The term and its heavy baggage was a point of discussion in an episode of the second season of Netflix’s ‘Ugly Delicious’.

The curry conflict Yes it comes with colonial baggage but can we move on pleasePexels
Flix Food Thursday, March 12, 2020 - 15:41

In my home, I’m sorry to say, we use the word curry. I’ve used it in restaurants, at family dinners, in friends' homes, and probably many other places. I should probably feel bad about that. It’s a word that causes deep frustration and consternation to many for its overt ties to British imperialism and appropriation of Indian culture. But it’s also a word that’s commonly used in India. You could even say it’s been reclaimed as our own. 

The term and its heavy baggage was a point of discussion in an episode of the second season of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, where American restaurateur and chef David Chang deep-dives into understanding food from across the United States and around the world. 

The latest season, which was released last week, includes an episode that peeks into India and its food. Titled, “Don’t Call it Curry,” the episode features a host of Indian-American celebrities including TV host and author Padma Lakshmi and comedian Aziz Ansari as well as culinary personalities like Madhur Jaffrey and chef Floyd Cardoz. It takes us from Ansari’s family home in the US where Kerala-style beef is on the table, to roadside kebabs at Bademiya in Mumbai, to traditional Awadhi cuisine in Lucknow and banana-leaf lunches at a Kerala wedding. Mercifully, no one ever wonders whether India only eats vegetarian food. 

In the middle of the episode, the conversation veers into the question of curry, a word that’s applied to any gravy-like dish with meat, vegetables or both. It’s used to round up a certain kind of food from across countries and cultures such as the Caribbean, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and so many more, but it’s most commonly associated with India. 

Jaffrey, in the episode, explains that “curry is a generalised word given to Indian food by the British.” But within India today, curry can be any number of things. It’s a simple way to convey a certain kind of dish while never undermining the taste, texture or nuance of the food that will be set in front of you. In a country with 28 states and hundreds of languages, it’s also not a bad thing to have words that can cross borders without too much explanation. It’s as much an Indian word as masala or chai, two other terms whose meanings have morphed. So why can’t curry be our word as well?

A quick search on YouTube pulls up any number of regional cooking videos, from Vishaka’s Kitchen to Sheeba’s Recipes to Grandpa Kitchen, that use the word curry without intellectual hand-wringing over its origins. Cookbooks by Indians dating back decades have used the word in recipes for badam pasinda and pork vindaloo. In 'Rowdy Baby', one of the most popular songs of 2019, Dhanush fondly referred to Sai Pallavi as his 'kari kuzhambu', meaning meat gravy (the sexist implications of that apart, the word is very much Indian).

The problem arises when an audience may not be familiar with the regional subtleties of the country’s food. There’s a general assumption that curry is a singular being, a perception of Indian food that neatly standardises a cuisine that’s anything but standard. (Curry powder, which doesn’t exist in Indian cooking, is equally a part of that narrative). The word is said to have been created by the British from the Tamil word ‘kari,’ which actually means meat, and may have earlier referred to black pepper. The westernised version, however, has become a catch-all term for everything from maacher jhol to vatha kozhumbu to paneer kolhapuri, (not to forget the number of noses that turn up over the 'way it smells').

In an article for Food52, writer Annada Rathi called curry a boon and a curse: “A curse because they glossed over the regional differences and compressed the staggering heterogeneity and diversity of Indian cooking into a simplistic box; a boon because a simple, adaptable idea of curry could emerge out of their loose understanding of the infinite nuances, differences, and subtleties.”  

It’s not hard to see where the anger comes from. “Curry is the equivalent of Apu, I would say,” says writer Priya Krishna on Ugly Delicious. The Simpsons character Apu was deeply criticised for being a racist representation of Indians, from his caricaturish accent (voiced by white actor Hank Azaria) to being the owner of a small shop. Curry appears to erase the regional languages used to describe their individual dishes, and like Apu, it paints a broad, unrealistic and white-washed picture of India and its unfathomably diverse food. 

Yet I still use it. Should I stop? Should I tell my grandmother to stop? Truth be told, I don’t know (and I’m not above arguing with my grandmother). I’m among the first to raise my fist at the ignorances imposed upon India because of nonsensical western notions. I’ve been asked how I speak English so well and I’ve listened to way too many people talk about what is ‘exotic’ and ‘authentic’ about India. 

There’s a part of the episode where Chang wonders whether Indian food will ever follow the path of Italy, a country with regional cuisines that are almost common knowledge in the West. We’re still a long way from there (and there are many ignorant tropes we need to overcome before that), and there’s still a clear need to educate and move beyond the one-dimensional idea of curry and curry powder. 

But when I say curry in India, no one here assumes that I am adding curry powder to my chicken or that I am referring to a single, homogeneous goop. Curry as a word has become a part of my everyday language. I use it because I know what it means, I know what it stands for and I know that those around me do as well. When I order pasta or a sandwich, there’s an understanding of depth and variety. I hope someday we can reach that with curry.

Nikhita Venugopal is a food writer based in Bengaluru.

Views expressed are author's own.

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