Curry is, supposedly, Indian. But there is no such word in any of the country’s many official languages—and no Indian would use the term to describe their own food. So what is curry? This episode takes us to India, Britain, and Japan on a quest to understand how a variety of spicy, saucy dishes ended up being lumped together under one name—and then transformed into something completely different as they were transported around the world. From a post-pub vindaloo in Leeds to comforting kare raisu in Kyoto, we explore the stories and flavors of curry—a dish that’s from nowhere and yet eaten nearly everywhere.
According to Lizzie Collingham, food historian and author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, to trace the origins of curry, we need to go back to when the Portuguese first set up shop in Goa, in the early 1500s. “And they’d say, Oooh, what are you eating?” said Collingham, “And the Indians replied using a word like khari or caril.” At the time, Collingham explained, those words likely referred to a particular spice blend, as well as the finished dish it was used in; the same words are still in use, but they now mean sauce or gravy. Today, that’s Raghavan Iyer’s definition: he authored a doorstop of a cookbook called 660 Curries, and he uses “curry” to refer to “anything that has a sauce or gravy—it can be with or without spices.”
But how did India’s many and varied ragouts and stews all come to be known as curry? For that, we have to look to the British. With Collingham’s help, Gastropod teases out the origins of dishes such as biryani and vindaloo, tracing their journey from complex, regional specialties to simplified, curryhouse classics, thanks to a combination of colonialism, empire, and immigrant entrepreneurialism. Along the way, we pinpoint the rise of curry powder, trace curry’s global diaspora, and spend some time with Mr. Bean. We even get to the bottom of why the Japanese—a nation whose cuisine is defined by its exquisite aesthetic—love their own brown, gloppy version. Listen in now to discover the world of curry.
Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
Lizzie Collingham is a historian and author of a number of books, including, most recently, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. Her 2006 book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, is a deeply enjoyable read, and even contains a few historical recipes, for the adventurous.
Raghavan Iyer‘s 660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking
Chef and culinary educator Raghavan Iyer is author of several cookbooks, including the epic 660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking.
Takashi Morieda is a photojournalist based in Tokyo. He’s written extensively about Japanese curry culture, including this essay, titled “The Unlikely Love Affair with Curry and Rice.”
Vindaloo is a song by British prank art collective/band Fat Les, whose members are Blur bassist Alex James, actor Keith Allen, and artist Damien Hirst. It was released in 1998, in the run up to the football World Cup, as a parody of football chants. It has been stuck in Nicky’s head throughout the time we’ve been working on this episode.
For your viewing pleasure: curry scenes from Only Fools and Horses, Gavin and Stacey, Peep Show and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Astonishingly, a British man (Vern Slade from Newcastle) actually had Smithy’s curry takeaway order from Gavin and Stacey tattooed on his arm while on a lad’s holiday. Also for your enjoyment: Rowan Atkinson’s sketch about drunk Englishmen in an Indian restaurant, and the cast of Goodness Gracious Me “going out for an English.”
What’s a Ruby?
Cockney rhyming slang for a curry! Ruby Murray was one of the most popular singers in the British Isles in the 1950s. Murray, of course, rhymes with curry—so, fancy a Ruby?
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