London-based Colleen Sen on her latest book and the many avatars of the ubiquitous curry

Food might seem frivolous. After all, a payasam's hardly a political statement, right? You'd be surprised. “Food tells us so much about who we are,” says Chicago-based culinary historian Colleen Sen, in a phone interview to discuss her new book Curry — A Global History. “Your history your identity, your religion — they all have a significant impact on your food.” The book, commissioned by publisher Reaktion Press in London, is a part of their new Edible Series, a set of food books each focussing on a single dish or ingredient (tea, pizza, hot dogs) in a global context.

Stating that this reflects a growing interest in the origins and history of what we eat, Colleen says food cultural history — which is what she specialises in — is getting increasingly popular as an area of research in America. “It's a professional look at food as more than just recipes.” After all, what's on your plate is a powerful expression of your past. Family cookbooks are a historical account of community, shaped by effects of history, geography and imagination. Daily food choices are influenced far more by the past than random moods and preferences. Indian food, for instance, might seem like the creation of generations of home cooks. In reality, that's just half the story.

An expression of culture

According to Curry…, Indian food has constantly and ceaselessly been influenced right from 2000 BC, when the Indo-Europeans arrived. Then came the 8{+t}{+h} Century Arab merchants, the Turkish, Afghan and Asian dynasties, followed by the European and British invasions. It also treats every version of curry as a genuine expression of culture, whether it's a baked Bobotie from Africa, made with minced meat, flavoured with curry powder and lemon leaves and then topped with a savory sunshine yellow custard.

It might be a travesty to a Mumbai housewife, stirring her chicken curry, laced with ginger, garlic and freshly pounded spices, or a Goan cook, inhaling the aroma of his tangy fish curry, but as far as Colleen is concerned — it's relevant. And, a good thing too. In the current fixation on authenticity, it's easy to forget that with food, there are no rules written in stone. “Defining curry was the hardest part of writing the book, since the word has so many different meanings and connotations,” says Colleen. She's chosen her base as the curry that's a “staple of British meals, made by sautéing onions in oil, adding spices (either freshly ground or commercial curry powder) and pieces of meat, fish or vegetables, and simmering it in a stock.” There's a good reason she didn't choose a dish from the traditional Indian lexicon.

The ambivalence

“It's a very ambivalent word. My husband would never use the word curry. In Chicago, you never see curry on a menu. But in London, and the U.K. in fact, everyone talks of ‘curry.' It's become a short form for Indian food.” Her book, however, goes far beyond Indian curry, although it does demonstrate how most curries have roots in India. Take the dishes of Trinidad and Tobago, concocted by Indian immigrants who substituted shadow beni weed, which grows in ditches there, for fresh coriander. The 60,000 Indian labourers taken to Fiji by the British in the late 1890s to work on sugar plantations made their curries with breadfruit, taro root and cassava, cooked with lashings of coconut milk.

“Even in Germany, we discovered curry wurst, which is pork sausage roasted on skewers and topped with curry powder and ketchup,” says Colleen. Born in Toronto, Colleen says she didn't really eat much Indian food till she met her husband Ashish Sen, a Professor of Urban Planning, when they were both at the University of Toronto. “My husband really loves food, and his mother — the late Arati Sen — was pretty well known in her day. She wrote a food column for a Bengali magazine.” Despite Colleen's many hours of library research and interviews around the world, she says there were the inevitable surprises when she started working on the book. One came in the form of a dinner invitation. “A student invited us for a traditional Japanese meal. And, when we sat at the table he emerged — holding a curry.”

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