CHATTO & WINDUS £16.99 (318pp) £15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Curry: A biography, by Lizzie Collingham

In search of spice

Collingham is a well-known historian, and author of the fascinating Imperial Bodies: The physical experience of the Raj. In Curry, her tone is less overtly academic but this book, too, is based on exhaustive research and full of intriguing nuggets of information. It will be welcomed by scholars of food history, and curry enthusiasts should find it riveting, especially because of the recipes - many of them not to be found in the standard cookery manuals - appended to each chapter.

Collingham's fundamental aim is to chronicle "a history of the Indian subcontinent" and its various rulers through its food. Beginning with the Moghuls, she shows how different kinds of cuisine took root in different regions and social levels, without any becoming the national cuisine. Unlike many food writers, she does not imagine that there is some unchanging and authentic "Indian" cuisine waiting to be discovered. Instead, she begins with a clear discussion of the sheer complexity of cuisines in India itself, now as well as in the past.

Innumerable variations are to be found even within one region. Growing up in Calcutta, I learnt, for instance, to appreciate the differences between the food of eastern and western Bengal. Even within the sub-variety of eastern Bengali cooking, the cuisines of particular towns and religious communities were supposed to have unique features. The vegetarian dishes developed by the Hindus of Dhaka, for instance, were considered the most sophisticated of their kind.

All the regional cuisines of India have such sub-varieties. Add to those the many culinary differences of class, gender, marital status, caste and religion, and you will see why no cookery book could ever hope to do justice to them.

This diversity became even more marked during the Raj. The British loved curry but, then as now, they and their Indian chefs experimented with indigenous recipes, producing a vast new repertoire of Anglo-Indian dishes. The simple peasant recipe of khichri, a mixture of boiled rice, lentils and a few spices, turned for instance into kedgeree (rice, fish and hard-boiled eggs): the favourite breakfast dish of Anglo-Indians and even the British aristocracy at home.

Anglo-Indians and their chefs also developed many condiments, such as Worcestershire Sauce, now so associated with the making of Bloody Marys that hardly anybody recalls its Indian origin. Such innovations are not special cases; they are integral to the history of curry.

Of course, even the doughtiest defender of culinary experiment must feel some qualms beholding the fate of curry in modern Britain. The "Indian" restaurants established by immigrants from Sylhet, a region of Bangladesh never known for the excellence of its food, may well be shining symbols of immigrant entrepreneurship. But should the reputation of one of the world's great cuisines rest on the greasy and garish gloop they serve?

Further down the food chain, what is one to make of sachets of "curry sauce" at the local chippy? Such anxieties are understandable but, as Collingham shows, Indian food has travelled so well and so far largely because it has always embraced change while managing to remain recognisably Indian. Wherever South Asians have gone, they have taken their cuisines with them and developed them in response to local conditions. Indian food in Fiji is obviously not the same as in Vancouver, Lucknow or Port of Spain, but it all belongs to the same enormous family, which has always been so variegated that it can easily accommodate variants and occasional deviants without fuss and without undermining its own identity.

The future of curry, Collingham rightly suggests, is safe for as long as the boundaries of "Indian food" remain flexible - and as long as its exponents respond adventurously to new environments and their challenges.

Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London, and is the author of 'Imprint of the Raj: How fingerprinting was born in colonial India' (Pan)

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones