What is curry?

Indeed, what is curry and how did the word originate? It certainly is not Mulligatawny Soup, the making of which English master chef and TV presenter Rick Stein filmed recently at the Madras Club for his 17th programme, India - In Search of the Perfect Curry. On the other hand, it might just be considered a curry if you take the view that a curry is a masala (multi-spice) accompaniment for a staple like rice. Mulligatawny, said to have been ‘invented’ at the Madras Club in the 19th Century by Col. Kenney-Herbert, is, after all, a variant of rasam.

Be that as it may, the questions I started this item with were posed by Stein to his audience at a talk after his filming. And out of the answers emerged a couple of points. A curry is an accompaniment to a staple that can take various forms: it could be a thick gravy (kuzhambu), a medium consistency gravy (sambhar) or a watery gravy (rasam). It could also be a dry curry (masala poriyal). But then do we include items such as vellai poriyal and kootu as curries? We could well do so, if we went along with Hobson-Jobson. Its authors, Col. Henry Yule and Dr.A.C.Burnell, say, “(An Indian staple) having little taste, some small quantity of a much more savoury preparation is added as a relish…And this is in fact the proper office of curry in the native diet. It consists of meat, fish, fruit or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric, and a little of this gives a flavour to a large mess of rice.”

As for the origin of the word, both Hobson-Jobson and the Oxford give it as the Tamil word kari. The former says ‘kari’ means ‘sauce’ or ‘to eat by biting’ (presumably the authors meant kadi). I regret I’m not able to buy this. To me, kari is ‘flesh’ - kozhi-kari being chicken flesh and kaai-kari being green flesh (vegetables), which are what are transformed into curries. But then kari does not seem to apply to fish or fruit which are also made into curries. So what’s the origin? Intriguing, isn’t it?

Hobson-Jobson also says the Canarese form karil was adopted by the Portuguese who ‘still use it.’ The word was used by the Portuguese as early as 1502 in their writings. Hobson-Jobson could also well raise doubts about the Madras Club’s connection with Mulligatawny. It quotes a 1784 Navy shanty, “In vain our hard fate we repine;/ In vain our fortune we rail;/ On Mullaghee-tawny we dine;/ Or Congee, in Bangalore Jail.” As well as a sentence from an 1823 book on missions in Madras by the Rev.Hoole: “… in a brazen pot was mulugu tanni, a hot vegetable soup, made chiefly from peppers and capsicums.”

Watery jail fare and a pepper and chilli soup are a far cry from mulligatawny in the British clubs - so, Col. Kenney-Herbert’s reputation remains intact, I would say.

Judging by Rick Stein's reactions, he didn’t find a precise answer to his questions nor the perfect curry. What he did find in his several weeks of travelling through India for his BBC presentation (and, no doubt, a book) was several curries that were “absolutely delicious” - including the Madras Club Mulligatawny. And all of them quite different from the fish he cooks in simple ways at his The Seafood Restaurant in Pacstow, North Cornwall, to win international awards.

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The first doctorate

You got it wrong, particularly after you had written about her some time ago, wrote reader D.B. James referring to Dr. A. Sarada being the first woman to earn a doctorate at the University of Madras (Miscellany, January 21). She was the first women to earn it from the Department of Economics.

The first one in the University was Dr. Cadambi Minakshi, who earned it from the Department of Indian History and Archaeology. Mentored by Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, she was awarded her Ph.D. in 1936, two years before Dr. Sarada, and of that I had written on October 3, 2011.

While I had written about her academic career in that earlier piece, I had failed to mention that Dr. Minakshi was also a performing musician and musicologist. She participated in several vocal concerts during her ever-so-short lifetime; she was only 34 when she passed away. She always had a premonition of her early death. Dr. James tells me that his mother was at Women's Christian College with Minakshi who used to tell her fellow-students that her horoscope predicted an outstanding academic career for her but an early death.

Amongst Dr. Minakshi’s several publications, her thesis, Social and Administrative Life under the Pallavas published by the University in 1938, is the best known one. In it is a chapter on music in which she discusses in depth a famous inscription on music found on the rock surface of Kudimiyanmalai (Pudukottai District). Her other books include The Historical Sculptures of the Vaikuntaperumal Temple, Kanchi; The Kailasanathar Temple, Kanchi; and Buddhism in South India. A research article in 1938 looked at ‘Some Suburbs of Madras.’

When she passed away in 1940, the Director General of Archaeology, K.N. Dikshit, wrote, “She was an exceptionally brilliant scholar, easily the best among Indian lady archaeologists…” Reader James adds, “Her mother accompanied her to the various archaeological sites she went to and pointed out various interesting features.”

Dr. Minakshi was working on her D.Litt. when she passed away in Bangalore on her way to accept a professorial appointment given to her at Maharani’s College, Mysore, by Sir Mirza Ismail.

I am also told that the second doctorate to a woman awarded by the University of Madras was to Eliza V. Paranjothi. I wonder whether anyone has more details to offer about her.

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When the postman knocked…

Reader Dharmalingam Venugopal writes from Coonoor that just as the Rev. Christian Schwartz (Miscellany, January 21) had played a major role in the life of Serfoji II, John Sullivan Sr., the father of Sullivan of Ooty, played an important part in Schwartz's life. Sullivan Sr. was the Resident at Tanjore and therefore wielded considerable influence not only in the kingdom but also in the southern districts. Noting that Schwartz, after his arrival in Tanjore, had begun by preaching to the local Tamil population in English, Sullivan suggested that he teach his audiences English first and then preach the gospel later. Schwartz took the point and started a couple of schools in the Kumbakonam area to teach English. They were known as the Schwartz-Sullivan schools. Several other schools like these were then started in the southern districts. Former President of India Abdul Kalam was a product of one such school.

When C.D. Gopinath last Monday referred to facing Freddie Trueman (not ‘Truman’, as I had it), he was talking about that disastrous 1952 tour of England when we lost four out of the five Tests and were saved only by rain in the fifth. The Third Test at Manchester saw India decimated by Trueman, England winning by an innings and 207 runs, India managing only 58 and 82. The result notwithstanding, the Indian Students’ Association in Manchester hosted the team at a tea party, recalls reader R. Ramakrishnan, who was Secretary of the Association and made the welcome speech. In it, he referred to what Neville Cardus wrote about Gopinath in The Guardian, Manchester. Cardus had apparently compared Gopinath to Alfred Jingle in The Pickwick Papers, saying that when he got going he really got going and was a delight to watch.

Reader G.V. Sastri wants to know whether the Madras Law Journal is still in existence. The magazine founded in 1891 is still going strong but not in its original location, a house in the Sanskrit College campus in Mylapore. Its new owners are an international publishing house who bought it in 2006 and the present home of the journal suits the new image. In the old premises, R. Narayanaswamy, whose great grandfather V. Krishnaswami Aiyar started the journal with P.R. Sundara Iyer, Salem Ramaswami Mudaliar and Sir. C. Sankaran Nair, still runs Kalaimagal and Manjari which the MLJ Press started in more recent times. V. Krishnaswami Aiyar edited the MLJ till his death in 1911. He was succeeded by his son-in-law R. Narayanswami Aiyar who was editor till 1945. Then, Narayanaswami Aiyar’s son, N. Ramaratnam succeeded him to be followed by his son R. Narayanaswamy.