Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
by Lizzie Collingham
Oxford University Press|USA, March 2007
Paperback: 352 pages, 34 halftones & 5 maps
Every time I stir a pot of some tomato rasam (a home-cooked version of the mulligatawny soup that you might find on an Indian restaurant menu) I conjure up images of my mother, my mother’s mother, and then her mother making the same rasam, using the same proportion of lentils to tomatoes to tamarind, with a good bit of rasam spice mix thrown in. The aroma of the simmering tomatoes, tamarind and red chilies, so essential to this recipe, and so quintessentially South Indian, engulf me as I stir the concoction, slowly losing myself to the sepia-toned nostalgia of home, food memories and the heavenly aroma of garlic on ghee. The food of my forefathers. And mothers.
Romantic? Yes. Overly romantic? Why, yes, according to Lizzie Collingham. The recipe for rasam may be quintessentially Tamil, but not what goes into it. Chances are, my ancestors’ rasam tasted a lot different from what I make today—not merely because my Roma tomatoes are the chemically frozen kind. The red chilies and tomatoes, native to the New World, were introduced to the Indian palate by the Portuguese via the Spanish, and the tamarind, native to Africa, came perhaps by way of the Portuguese.
In Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Collingham offers up a fascinating study exploring the history of Indian cuisine from around the time of the Mughal empire. A historian by training, she takes us through India’s rich, vast and varied culinary history, offering up a veritable “biography of curries,” as she calls it.
Curry documents the history of central Asian, Persian and later European influences that over time created, converged, and interacted to produce what can loosely be called Indian cuisine. Beginning with the Mughals, its narrative meanders through the Portuguese and later British colonization, then moves on to the global diffusion of Indian food, beginning with curry, a uniquely British invention and contribution to the globalization of Indian food. An entire chapter is devoted to the sustained marketing efforts of the British in selling a hitherto unknown and strange brew to the natives: tea.
The chili, which many still mistakenly believe to be native to the Indian sub-continent, was a new world crop that was introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus set off in 1492 to capture the lucrative spice trade by means of a new sea route for Spain. On landing in the Caribbean islands, he chanced upon a local spice, which he believes is a pepper. It wasn’t; it was a type of chili. Columbus not only mistakenly anointed the Native Americans as Indians, but he also misclassified the chili, which in itself would have been an amazing discovery, as a pepper, something that the Europeans had come to enjoy and crave. The chili—with the spiciest variant now grown in India—soon grew to replace the long pepper or the Piper longum in spice mixes and quickly became a staple of the south Indian diet.
Collingham’s deep passion for the history of Indian food is matched by her writing. Charming, witty, and honest, her prose provides just the right mix of scholarly and popular writing for both casual readers and students of culinary histories.
As I season yet another pot of rasam with spluttering mustard and cumin seeds, I ask myself if the new world chili and tomato make this rasam any less South Indian. Probably not, since food, Collingham might agree, is not a mere summation of ingredients. Food is the collective memory of taste, texture, color, and the aroma of spluttering mustard and cumin seeds passed on from my grandmother to my mother to me.
My recipe for Tomato Rasam:
2 tbsp of ghee/clarified butter
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced, roughly chopped or whole. (I prefer minced garlic).
lime-sized ball of tamarind, soaked in a bowl of warm water
6 cups of water
2-3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp of rasam spice mix (also available in Indian grocery stores)
2 tsp of turmeric powder
¾ cup of cooked toor dal (yellow pigeon peas, available in Indian grocery stores)
2 tbsp of vegetable oil (olive oil works too)
3 tsp of black mustard seeds
3 tsp of cumin seeds
handful of cilantro springs, finely chopped
handful of curry leaves, if available
- Heat the ghee in a 1.5 quart saucepan on medium-high.
- As soon as you can smell the aroma of melting ghee (an aroma like none other), throw in the garlic. When garlic turns golden brown, add the tamarind water (squeezing the tamarind to extract as much juice as possible); add up to 4 cups of water, including the tamarind extract.
- Bring to a boil, and then add the chopped tomatoes.
- Bring to boil again, and gently squish the tomatoes until well-blended.
- Add the spice mix, turmeric, and salt to taste.
- Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let simmer for about 10-15 minutes, until an orangish froth begins to form.
- When frothy layer is evident, mix in the cooked toor dal with 2 more cups of water and turn heat back up to medium-high.
- In a separate pan, heat up the vegetable/olive oil; throw in the mustard and cumin seeds.
- Remove from heat when seeds start spluttering and add to tomato/toor dal mixture in saucepan. Stir.
- Remove saucepan from heat, taste and add more salt if necessary.
- Garnish rasam with cilantro and curry leaves.
- Serve with white rice, south Indian potato curry, and papadams.
Serves up to 4.
My own private heaven will serve this rasam every day.June 11, 2011