Indian families, Great Britain was exerting its power and dominance over its new colony. [See The Subversive, Surprising History of Curry Powder, by Rohini Chaki, Atlas Obscura, 09.Apr.2019.]

Just as curried dishes were exploding in popularity in Great Britain during the mid 1700’s, they made their way to North America when the British colonies began to take shape. Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Curry: A Global History, explained in a recent interview with Atlas Obscura that “the British from the East India Company made great fortunes and came to America, where they had these big estates.” The cooks and servants from India who made the journey with them were trained in how to prepare the curried dishes favored in Britain, and a taste for curry was born in America. Cookbooks with recipes calling for tinned and pre-made curry powder proliferated for the next 150 years, another blow to Indian food culture that witnessed the flavors of its diverse cuisine compressed into a few mass-produced spice mixes.

The commodification of curry wasn’t widely denounced until the mid 1960’s, when the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 eliminated some of the barriers that had prevented certain (nonwhite) foreign nationals from coming to America. Suddenly, a wave of previously unwelcome South Asian immigrants was arriving in the U.S. and taking back ownership of the cuisine that had been appropriated and misinterpreted for hundreds of years. Chief among them were Madhur Jeffrey, an Indian cooking expert (and acclaimed actress) who eschewed the use of curry powder in her 1974 cookbook An Invitation to Indian Cookery. “To me the word ‘curry’ is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term ‘chop suey’ was to China’s,” she explained in her cookbook, adding that “no Indian ever uses curry powder.”

Today, store bought curry powder has fallen out of favor in serious cooking circles. Instead, the vibrant blend of Indian spices that were globalized and transported to our country centuries ago have been reclaimed by immigrant and first generation South Asian home cooks, repackaged, and rechristened as “masala” to distance themselves from the long-time colonization of their food culture. The premade masala industry is now estimated to bring in over a billion dollars annually and has spawned countless online forums, discussing the best way to incorporate the blends into traditional South Asian recipes. And as the U.S. continues to evolve into the 21st century, the rich legacy of Indian cuisines and their influence over our culture may very well continue to grow with it, further enriching the complex tapestry of our national identity.


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