Chicken Tikka Stew


Elliott Brown: Shops on Essex Street – Cafe Tandoori Balti and Rainbow Cars, Birmingham, 2011 (CC)

From the LRB:

It’s true there are now countless dishes that many people would now call curry which are not Indian: Thai and Malaysian curries, or Indonesian rendang or the strange but compelling Japanese karē raisu, or curry with rice, a thick brown roux-thickened curry sauce introduced to the Japanese by Royal Navy officers in the late 19th century, which has been reintroduced into Britain as a Japanese delicacy, notably by the Wagamama restaurant chain. But none of these curries would have been called curry were it not for the earlier history of Indian food (and the British relationship with it).

Sejal Sukhadwala, a London-based Indian food writer, sets herself the task of defining what curry is before tracing its history, its arrival in Britain and its export around the world. The word kari dates back to the Portuguese in Goa in the 16th century. It was they who brought chillies to India from the New World and in turn travelled home with a new word: caril. In 1563 the Portuguese physician Garcia e Orta observed that Indians in Goa ‘made dishes of flesh and fowl, which they call caril’. As Sukhadwala glosses, the word kari may mean many things in Tamil: ‘either black pepper, spices generally, a spiced accompaniment to rice, a sauce, sauteed meat and vegetable dishes or “to eat by biting”’. In the 18th century caril became curry, with the fall of the Portuguese spice monopoly in Goa and the rise of the East India Company. The first curry recipe in English – ‘To Make a Currey the India Way’ – appeared in the 1747 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (which also included three recipes for pilau). Chicken or rabbit is ‘cut as for a fricasey’ and cooked in butter with coriander seeds, onions and thirty peppercorns, simmered and then flavoured with lemon juice and cream. Glasse’s curry sounds dull on the page but is actually surprisingly delicious, with a pungency from the pepper and a silky richness from the cream.

Harry Wood: OSM Brick Lane, London, 2010 (CC)

What makes this dish a curry rather than a peppery chicken stew? Jaffrey comments that Glasse’s recipe is ‘hardly a curry and more of a gravy’. For Sukhadwala, the key to a curry is that it is ‘a spiced dish of Indian origin or influence’. It is this Indian influence – whether accurately rendered or not – that matters. Curry, she says, is a dish ‘in which vegetables or meat or other protein are normally cooked in a pot, usually with a gravy made from tomatoes, onions, coconut, yoghurt, gram flour, nuts, cream, water or stock’. This takes us a lot further than the OED, though not far enough, not least because modern curries are often baked on a tray in the oven – or blasted in an air fryer or a microwave or stir-fried, like the green beans Sahni mentions – rather than cooked in a pot over heat.

In her pithy and clever book, Sukhadwala mounts a persuasive defence of the concept of curry against a loose coalition she calls the ‘curry deniers’, ‘Indians, often from the diaspora, who hate the term “curry”’. She concedes that they have good reason. Objections to curry can be grouped into two main charges, both of which were touched on by Jaffrey in 1973: the word is a) inaccurate and b) offensive. If curry is a blunt misrepresentation of Indian food, this is a symptom of a deeper problem: its strong association with British imperialism.

“Too Specific and Too Vague”, Bee Wilson, London Review of Books

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