Please, if you should visit me any evening between 4 and 5 p.m., I’ll be busy rustling up a quick curry for dinner. Now that’s my South Indian “curry”, whose origin is the Tamil word kari, which means “to blacken” or “to roast,” a word that was likely spun from the means used in cooking: coal in the olden days. There are many other such words that are part of modern day spoken English and they are seldom recognized as being of Indian origin. Most of these words were assimilated during the period between the 16th and 20th century when the British followed an aggressive imperial policy in the Indian subcontinent.
Savor this morsel about British rule in India. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, essayist and politician, introduced English education in India, calling for an educational system to build a class of anglicized Indians who would serve as cultural intermediaries between the British and the Indians. In his Minute on Indian Education that was submitted to the Parliament in 1835, he made it clear that all Indian literature could be beaten to pulp: “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.” Isn’t it ironic then that so many Indian words—from Sanskrit, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu and many other languages in use in the country—were absorbed into the English language during the British Raj?
Mind you, I’m not thinking about history and etymology when I’m making my curry. I’m hungry. I’m dying to stuff my face with hot phulkas (thin flat bread) and potato curry before 5:30 p.m., when my diet gong goes off. Of late, I don’t eat after the gong sounds for I will be in danger of not fitting into my Haute Curry tunics, a line of clothing that I bought when I was in India last. Haute Curry is a young and funky ethno-fusion brand feted by Anoushka Shankar for today’s young and trans-global fashion divas who might fish out their curry combs and brush their hair and fix themselves the way one might curry a horse as part of grooming him.
And no, you will not, I repeat, not curry favor with me if you smirk and say that I’m fifty, and well past the age at which to groom, preen and squeeze into Haute Curry. I will tell you, “No” and, baby, will I show you how. Right after I make my potato curry, that is.
For that, I’ll splutter mustard and cumin seeds in a teaspoon of hot oil in my cast iron pan, tossing in a couple of finely diced shallots. And in a few minutes, when my onion is limp and caramelizing ever so slightly and the red and yellow toss pillows in my family room have soaked in the aroma, I’ll add a dash of red chilly and turmeric powder and a pinch of salt. I’ll let it all ruminate a bit before I finally throw in my three chopped, peeled potatoes that will roast on medium-high until my curry is wet and dry and crunchy and moist at the same time.
No, I don’t use curry powder for this dish and if you’re Caucasian, never, ever say: “Oh, you’re Indian? You must eat a lot of curry then.” That, my friend, is like arsenic in my turmeric. That, amore mio, is like asking an Italian if he eats a lot of marinara.
Instead, ask me these questions: So, what is curry? Are there many different kinds of curry powder? Is the South Indian curry different from, say, chicken curry or Goan curry? And I’ll tell you how, deep inside every Tamilian soul, a corner gloats over how this Tamil word, “curry”, has now become iconic of India and everything Indian. We cannot think of curry without thinking of India, can we?
I mustn’t also forget to mention how “curry,” in Britain’s vast empire, became an umbrella term in the west to refer to almost any spiced, sauce-based dish cooked in various South and Southeast Asian styles. For instance, “curry” was also attributed to any Indian dish that was prepared with a secret powder that gave it sharpness and pungency.
There is the other misconception. Not all Indian food contains curry powder.
Most recipes for curry powder, a sharp seasoning made of ground spices, usually include coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and red pepper in their blends. Almost always, however, this all-important powder is actually a mix of spices collectively known as garam masala. It is added to some dishes along with other spices to enhance their flavor and aroma.
One word of caution to avoid being sautéed by the savvy: a dry chicken dish sans sauce must never be referred to as a curry.
So the curry powder is really a masala which, by the way, is now a word in the English lexicon borrowed from Hindi. But that must be a subject of another tangy discussion.
This is the first article in On Inglish, a new column on Indian words that have become an accepted part of the English lexicon.