On the gravy train with Colleen Taylor Sen

Food writer Colleen Taylor Sen explains how Indian curry has travelled the world

“India has no national cuisine or national dish,” observes Chicago-based food writer and journalist Colleen Taylor Sen, in her recent book, Curry: A Global History. The reason, she points out, is the country’s ethnic, linguistic, cultural, climatic and culinary diversity, makes it impossible to highlight one particular dish.

However, despite this diversity, there is one Indian dish that has travelled around the world, from North America to Fiji, and reincarnated itself in various avatars — curry.

On the gravy train with Colleen Taylor Sen

The Dutch and British initially took the dish from various parts of India to their heartland. From then on, the dish has been integrated into various local cuisines. “If there is any dish that deserves to be called global, it is curry,” says Sen, adding, “From the beginning, it was a product of globalisation spread throughout the world by traders, missionaries, colonial administrators and their wives, indentured labourers and immigrants.”

In New York and London, upmarket restaurants with Michelin stars serve sophisticated versions accompanied by elegant wines. “It is one dish that has evolved and adapted itself to the changing times,” says Sen.

The name, curry, was originally applied by the British to any Indian dish with a gravy, and by the late 18th Century, the word was in general use for this purpose. Soon curry spread to British colonies in North America, Africa and the Caribbean. “Between 1834 and 1917, nearly 1.5 million Indians went to work in plantations in the Caribbean, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and South East Asia. And I find the curries they and their descendants created especially interesting, since they had to substitute local ingredients for Indian ones; for example, in Trinidad, they use a local herb, shadow beni for coriander, and callaloo or taro leaf for saag,” says Sen.

On the gravy train with Colleen Taylor Sen

Beyond the colonies

Interestingly, even those countries that had no direct contact with India, also developed curries. In Germany, for example, a popular street food is currywurst, which is pork sausage roasted with onions and green pepper, sprinkled with curry powder, slathered with tomato ketchup, and served with french fries on the side. “It was most probably introduced by British soldiers in Berlin at the end of the Second World War,” says Sen.

“Do you know that curry and rice is virtually a national dish in Japan?” Sen asks.

On the gravy train with Colleen Taylor Sen

The dish has chunks of meat, carrots, onions, and potatoes in an ochre, curry-powder flavoured sweetish sauce. In the mid-19th Century, when Japanese ports were opened to foreigners, the British navy (which at that time served curry on its ships) introduced curry to the Japanese. “A dish called Battleship Curry — made with blueberries, parmesan cheese, honey, ketchup and, most importantly, coffee — is served every Friday on Japanese ships to this day,” says Sen.

Curry owes much of its global status to the British. It reached its pinnacle in modern Britain, as it found its way into the menu of upmarket restaurants, curry houses and pubs. The local curry house, with its inexpensive greasy dishes, served with a base sauce of varying degrees of hotness, became a feature of British urban life, points out Sen. Not surprising then that curry went on to become virtually the national dish of Britain.


Curry houses
  • Bangladeshi immigrants (mainly from the district of Sylhet) initially established curry houses in the UK. In 1960, there were just 300 in Britain; by 1980, there were 3,000, and by 2011, over 12,000.
  • In recent years, their number has started to dwindle. According to Bee Wilson in Who Killed the Great British Curry House (an article in The Guardian), curry restaurants are closing at a rate of several every week, with 4,000 expected to close over the next few years. One reason is an acute shortage of workers: Work visas are harder to get and younger Bangladeshis want to pursue professional careers. Young diners are turning more to fast foods. And older diners’ tastes are becoming more sophisticated.

Madras curry powder
Madras curry powder is usually made with a mix of coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, poppy seeds cumin seeds, black pepper corns, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric powder and chilli powder. Some of the brands sold in the UK and the US include milk powder to balance the heat and make the curry creamy. It is offered in three choices — mild, medium and strong, indicating the heat from chilli and pepper.

    The Chennai connect

    Chennai is the birthplace of an unique cuisine of Tamil Anglo Indians. “Anglo Madrasi” cuisine which was developed by the chefs serving the British Sahibs and Mem-Sahibs. It is this cuisine which gave the word Curry to the world. Curry is believed to be a derivative of Tamil word Kari. (Kari in Tamil means meat and Kai Kari means vegetables)This cuisine was a blend of British food with a hint of Indian flavors. Chef. E.P. Veerasamy, who played an important role in developing these dishes was honored with many awards. He created the famous Mulligatwany soup- based on Madras Pepper rasam; Milagu tanni=Pepper water. He also opened the first upmarket Indian restaurant at 99, REgent Street in London, in 1927 which is today one of Britain’s finest Indian restauants. He is credited with the development of the famous Madras Curry Powder. In 1936 he published a cookbook , Indian Cookery, which gives details of Anglo-Indian curry-making.

    Around the world: The website,, lists Indian restaurants and curry houses in more than 90 countries.

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    Curry: A Global History, published by Speaking Tiger is now available in India

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    Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 3:12:38 AM |

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