Don’t curry, be happy February 21, 2007Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
A South Indian, a Punjabi, a Frenchman and an old East India Company hand meet to figure out what curry really is. C Y Gopinath was a fly on the wall
ONE DAY, APPUSWAMY, CHOPRA, SMITH AND BEAUVILLIERS finally met to thrash out a matter that had been troubling serious cooks all over the world: what was the correct recipe for the world-famous Indian curry? Each was a curry expert in his own right, and each disagreed vehemently with the other three.
Appuswamy staunchly maintained that the only place on earth where real curry was South India, and that it was spelt cari.
Chopra claimed that it was actually spelt kadhi, and was a delicious preparation featuring spongy chickpea flour dumplings in a buttermilk-based gravy.
Smith, who claimed it was his real name, said that England had countless Indian curry restaurants, adding that he had eaten in them all. “At least one of them must be serving genuine Indian curry,” he argued.
Beauvilliers would generally burp and hold his peace, as though what he knew could not be shared with commoners.
I knew trouble was brewing when Appuswamy one day produced a dark green tin labelled Original Madras Curry Powder. “Woriginal!” he spat out. “Myself woriginally from Madras. We are not having any such powder. It is a plot.”
“But old fruit,” said Smith patronisingly and with galling logic, “how could you possibly not have it? It says right here in big letters ‘MADRAS’ — so it stands to reason that it must have come from Madras. N’est-ce pas, old frog?” The last line was addressed to the lofty Frenchman.
Beauvilliers burped off-handedly, which Chopra took as his cue to reveal more virtues about Punjabi kadhi. “In Bhatinda,” he confided, “they put double hing in kadhi. It is the secret why girls from there make good wives.”
Finally, of course, they had to call me in to settle the dispute. I, in turn, lugged in my trusted copy of the Larousse Gastronomique. “Curry, gentlemen,” I began reading, “is a dish flavoured and coloured with a mixture of spices (curry powder) of Indian origin. In India, the ingredients of curry vary according to the individual cook, the region, the caste, and the customs.”
I stopped. Clearly this was a circular definition. According to this, anything cooked in India or by an Indian or with Indian spices could be called curry. Curry was all things to all people. Everybody wins.
“This is a bleddy nonsense written by some French porukki,” rumbled Appuswamy. “In the south, curry is cari and it is not having any spices.”
Chopra looked miffed that curry had been spelt with a ‘c’ again. “In Ludhiana, they eat kadhi three times a week. That’s why the men finally sing on Channel V.”
Smith, tiring of this Third World balderdash, spoke with the air of one settling the issue once and for all. “I say, old fruits,” he said, “sorry and all that, but you simply mustn’t think curry as we know it has anything to do with India, you know. In the Westend, where the best curry places are, we categorise curries as mild, hot and very hot. A standard British curry would contain turmeric, coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, tamarind and chili pepper, and sometimes fennel, caraway, ajowan, mustard seeds, cinnamon —”
“Yes,” said Chopra eagerly. “We make this in Amritsar also but we call it garam masala.”
Appuswamy blew his nose in disgust. “Not a spice powder, saar,” he said. “Yit is a circus. Ye yabomination.”
“Excuse me,” I said to Smith. “How do you know so much about Indian curry powder?”
“Bloody ruled you for years and years, didn’t we?” he said. “Don’t forget, we and the Dutch are the ones who made curry famous over Europe. And if there was a fixed formula for curry powder, you can thank the East India Company for it.”
Beauvilliers stirred. France, land of fussy gourmets, was going to speak. “Messieurs et dames,” he said. “I zink you know who I am. Ze famous Beauvilliers. My father is ze one who, in 1814, proposed the first official recipe for curry powder. But it was in 1889, at the Universal Paris Exhibition, that the composition of curry powder was set by decree. Please remember, France is the home of the ISO standard. When we say thees ees eet, eet ees eet. Voila.”
He proceeded to detail the official recipe for Indian curry: 34 gm tamarind, 44 gm onion, 20 gm coriander, 5 gm chilli pepper, 3 gm turmeric, 2 gm cummin, 3 gm fenugreek, 2 gm pepper and 2 gm mustard.
“Zat ees what we in the west call curry powder,” said Beauvilliers, with a fey flourish.
With that, India’s least known contribution to western cuisine, disappeared from our land forever. Appuswamy, shocked out of his Dravidian wits, sat stunned.
It was Chopra who finally broke the silence. “Main keya,” he said in good Chandigarh brogue, “why worry, dear? It’s only curry.”