Sabina Sehgal Saikia
It's being dubbed the currification of cuisine and the new sushi, as the Indian curry curries favour the world over and is freely appropriated and i
ntegrated by disparate culinary cultures across the globe. The New York Times has voted it one of the planet's most internationalized foods, right up there with the pizza.
Unsurprising then that Germany is embroiled in a bitter argument about a curry snack, a seemingly foreign food that has been a firm favourite with it for 60 years. Germany is getting steamed up about the origins of the Currywurst. The curry and tomato sauce-flavoured sausage is its most celebrated snack. It is the theme of a new film The Invention of the Currywurst, which controversially traces its roots not to Berlin but post-war Hamburg. The fact that this is apparently a matter of serious search and scrutiny says much about the Currywurst's status in Germany. Nearly a billion are believed to be consumed in Germany every year. A new study suggests that 80% of Germans regard the Currywurst as central to their diet.
Closer home, in Japan, Indian curry seems to be the flavour of the current season. The Japanese fascination with Indian curry and naan and shifting tastes away from Chinese and Thai cuisine, has caused hundreds of Indian restaurants to mushroom across the archipelago. Japan's idea of Indian curry and naan is distinct from the more tepid Japanese "curry" - usually eaten as Kare Raisu - which people consume on average 62 times a year, according to a survey.
The British introduced curry in Japan in the Meiji era after it ended its policy of national self-isolation, Sakoku. Today, curry has captured the country's culinary imagination in a way nothing else has. That is why Japan has curry cutlets, Katsu-Kare; curry noodles, Kare Udon and curry bread, Kare-Pan.
Some form of curry can be found in kitchens around the world - be it the curry goat in the Caribbean; the cape curry in South Africa; the curry shrimp and curry chicken in Trinidad and Tobago; the Kare-Kare in the Philippines; Fiji's Kare; Samoa and Tonga's Polynesian curry and the more familiar Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian curries. All of these are influenced by Indian spices.
The Indian curry has several enthusiastic and prominent ambassadors, from former US President Clinton and Antonio Banderas to the Sultan of Brunei, Tom Cruise, Sharon Stone, Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman. Singer Bryan Adams has a personal Indian chef; Johnny Depp is a self-confessed chicken biryani freak; Uma Thurman, Minnie Driver, Boris Becker, Mahesh Bhupati and the King and Queen of Jordan are partial to a curry.
Then, there are the theories about curry addiction. Several studies claim that "the reaction of pain receptors to the hotter ingredients in curries leads to the body's release of endorphins and combined with the complex sensory reaction to the variety of spices and flavours, a natural high is achieved that causes subsequent cravings, often followed by a desire to move on to hotter curries."
But the curry's conquest of the world is hardly new. But is it a new metaphor of reverse colonialism? However dubious its genealogy, the "curry" has been both political subject - and symbol - in many countries for several decades. In 2001, the then British foreign secretary Robin Cook hailed chicken tikka masala as his country's new national dish. It has since emerged as an emblem of the changing English palate. With Brits increasingly keen to shake off their clichéd image as unimaginative cooks and consumers of dull, tasteless, boiled and boring food! A few years ago, a London newspaper ran a magazine cover showing a local lout, complete with leather jacket and Union Jack T-shirt, partaking of an Indian meal, surrounded by slogans "Keep Curry British!" and "Bhuna! Nan! Pilau! Curry is your birthright!"
It was hardly a slogan India would use, being confounded by our so-called gift to the world at large when no such thing exists here! For starters, there is the singular absence in the repertoire of Indian cuisine of the word "curry," that suspiciously Epicurean epitome of Indian food!
Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, offers a provocative inquiry into curry and its evolution. Her post-modernist theory - quite like that propounded by Amartya Sen - scoffs at the idea that India, or any other nation, ever had a cuisine that was not constantly in the process of assimilation. Seen through the culinary prism, Amartya Sen's thesis on globalization debunks the phoney right-wing fears of being swamped by a foreign culture. Sen maintains that India too has adapted its tastes to myriad global influences over the centuries. The Bengali mishti is mostly chanar-based, a technique that came into India only after the European missionaries reached our shores centuries ago. Clearly, the converse is true.
The mirch or chilli was unknown to India 400 years ago; the tomato didn't exist in Indian food till as recently as 200 years ago! Today, India is the world's leading producer of chilli and supplies a large part of the planet's insatiable appetite for the sizzling stuff. But, had the Portuguese not touched down in Goa in the late 15th century, we might have had an altogether different cuisine to showcase to the world. Strange are the accidents of history. But how did the chilli come to be so enthusiastically accepted in India, indeed Asia, even though Europe remained indifferent to it for centuries?
At the turn of the century, successive British and Indian writers theorized that an already spicy cuisine - the south Indian Kaari (later bastardised as the fictitious curry) - zealously adopted the chilli as an integral part, adding strength to its already dynamic mix of masalas.
However it happened, it is time the generically Indian curry is viewed as food of, by and for the global village. Today, gastronomy can have no geographical boundaries, cuisine no country and taste no territory. In a gloriously globalizing world, "the other" converges with "the mother" and 21st-century cuisine is a confluence of cultures. Curry today is no more than a symbol of our times
6 months ago