Friday, May 14, 2010

Curry: A bit too dry and bland for my taste

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham uses the term “curry” in the British sense, in that the real topic of the book turns out to be a food history of the Indian subcontinent – in much the same way that the British describe every dish cooked with sauce and a combination of exotic spices a curry, even though the term reduces an entire cuisine (in fact, multiple cuisines) to an Anglo-ism. The British perspective infuses the book, as Collingham gives the Raj credit for the development of what the world knows as “Indian” food, even while admitting the pale imitation of the real thing that global Indian has become – and somehow missing the point that it was only the British usurpation of the sub-continent that allowed England to borrow the closest thing it has to its own cuisine.

In fairness, Collingham has done her homework, and the beginning sections of the book, which are built around popular “Indian” menu items and the cultures and time periods to which they are related, are very interesting. The influence of Mughal rulers and the Portuguese on the cuisine is detailed along with the complex history surrounding the wax and wane of their influences on the culture. Collingham uses a variety of primary sources, and uses quotes from letters of those traveling through India to great effect.

Collingham loses her historicity, and to some extent her perspective, when she comes to the British Raj. She is just too enamored of the British occupation of what are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to analyze the facts and effects. Hers is a kinder, gentler Raj than one might expect, and the outcomes of occupation and globalization – terrible things like indentured servitude and diaspora – are spun in Pollyanna fashion into the elevation of the cuisine of not only the British Isles, but Fiji, Trinidad and South Africa. Gee willikers, wasn’t it great of those affable Brits to make life so unlivable for folks in their own country that they had to skedaddle away, and take their food preferences with them? (This is the same kind of thinking that no doubt has the British taking credit for John F. Kennedy’s presidency – if we hadn’t starved the poor Irish out of their own country, they wouldn’t have gone to Boston and voted for that Irish Catholic fellow. Well done us.)

Sub-continentals are not the only ones who have a right to be aggrieved. Her knowledge of the United States seems to be limited to her belief that inhabitants take all their cues – culinary and otherwise – from the UK. As she tries to explain why the US does not share the British mania for curry, she seems stumped. One look at her sources, however, and it’s clear that she is clueless of the US beyond a few Manhattan and Chicago eateries and restaurant reviews. At one point, she even seems to imply that the British appropriation of food from the sub-continent actually led to the acceptance of ethnic cuisine. Here’s the thing – I don’t think it was the British who gave us Italian food. I think it was – wait for it – the Italians!

The book isn’t awful, just Anglo-centric, and way too long. She should have stopped while she was ahead – in Goa. I did learn a lot about the history of a fascinating cuisine, and I appreciate the author’s painstaking research in some areas. So that’s my food book, and third book in the What’s in a Name 3 Challenge complete. Next, I’m taking on a more personal history with my body of water title: The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Search for the Meaning of Wife, by Janna Cawrse Esarey.

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