This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Curry Chronicles, first released on April 9, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
Correction: In the episode, Nicky says that long pepper is not related to black pepper. This is incorrect: they are both in the Piperaceae family, and are close relatives. We apologize for the mistake!
NICOLA TWILLEY: Me and me Mum and me Dad and me Gran / And a bucket of vindaloo / Nah nah nah vindaloo…
CYNTHIA GRABER: I’m glad you’re enjoying this song, but I have never heard it before. What is this? Why are you singing about Indian food?
TWILLEY: Because curry is my national dish.
GRABER: Now I’m really confused—sure, London has great Indian restaurants, because of course of colonialism. But, curry is your national dish? How? How did curry become Britain’s national dish?
TWILLEY: I think the questions need to go further than that, Cynthia. I mean, what is curry, and why is it not actually eaten in India, where it supposedly comes from?
GRABER: And then there’s Japanese curry, and curries from the Caribbean—where do all these dishes come from?
TWILLEY: Nah nah nah, Nah nah nah, vindaloo, vindaloo, nah nah…
GRABER: You just keep going, and I’ll introduce the show—you’re all listening, well, to Nicky singing, and to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, future winner of “Britain’s Got Talent” as well as co-host of Gastropod. And today’s episode—is, guess what, all about curry! This is actually a suggestion from Rauri Bowie, who showed us round UC Berkeley’s amazing egg collection for our egg episode, thank you Rauri.
RAGHAVAN IYER: Well, I grew up in India and I lived there for about 21 years. And interestingly enough the word “curry” as you know it, as it’s spelt and spoken in the English language, is a word that’s not spoken in any of the 21 languages in India.
GRABER: This episode is already surprising me left and right. Curry isn’t a word used to refer to any dishes in India? This is Raghavan Iyer, and he wrote a cookbook, a huge one actually, called 660 Curries.
TWILLEY: Um, excuse me. Raghavan’s book is called 660 Curries, and it’s full of Indian dishes, and he’s saying actually that there’s no such thing as curry in any Indian language?
IYER: We have words that sound similar to curries. and those are all words that usually typify a dish that has either a sauce or gravy to it.
GRABER: So how did words that sound like curry come to represent a whole range of Indian-style dishes? Hundreds of them?
LIZZIE COLLINGHAM: Well, so, that really starts off with the Portuguese.
TWILLEY: This is Lizzie Collingham. She’s a historian and author of lots of books about food and history, including Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.
COLLINGHAM: The Portuguese are the first Europeans to arrive in India, to round the Cape of Good Hope, at the bottom of South Africa, and sail to India.
GRABER: The Portuguese first landed in India in 1498, and by the 1500s they’d firmly set up shop there.
COLLINGHAM: And they set up a post in Goa. And they look at what the Indians are eating and they say ‘Ooh what are you eating,’ and that the Indians are obviously using a word like khari or caril.
TWILLEY: So this khari or caril—what was it?
COLLINGHAM: It’s a bit hazy. Were they referring to a gravy or spice mix?
TWILLEY: Lizzie says that in a handful of southern Indian languages the words caril or khari were used to describe the spices for seasoning a dish as well as the final dish. But today, those words still exist, but they mean sauce or gravy.
GRABER: And that’s how Raghavan now uses the word curry.
IYER: Anything that has a sauce or gravy to it. And it can be with or without spices. In fact, a few of the curries in India don’t have spices in it, but they’re just done with fresh herbs. The bottom line is, I’ve always said, if it’s not a sauce or a gravy, it is not a curry.
GRABER: The Portuguese really were the ones to start using khari or caril to refer to Indian food in general—
COLLINGHAM: And that gets picked up by the British. They say, ‘Oh Indians eat khari and caril.’ And then it turns into curry. And then that becomes the generic term. Indians according to Europeans eat curry.
TWILLEY: So Europeans use curry to refer to what Indians eat. And what exactly do Indians eat?
GRABER: Unsurprisingly for a place that is also a subcontinent and was home to hundreds of millions of people, they were eating a lot of very different things.
COLLINGHAM: India of course is divided into lots of regions. So you’d have a Bengali way of cooking which uses a lot of mustard oil and mustard seeds. In Gujarat they cook a lot of sweet sour sort of dishes.
GRABER: And so on, from region to region. And then there’s also different religions followed in India.
COLLINGHAM: Muslims of course wouldn’t eat pork and so on. So there’s a whole range of different ways of eating. And then there’s the kinds of foods you might grow or the kinds of spices that grow.
TWILLEY: Each of these groups of people in different places with different beliefs—they would each have their own saucy dishes, or curries. So many saucy dishes. Even more than you might imagine, because Indian kitchens typically didn’t have ovens. Some regions do use tandoor clay ovens, but really, most Indian dishes are stewed. And thus saucy.
GRABER: So now we know that curry isn’t really an Indian word, or really an Indian dish. But it is definitely a word we use in America, we sometimes say curry to refer to Indian food.
TWILLEY: But really, it’s a British word. I mean, it’s a British institution!
[BRITISH FILM/TV MONTAGE]
“Only Fools and Horses”
Man: Fancy a curry?
Woman: Why not.
“Gavin & Stacey”
Man 1: Right, let’s see what we’re up to, what we got so far. We have lamb pasanda, beef madras, chicken jalfrezi, no tomatoes, and Gavin wants a king prawn balti… We’re getting an Indian, what do you fancy?
Man 2: Chicken bhuna, lamb bhuna, prawn bhuna, mushroom rice…
Man: I got us a lovely big curry as a treat. Chicken tikka masala, balti tiger prawn, vegetable korma. I thought I’d really push the boat out. There’s a naan and a half each.
“Auf Wiedersehen Pet”
Man: This is a curry house isn’t it? Can’t get much more English than that, can you, eh?
TWILLEY: No you cannot! So that is a roll call of British TV comedy—”Only Fools and Horses,” “Gavin and Stacey,” “Peep Show,” “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”—it’s like a montage of my youth. Combined with, of course, curry.
GRABER: As the token American here, I’ve never heard of any of these shows, I have to admit. And there’s some funny sounding language to me, like “getting an Indian?”
TWILLEY: Right, and the idea that’s there’s nothing more English than a curry house? There’s some issues to unpack here, to put it mildly.
GRABER: So how did going to a curry house and “getting an Indian” become something that you do on a Friday night after getting pissed at the pub?
TWILLEY: Unsurprisingly, it’s to do with colonialism and empire. But not just the British empire. India has been invaded by different empires multiple times.
COLLINGHAM: So North India, that’s been affected by waves of Muslim immigration from Central Asia, Ghengis Khan. And those people brought nomadic ways of cooking.
GRABER: These are the Mughals. They tried to invade India for hundreds of years, and they finally succeeded in the early 1500s. Babur the Tiger was a descendant of Ghengis Khan, and he was a contemporary of Henry the Eighth. He came from what’s now Uzbekistan and he was the first Mughal emperor in northern India.
TWILLEY: Neither Babur nor his son were fans of the local cuisine, so they brought in cooks from Persia.
COLLINGHAM: Yeah, at the court of the caliphs in Persia, rice was a really valued dish, especially aromatic rice like basmati. And then they also really loved marinating meat in yogurt for a long time before they cooked it so it was lovely and tender. And so they brought both of those ways of cooking to northern India with them.
GRABER: The local people in northern India loved spices, and so the Mughals took those spices and added them to their rice and meat dish.
COLLINGHAM: And you get this lovely aromatic dish which they call biryani. Biryani is layers of meat marinated in yogurt and then cooked in a yogurt sauce, and then layered with rice with whole spices dotted through it. So we think of biryani as a typically Indian dish but that’s actually a combination of Persian and Northern Indian ways of cooking.
TWILLEY: Lizzie says the Mughals had a lasting impact on Indian food. A lot of the kinds of cooking you still see in India today—the creamy sauces, skewered meats and kebabs, expensive and luxurious ingredients like saffron and almonds and pistachios—that’s all Mughal influence.
GRABER: Around the same time as the Mughal’s began their rule in northern India, the Portuguese colonized a part of southwest India. As we said, they took over Goa in the 1500s and they ruled there for hundreds of years. And they didn’t just co-opt the word curry, they also left their mark on the local dishes.
COLLINGHAM: Up until the 15th century, black pepper only grew in Kerala. This tiny region along the southwest coast at the tip of India. And so black pepper was a huge influence on cooking there and the food was very hot because black pepper makes things very hot.
TWILLEY: We don’t really think of black pepper as hot these days, but if you crunch down on a whole peppercorn, it does have a kick. A little further up the coast, the Goans also loved a spice called long pepper, which is not actually related to black pepper—but they apparently taste similar and have a similar heat level. But still, those peppers provide a pretty small kick compared to what was to come.
COLLINGHAM: And then of course the Portuguese arrive with chiles. And they bring chiles from the Americas. And long pepper—the problem with long pepper was it that went moldy very quickly, you couldn’t store it very well. Whereas chiles dry and keep very well. So chiles eventually ousted long pepper from Indian cooking, and spread.
GRABER: So the Portuguese brought the spicy chiles, which now are part of Indian cooking throughout the country. And they brought some new methods of cooking, too.
COLLINGHAM: They brought the idea of marinating meat in vinegar.
TWILLEY: They brought the idea, but not the vinegar. And Southern Indians didn’t actually have vinegar, so Portuguese settlers had to improvise—they used a local coconut-based alcohol called toddy to make toddy vinegar.
COLLINGHAM: And you put chilies with the toddy and toddy vinegar. And then you marinate pork in it because they bring pigs with them to cook. And then you get vindaloo. And that’s a kind of melding of Portuguese and Indian ways of cooking, you put lots of nice Indian spices in and so on.
GRABER: Vindaloo! A corruption of vinho e alhos, or wine vinegar and garlic. Does this mean I get to hear you sing again?
TWILLEY: I thought you’d never ask. Vindaloo vindaloo, nah nah!
GRABER: So obviously these are dishes that you can find in curry houses in the UK today. But vindaloo is originally Portuguese, so why are you Brits singing odes to it?
TWILLEY: Well first of all it’s probably safe to say that most Friday night vindaloo eaters are not aware of the history of the dish. But actually it’s to do with the chiles—vindaloo is the spiciest item on the curry house menu as a general rule and British men, in particular, like to order it, often extra spicy, to prove their manliness.
GRABER: So manly.
TWILLEY: Nah nah nah!
GRABER: Awesome. Are we done with vindaloo?
TWILLEY: Never. But so now we know how some of these famous British curry house classics came to be—they’re Indian, yes, but many of them also have roots elsewhere.
GRABER: But then, how did they become British classics? How did all these dishes show up in literally every town in Great Britain?
TWILLEY: It all began with a British hunger for spices, and for the money that came from trading them.
COLLINGHAM: The British East India Company was set up by a group of merchants who wanted to trade with the East Indies—not just India but also with the Spice Islands further east in what is now Indonesia. Because spices were so popular in European cooking at the time. And so they wanted to go east and buy spices and bring them back and sell them for quite a lot of money.
GRABER: This was back in the 1600s. It might sound funny now, because the stereotype of British food is that it’s kind of bland, but at the time, British food was known for being rich with lots of spices. At least the dishes served to the aristocrats, of course, they’re the ones who could afford nutmeg and ginger and cumin from distant lands.
TWILLEY: The demand was there, so the spice trade was lucrative. The Brits saw how well the Portuguese were doing in India, and they wanted a piece of the action.
GRABER: They could only sail to India at certain times of the year, and so British merchants set up little operations along the coast, and they stayed.
COLLINGHAM: And then they get involved in the kind of local disputes and end up putting their own people in charge.
TWILLEY: Basically, at the first sign of trouble, they brought in the British army, which you know, is kind of a prelude to taking over.
COLLINGHAM: In Bengal, the emperor ends up awarding the East India Company the Nawabship of Bengal and Bihar. And that’s how they sort of start taking over and becoming a ruling power in India.
TWILLEY: There’s all sorts of complex history to how British involvement in India went from a trading company to full-on colonization, but this is Gastropod, so let’s get to what these proto-colonizers were eating.
COLLINGHAM: So it was terribly high status in Britain at that time to have lots of meat on the table. So an East India Company merchants table would be groaning with, I don’t know, sirloins of beef even in India. Which must have been a bit offensive for the Hindus. And then turkeys and capons and all kinds of meat. But also they really loved the Indian food so they would put curry and rice on the table. So those early merchants in the late 18th, early 19th century cheerfully tucked into all kinds of Indian dishes and relished them.
GRABER: The Indian dishes were of course cooked by Indian servants. The servants were cooking high cuisine for the rich Brits, their bosses. And to them, high cuisine meant Mughal-style dishes, like biryani and korma.
COLLINGHAM: It’s very much a courtly way of cooking, it’s a very—it uses expensive ingredients and lots of spices and it’s a very grand way of cooking. If you want to really honor somebody you would cook them a Mughal dish.
TWILLEY: But even though the Brits liked these Mughal dishes, they had some suggestions for how to improve them.
COLLINGHAM: And then of course the British change dishes. So they like Indian food but then their cooks, their Indian cooks, who are cooking for them think, ‘Ooh well they’ve got slightly sensitive stomachs and I shouldn’t put so many spices in.’ So they change the dishes that they’re cooking for them. And so eventually there’s a sort of English set of dishes—dishes which are adapted to English tastes and those in a way are curry.
GRABER: As the Brits tweaked the dishes for their delicate constitutions, they also went mad for all the different chutneys and pickles and everything you might sprinkle on a dish.
COLLINGHAM: And the British loved all these relishes. But the trouble was they didn’t see that as being a specific relish for a specific style dish. They just took the idea of these relishes being delicious and would sprinkle them on any old curry. They just picked and chose whatever they liked and sort of put it all together.
TWILLEY: This mash up also happened because the British moved around a lot. Every two or three years, these East India Company officials were posted to a new location. But if they liked the mango chutney or the dried coconut garnish they found in the south, they had their cooks add those ingredients to northern dishes, too. More was more.
GRABER: And so those curries got spread all over India and became almost a national cuisine.
COLLINGHAM: In a way you could argue that the first pan-Indian, the sort of Indian national cuisine, was the Anglo-Indian cuisine, the British cuisine. Although that was very much, you know a British thing, a European thing. Indians probably until after independence didn’t really eat those kinds of curries.
TWILLEY: OK, so curry has been invented—it starts as a generic British name for all Indian food and then becomes a style of cooking made by Indians for Brits in India. But people back in the UK, they’re not eating curry. Or at least not at first.
COLLINGHAM: Well, that’s right. So when the British came home, so they’d loved always having curry and rice on their table in India and so now they were back home they wanted to replicate this. So they would bring recipes home with them. Some of them even brought their own cooks from India.
GRABER: This was back in the 1700s. And the Indian cooks, cooking back in England, made pretty authentic versions of these not very authentic British-Indian dishes. But they were still pretty complicated. The cooks fried and ground whole spices, for instance—
COLLINGHAM: There’s a lovely, one of the earliest recipes in a cookery book, published recipes for curry, recommends that you should roast some coriander seeds on a shovel. And I actually did do that for a program. We actually made that curry and it was really fun. They pop and they’re really aromatic.
TWILLEY: These early dishes were served at the homes of wealthy retired British East India Company merchants. They were deliberately exotic and fancy and complicated—these guys wanted to signal their status.
COLLINGHAM: But in the end that all was all a bit of an effort. And people started to put together sort of a spice blend. And they’d say, ‘Oh well you just need that blend of spices, and then you use that and that makes a curry. Hey presto.’
GRABER: Lizzie says the first mention of this shortcut was in 1784, in an ad for Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse in Piccadilly. It described ready-mixed curry powder. And by the 1850s most recipes for curries in British cookbooks called for a spoonful of curry powder.
TWILLEY: Curry powder is undoubtedly a huge time saver. But it’s not actually an improvement in terms of flavor. There is a logic to the order that Indians add spices to their dishes—they add whole spices first, because these take longer to release their flavor. And they add things like ground turmeric later, because those have a tendency to burn.
GRABER: And another thing, you might notice in Indian cookbooks today that they always say to add all the spices to oil. But the Brits just dumped their curry powder with all those different spices when they put the water and meat into the dish.
COLLINGHAM: They didn’t quite get that frying the spices releases the aroma first and if you put the spices straight into wet sauces you get a slightly raw taste.
TWILLEY: And then of course in India, different dishes used different combinations of spices. But curry powder is just curry powder. And so British curries became more and more formulaic.
COLLINGHAM: The British tended to put a lot of turmeric in their curry powder. So Indians don’t actually cook with much turmeric. They put a tiny bit in because just for health reasons. But the British loved the way it turned the food yellowy orange. And so they dumped loads of turmeric into the curry powder. So British curries tasted very distinctive like that.
GRABER: They did have a few different versions of curry powder. Mild, medium, and hot, all very orange-colored.
COLLINGHAM: And it was all about strength not flavor in terms of difference. So the British kind of took something very complicated and turned it into something very simple.
GRABER: So that’s what happened to curry in its first century in England. It became simplified, yes—but for that first hundred years, it was still a dish for the upper class. And then curry started to trickle down.
COLLINGHAM: From about 1877, Disraeli decides that he needs to get the working classes on board with the Empire project.
TWILLEY: Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister of England in the 1870s. And at the time there was quite a bit of unrest in the British Isles—there was a lot of inequality and people protesting that inequality. And Disraeli was like, let’s distract these poor hungry people with patriotism and empire.
COLLINGHAM: There are all kinds of music hall songs enthusing about the empire and sort of… it’s glorified, this idea. And so what part of that was also you have lots of exhibitions. They’d do mad things like bring an entire reconstruction of an Indian village to London. And you’d have Indians brought over to be jugglers and snake charmers.
GRABER: Yes, obviously, these exhibitions are totally racist. Everything about this is problematic. But it’s also how Indian-style curries started spreading to the British lower classes.
COLLINGHAM: They would often also set up an Indian restaurant and so ordinary people, people who couldn’t normally afford that kind of thing, if they could afford to go in and visit the exhibition, they could go in and taste some Indian food at the Indian café and so on. So it starts to get very popular that way.
TWILLEY: At the same time, companies are starting to bottle some of these sauces and chutneys ready made, so once you’ve had this taste of empire at the fair, you can recreate it at home.
COLLINGHAM: And they would label theirs Nabob’s Chutney or give it some kind of oriental name to give it a sense of the exotic and so on. So towards the end of the century people played on exotic, they played on the idea of empire, they played on the idea of white superiority in order to enthuse people for empire and also empire products.
TWILLEY: So proud.
GRABER: But the non-aristocratic Brits didn’t have access to all the expensive ingredients that the upper class had.
COLLINGHAM: Well, that’s the thing. So they thought, ‘Oh dear, I want to make mango chutney but I can’t make that home. So what shall I use?’ And they’d use apples.
TWILLEY: Mangoes, apples.
GRABER: I mean, what’s the difference?
TWILLEY: Lizzie’s even found recipes where people just give up on the fresh fruit concept altogether and add a dollop of jam.
GRABER: For a sour note, in India, cooks might use the flesh of a pod called tamarind—of course tamarind wasn’t easy to find in London in the 1800s.
COLLINGHAM: So they put lemon juice in. So that became another standard thing. So at the end of cooking a curry in Britain, you would always add a little bit of lemon juice. And so they find things that sort of approximate the flavors and put those in.
TWILLEY: And then the Brits also tone down the spice levels even further. And the end result unsurprisingly tastes nothing like anything anyone would ever have eaten in India. Lizzie made one of these classic 1870s curries just to try it.
COLLINGHAM: And I was really surprised because it did taste incredibly bland. It didn’t taste at all like an Indian dish. I wouldn’t—if you’d just given it to me to taste blind I would never have guessed it was Indian.
GRABER: But these bland curries were still far more exciting than British food at the time. Because between the 1600s, when the Brits loved spices, and the 1800s, something had changed.
COLLINGHAM: And this was very much because at that point in the 17th century they became very influenced by classical cooking, they rediscovered Greece and Rome, and that’s why it’s called the Renaissance. And they wanted to sort of return to these European roots. And so the flavorings change. They go for anchovies and salty and wine and lemon juice becomes a flavoring and very simple. And the spices are pushed out of the cooking and into just the sweet.
TWILLEY: So we still have gingerbread and spiced fruit cakes and saffron buns, but the main course? Dull as ditchwater. So these weird, adapted, toned down, yellow-colored curries were still a mega flavor hit to the poor understimulated palates of Victorian England.
GRABER: The Brits at the time were figuring out how to make these dishes at home. Most Victorian-era British cookbooks included curry recipes—and they specifically pointed out that curries were a great way to use up your leftover roast dinner. Yum.
TWILLEY: But today, curry is something you get at a curry house or as takeaway. So how did curry become a restaurant meal in the UK?
GRABER: To find out why curry houses are popular from Newcastle to Norwich, we need to go back to India, specifically to a place called Sylhet.
COLLINGHAM: Oh, Sylhet is just a tiny province in what is now Bangladesh. It’s cut through by lots and lots of waterways. And so that area, many of the men were fishermen or boatmen and so on. And when they started looking for jobs they would go into Calcutta, was the main city. And then they would get jobs on the ships.
TWILLEY: So lots of them end up in what was actually a pretty grim job, shoveling coal into the engine of steam ships, down in the boiler room. It was hot and it was dangerous and it was badly paid.
COLLINGHAM: So a lot of Sylhetis, when they got to their destination, would jump ship. They just didn’t want to go back on the ship and carry on with this horrible job.
GRABER: They jumped ship in London, and they ended up opening cafes, just basically for other Sylhetis.
TWILLEY: Lizzie says Sylheti cuisine is not actually known for anything much at all—it’s really not one of the great culinary traditions of the subcontinent. But you know, they still didn’t want to eat British food.
COLLINGHAM: A lot of them were looking for jobs. They’d start off working in these cafes and then they would find jobs in catering and working, washing up in the big hotels in London. So they all got into sort of the catering trade. And then once they’d saved up enough money they might buy up an old rundown fish and chip shop, especially after the war.
GRABER: There were a lot of rundown fish and chip shops after the war. They were run by poor immigrants. Before the Sylhetis, it was usually immigrant Jews. And the shops were open late after pubs closed at 11pm. So people got into the habit of fish and chips after a night out drinking.
TWILLEY: And the new owners, the Sylhetis, carried on serving fish and chips when they took over. But they would add a couple of curries to the menu too.
COLLINGHAM: Which is how you get the tradition of, after the pub, or after a football game, you might stop at the Sylheti café and have curry sauce on your chips and things like that. So that’s how that tradition gets going and how it gets associated with lager and all those sorts of ways of eating in Britain.
GRABER: The Sylhetis first started opening these restaurants in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but the trend really took off in the 1960s. There was a lot more immigration from India because of unrest there after independence, and then the India and Pakistan partition and the resulting war.
TWILLEY: At the same, rationing was finally over in the UK, and the British economy was picking up steam after the war.
COLLINGHAM: By the 1960s people are wealthier again—that’s when restaurants really take off and people of all levels of society start going out to eat a meal and so on. And so Indian restaurants became very popular because actually they weren’t terribly expensive. So you could afford to go out for a meal, often have a night, an Indian on Saturday night.
TWILLEY: The British middle classes maybe couldn’t afford to go on foreign holidays yet, but going out for an Indian was a close second.
COLLINGHAM: The Indian restaurant, they had a kind of atmosphere—they were often quite small. They had dimly lit… with red flock wallpaper and comfy little seats and it was an exciting and slightly exotic, slightly oriental thing to do.
CLIP: Rowan Atkinson
ATKINSON (as restaurant host): Oh, good evening, gentlemen.
GRABER: Rowan Atkinson is a famous British comedian, he played Mr. Bean, and this is a recording of a sketch of his where he’s poking fun at the dreadful behavior of drunk Brits at the curry house.
ATKINSON: No, no, no, that’s no problem, come in please. Although perhaps if we could just keep that delightful singing down…
TWILLEY: Nah nah nah, vindaloo. I honestly don’t know what he’s getting at here.
ATKINSON: You’ve obviously had plenty of… refreshment at the football game. No, no, come in, do. Oh no, no, that table is reserved. It is also a table for two people. Perhaps this table would be more suitable for… nine.
GRABER: It’s become such a stereotype that the Anglo-Indian cast of a British comedy from the 90s called “Goodness Gracious Me” made fun of it by imagining it happening in reverse.
CLIP: “Going out for an English”
Woman: Goddammit guys, I mean, Bombay is obviously the restaurant capital of the world, so how come every Friday night we end up in this dump.
Man: Because that’s what you do, innit? You go out, you get tanked up on lassis, and you go for an English.
TWILLEY: We have links to both of these sketches on our website, gastropod dot com. But the point is, yes, British people frequently drink too much and some of them are casually racist, but also curry has become a British national dish. In fact, in 2001, the foreign minister at the time, Robin Cook, named chicken tikka masala, a curry house classic, as the country’s national dish.
GRABER: We tell the story of the invention of chicken tikka masala, or butter chicken, in our special supporters email, you can find out more at gastropod.com/support. But why do you Brits have chicken tikka masala and chicken korma and lamb dhansak, while we Americans mostly commonly find dishes like saag paneer, or chana masala, or dal at our Indian restaurants?
TWILLEY: America had a really different relationship with India and a really different immigration history too. The first Indian immigrants to the US came from the Punjab, and settled in California, and those typical Punjabi dishes—the dal makhani, the chana masala—they pretty much formed the template. And to be honest, the US had really restrictive immigration policies for Indians and a correspondingly tiny Indian-American population for a really long time.
IYER: I always feel like you know, when you go to a good part of the restaurant scene in the US for instance all over, I feel like there’s a gnome sitting under the tree somewhere stamping out cookie cutter menus that are exactly the same.
GRABER: Raghavan’s first experience with the Indian food scene in America happened decades ago. He landed in southwestern Minnesota when he was in his early 20s, and he didn’t know how to cook.
TWILLEY: But he missed the foods of his homeland. So he went to the supermarket and he saw a can of curry powder. And on the label it promised to transport him to India.
IYER: And I thought ‘Oh wow, I’ve hit the jackpot.’ And so I took that can with me home at night and I bought you know potatoes and onions and because that’s what I was craving—a very simple potato curry. And when I went I ate that concoction I was crying because… A, I was missing my mother’s food and B, this can lied to me! Because it had nothing to do with what I grew up with. And so I felt betrayed on so many levels. And so that was my first experience with the concept of curry and curry powders and in the United States.
GRABER: So our restaurant dishes are all stamped out by gnomes under a tree, and our curry powder tastes nothing like the food Raghavan grew up with.
TWILLEY: But the UK and the US—those are not the only places you find a version of curry today.
IYER: It’s almost like you follow the diaspora you know and you look at well you know Indians are brought in as slaves to the West Indies and the Caribbean countries. Because they were also brought in by the British and so on. So you find incorporating elements of curry powders but you also find incorporating techniques from China for instance, or some of the other cultures that influenced the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago.
GRABER: Curry is hugely popular in South Africa, too. Because of Indians who’d been brought there as indentured servants. These are all parts of the former British empire.
TWILLEY: And then there’s Japan.
TAKASHI MORIEDA: National food… [Interview continues in Japanese with interpreter’s voiceover] It’s like national food. It’s basically a Japanese—a Japanese national food.
TWILLEY: This is Takashi Morieda. He’s a Japanese journalist who has written a lot about Japan and curry. And we met him in a restaurant in the middle of a park in Tokyo. It was his idea to meet there and for good reason: it was the first place in Japan to serve curry.
GRABER: Japan had been closed to the outside world for centuries. But then in the late 1800s, early 1900s, the Japanese emperor decided that they had to modernize and open themselves up in order to stay independent. In reality, this was basically forced on them at gunpoint by the American navy decades earlier. But the end result was, the Japanese opened themselves up to trade to America and to Europe.
TWILLEY: OK, so that explains this introduction of Western culture—but why curry in particular?
MORIEDA [via interpreter]: Japanese curry first arrived in Japan or curry first arrived in Japan. Sorry, in the Meiji era. And it came here as part of the Western, you know, food culture that was growing here. But it didn’t come from India, it came from Britain. In fact it was featured originally in something called Mrs. Beeton’s household book.
TWILLEY: This is a famous cookbook from Victorian England: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
MORIEDA [via interpreter]: And that formed the base of what became the Japanese, the adapted Japanese curry. It was adapted from an English curry.
GRABER: By 1880, curry was on the menu in the imperial palace.
MORIEDA [via interpreter]: There were other foreign dishes—well but they were mostly English style anyway, and curry was the only one that really took root.
TWILLEY: At first curry was only for the elite. But as in Britain, it trickled down.
GRABER: Partly because another change that happened at the same time—the emperor ruled that Japanese people were allowed to eat meat. They hadn’t officially been able to before for religious and social reasons.
MORIEDA [via interpreter]: Of course even before then people were eating it but they weren’t supposed to. But after that they were allowed to eat it. So this was when the, Japan’s sort of love affair with meat started.
TWILLEY: The Meiji emperor decided that Japanese people needed to bulk up. The English and Americans were taller and bigger. And in a seemingly related fact, they also ate a lot of meat.
MORIEDA [via interpreter]: And meat became the symbol of making or creating a healthy body. Unfortunately Japanese people found it very difficult to eat things like steak as the British people did because it was too oily. They weren’t used to that kind of [MORIEDA INTERRUPTS] bloody—I beg your pardon not oily. Bloody.
GRABER: Curry hid all the bloody bits. You could chop up the meat small and cook it and hide it in this yellowy brown sauce.
TWILLEY: The Japanese military were particular fans of curry. First of all, they wanted big strong soldiers, so they fed them lots of beef. And curry was easy to make and serve in bulk—it was just meat, potatoes, carrots, and curry powder, with a roux sauce to make it nice and thick. In the 19 teens and twenties, the Japanese army actually used the fact that it served curry as an incentive in its recruitment materials—that’s how glamorous this exciting new Western dish was.
GRABER: After the military, for basically the same reasons, curry started to get served in schools. And then in the 1960s, Japanese companies invented a block of curry paste that had the floury roux in it, so it was already thickened. And you could just mix it with water and potatoes and carrots and meat. And, there you go, instant Japanese curry.
TWILLEY: If you haven’t had this kind of Japanese curry, and you’re picturing maybe Indian food, or British Indian food or American Indian food—well, it’s not like any of those things.
MORIEDA [via interpreter]: I can’t really compare it with any Indian curry.
GRABER: It’s its own thing, and it’s hugely popular. Like Takashi said, it’s the national dish, and they eat it all the time—it used to be something you just ate at home or in school, but now Japanese people also often eat it out at restaurants, too.
MORIEDA [via interpreter]: So I reckon that now, it’s probably more than once a week, probably even two times a week.
TWILLEY: One of Takashi’s theories as to why curry is so popular in Japan is precisely that it is a foreign food—it’s exempt from all the normal high maintenance rules about balance and beautiful presentation that typify Japanese cuisine. Curry is just brown and sloppy and hot. And you eat it with a spoon, not chopsticks, and it reminds you of school dinners. And that’s all kind of comforting.
GRABER: And now, Japanese companies are even now trying to export this national dish—to China.
CLIP: NHK Newsline
ANCHOR: Japanese businesses are trying to get mouths watering in China for a dish that’s popular back home. It’s not sushi or tempura: it’s curry rice. Demand in Japan is dropping in part because of the declining population. So companies have set their sights on a much bigger market.
INTERVIEW: It’s our goal to make Japanese curry everyone’s favorite in China, just like in Japan.
REPORTER: Will Chinese people take to one of the most popular dishes in Japan?
GRABER: If they do, it’ll probably morph even more to fit Chinese taste buds. Curry travels and changes shapes, and somehow it’s all still this dish we call curry.
TWILLEY: So. We have British curries and Caribbean curries and Malaysian curries and South African curries and Japanese curries and more. Basically curry is a global food, mostly thanks to British colonialism. It’s been transported around the world, and then transformed to suit local tastes wherever it goes.
GRABER: As we described, curry is rarely quite as complex and flavorful as the dishes it mimics. It’s not really Indian food, it’s Indian-inspired. But so did curry end up having any impact back in India?
TWILLEY: Lizzie told us that other colonizers changed Indian food—the Mughals brought their yogurt marinade and their way with rice, the Portuguese brought chiles and cooking meat in vinegar. So what about the Brits? We ended up with curry, what did the Indians get?
COLLINGHAM: Not much. Not in terms of ways of cooking. Okay so what did they leave? So the British were homesick and they wanted European vegetables. So they brought out seeds for beans and cauliflowers and potatoes. They introduced potatoes and tomatoes.
GRABER: These are vegetables that today are super common in Indian cooking.
COLLINGHAM: The point is that the Indians integrated these vegetables into ways of Indian cooking. They didn’t change the way that Indians prepared them. They just changed the ingredients that they had.
TWILLEY: And that’s because Indians weren’t interested in British food per se.
COLLINGHAM: If you eat British food in India it just seems utterly boring. So why would it take off.
TWILLEY: Harsh but fair.
GRABER: But today Indians do sometimes make those British curry house dishes in restaurants.
COLLINGHAM: Because they’ve become kind of retro or objects of curiosity for the Indians themselves. They will eat those kinds of things. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an Indian who makes chicken tikka masala at home though.
TWILLEY: Okay, so sometimes Indians do eat what we know as curry. But would an Indian ever call their own food curry?
COLLINGHAM: Well yeah, weirdly—when I talk to my Indian friends now they will say, if they’re visiting me in England, they’ll say, ‘oh will you make me a curry?’ And they don’t mean will I make a kind of British Indian curry. They mean will I make an Indian dish that I make at home. So yes they very politely use our term for their food.
GRABER: Raghavan wrote a book called 660 Curries, kind of for the same reasons, so we Westerners would know what he’s talking about. But was he just being polite and really he’s secretly offended by this term that covers all the incredibly varied cuisines in India?
IYER: You know initially it bothered me but then I thought to myself you know why not. Why not take a rotten lemon and turn it into a beautiful pickle? So I embraced it, and I looked at it as a learning tool. I mean if I had my druthers, I would have named the book, you know, 660 Sauces.
CLIP: Vindaloo Song
TWILLEY: And that’s it, I’m off for a Ruby. And I’m not going to translate, because I’m not polite like that.
GRABER: The definition of a ruby murray—which frankly I only learned while we were making this episode—it’s in our episode notes, at gastropod dot com. Thanks this episode to Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. And to Raghavan Iyer, author of 660 Curries.
TWILLEY: And to Takashi Morieda, we have links to his articles on our website. And of course to our fabulous intern, Emily Pontecorvo, for finding a lot of the fun sound we used this episode.