Ruby's journey from Mughal emperor's pukka feast to high-street takeaway

December 23, 2005

William Makepeace Thackeray wrote a poem about it; London in the 18th and 19th centuries generated countless pamphlets on it; and almost half the young Gandhi's Guide to London was devoted to it. Long before that, in the 12th century, a king of Maharashtra in western India gave pride of place to it in his encyclopaedic account of the conduct of royal affairs. Now Lizzie Collingham, in Curry: A Biography , has situated curry within a geographical and a temporal framework, organising its progress from its colonial beginnings in "mofussil" (up-country) Indian outposts to its present ubiquity in postcolonial life.

The word itself, however, has no pukka existence in the lexicon of Indian cuisine. Curry is a generic term concocted by the British in India to denote a gravy of some unspecified sort. Collingham's book, by contrast, is a wonderfully specific and detailed work that takes in an extensive range of Indian cuisine. She traces her subject back to its inchoate beginnings, the collusion of powers in India - Portuguese, Mughal, Persian, British - and the resultant miscegenation of different culinary cultures.

In recent times, there has emerged something of a trend of books with central narratives structured around recipes. Como Agua para Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, better known in its cinematic adaptation as Like Water for Chocolate , is one such. In Curry , food forms the body of the narrative, with a few recipes worked in. The structure parallels that of an Indian meal: where a heavily spiced meal ends with a sweet or a betel nut, the book's extensively researched chapters end with a few well-chosen recipes.

The ten chapters move from British influence on Indian cuisine to Indian influence on English dishes, via other colonial influences. Each chapter details the history behind a specific dish. Collingham begins with chicken tikka masala - like "curry" itself, a mongrel product - and takes us through the Mughlai biryani, the Portuguese-influenced vindaloo, the Lucknow korma, and the very British Madras curry and curry powder (these last two previously unknown to the Indian kitchen), to finish with chai, curry and chips.

Collingham engages throughout with several sociological issues intrinsic to the production and consumption of food in the sub-continent. These include regional differences and the question of authenticity; Hindu and Muslim purity rituals; caste positions and their determination and preservation through the exchange of food; the Ayurvedic promotion of meat and the counter-movement towards vegetarianism promoted by Buddhism, Jainism and Brahminism; the centrality of hunting in certain cuisines; the Mughal Emperor Akbar's insistence on having water from the Ganges and the wider significance of this source; his son Jahangir's jade drinking cup and the tale of debauchery behind it; the role of chillis as a vital source of vitamin C for the poor; temple cuisine in South India and the role of the donor; and finally, the return to England of members of the Raj with their Indian servants and what this meant for cuisine in India.

A crucial element of Indian cuisine that Collingham establishes right off is the fact that it is not divided into different styles along the relatively recent national boundaries so much as along much older regional boundaries. Furthermore, by bringing to light Ayurvedic acceptance of beef consumption, she reveals the nature of taboos, the force of practicality and everyday realities, and the challenges presented to these by religion at a later stage. Occasionally, however, Collingham seems to relish the exotic a little too much, as when she focuses on certain dictates of the Ayurveda that prescribe nutritious antelope to people on the plains and hot, heavy iguana meat to those in marshy damp areas, as well as when she dwells on certain "beliefs" that local qualities of soil and water can be absorbed by crops. What is true is that differences in altitude, water and soil give tea planted in the Darjeeling hills, for instance, a flavour distinct from that of tea planted in the plains of Assam.

In her excavation of the biryani, Collingham delineates the entire history of the Mughals. The importance of food to Mughal culture is evident in the size of the travelling imperial kitchen: 50 camels to carry the supplies, 200 coolies to carry the china and cookware, 50 well-fed cows to provide milk, cream, butter and curds. The court of Oudh at Lucknow, in establishing itself, had to pay stupendous salaries to lure cooks, artists, poets and musicians from Delhi and other parts of India.

Collingham delves deep into the colonisation of India, and discusses the early settlements of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras long before they became power centres of the Raj. She limns the history of each region, the collisions involved and the culinary fallout of these encounters. This is well-travelled territory, the material of countless postcolonial histories, and her over-extensive overview detracts from her narrative. Thus the chapter on vindaloo has a 20-page historical introduction before we come to the dish; likewise her chapter on korma, where the dish appears only after fourteen pages with a mere five pages to come.

But this weakness is made up for by the author's catholic details, such as that of the "stony recipe books" in the temple culture of south India - stone tablets set beside the pathways to hilltop temples that marked the culinary arts of the temple cooks and ensured a permanent record of the development of a sophisticated vegetarian cuisine. Even today, we are told, many cooks in south Indian restaurants learn their trade from these tablets.

Curry , then, is as much a highly accessible history as a definitive biography of its subject.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in literature from Bristol University, and now works in book publishing. She has lived in several parts of India.

Curry: A Biography

Author - Lizzie Collingham
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 318
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7011 7335 1

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