(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Lizzie Collingham’s small volume Curry is a gem of culinary history. Promoted as “the first authoritative history of Indian food,” the book is based on exhaustive research and includes numerous maps and photographs, a glossary (translating culinary terms, such as ghee, toddy, and garam masala), and an extensive bibliography. Scholarly footnotes are provided for each chapter. Wonderful anecdotes and local legends are interwoven with the historical narrative, and, at the end of every chapter, there are delicious recipes (for four to eight diners) the reader might like to try. Recipes of historical interest are included in the body of the text, but Collingham does not recommend “roast black rat, ” a favorite dish of King Somesvara III, a powerful Hindu king in southern India in the 12th century.

Although Curry is well researched and well written, it is not pedantic. It is totally accessible and entertaining to the average reader. Indophiles or anyone who enjoys culinary history or cooking or eating Indian food will love this book. In addition to the obvious merits of the book, its universal enthusiastic acclaim may be due to the fact that the Indian diaspora and the British have spread some variation of Indian food throughout the world. From curry houses in London to “Curry Row” restaurants in New York City to railway stands in Tokyo, there is a large receptive audience for whom the historical study of the origins of Indian food is a welcome and overdue investigation.

Curry contains ten chapters, and Collingham uses menu items for chapter titles. The first chapter, “Chicken Tikka Masala,” describes the origin of the internationally popular Indian dish that Robin Cook, the British foreign minister in 2001, hailed as the new British national dish. Contrary to popular belief, chicken tikka masala is not Indian at all. The dish was the creation of an Indian chef in Britain who served tomato soup mixed with spices over meat to cater to British tastes. Its name is a contradiction in terms"tikka" (oven-roasted meat) is not meant to be eaten with “masala” (gravy) at all.

The next two chapters highlight well-known Indian dishes, biriyani and vindaloo, dealing in historical and geographical contexts with the influence of the Moguls and Persians, and the Portuguese on Indian cuisine. “Korma,” the next chapter, begins the story of the British influence on Indian cuisine in India. The following six chapters trace that influence over timeespecially the British invention of curry and its phenomenal spread throughout Britain and the British Empire. “Chai,” a great chapter about the introduction of tea to India from China, describes how British tea companies, faced with surpluses from their China markets, bombarded India in the early 1900’s with a campaign that made Indians avid tea drinkers.

The evolution of Indian cuisine over the last four centuries reflects India’s changing civilization. A fascinating interplay of cultural, economic, and political influences shaped Indian cuisine as it is known throughout the world, because each successive wave of India’s conquerors and settlers adapted their food and cooking preferences to the local environment. Most well-known Indian dishes are the result of a complex blending of “foreign” foods with native spices, such as black pepper, cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and tumeric. Dishes considered Indian are, therefore, either the result of assimilation and revision or the invention of creative cooks abroad, as occurred with chicken tikka masala. According to Collingham, there is no such thing as “authentic” Indian cuisine.

Ancient Indian cooking was based on the principles of Ayurvedic (science of life) Hindu medicine, which is still practiced in India and other parts of the world today. According to this belief, foods are categorized as “cold” or “hot” (regardless of temperature), and diet is adjusted to keep the body in a balanced state with the climate, season, and one’s caste or occupation. (For example, Ayurvedic physicians may prescribe cold foods, such as milk, during hot weather, and hot foods, such as peppers, in cooler weather.) For Hindus, eating is a matter of health and religious purity, not just a bodily pleasure, and there are many food taboos. All regional cuisines of India present varying traditions, and within these traditions, many culinary differences, related to caste or class,...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 12 (February 15, 2006): 23-24.

Library Journal 131, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 145.

New Statesman 134 (August 1, 2005): 40.

The New York Times 155 (February 1, 2006): E10.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (February 5, 2006): 18.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 46 (November 21, 2005): 40-41.

Science News 169, no. 11 (March 18, 2006): 175.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 18, 2005, pp. 11-12.