Curry: a biography by Lizzie Collingham

What's an authentic curry? As Bill Saunders discovers, outsiders created Indian cuisine
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The first curry restaurant in London opened in 1811, with an emphasis on atmosphere as much as anything else. It was fitted out with cane furniture and decorated with paintings of Indian scenes. It intended to cultivate customers who might want to recapture an actual personal experience: retired East India Company clerks. It failed largely because curry was already a well-established English dish. Collingham has found recipes for curry in 18th-century English cookbooks. Indeed, by the 1840s, it was possible for young British housewives newly arrived in India to complain that their Indian cooks did not know how to make proper curries.

Uniformity has always been imposed on India from without, and nothing is more internally divisive for Indians than their eating habits: men may not eat with women, and taboos of the caste system make eating with strangers a near impossibility. One 19th-century English female traveller saw a crew of Indian bargemen discreetly destroy not only their dinner but also their cooking utensils because she had inadvertently set foot in their field kitchen. Yet it is strangers who created Indian cuisine. The Mughal emperors introduced the yogurt marinade from Central Asia in the 16th century and, at the same time, Portuguese merchants brought the chilli plant, native to the Americas, to southern India. The British Empire, which posted its civil servants and their families hither and thither at three-year intervals, made kormas and vindaloos ubiquitous. Meanwhile Indian Rajahs were employing French chefs, and the middle-class British in India, anxious to establish a distance between themselves and India, were attempting to teach their cooks how to make Yorkshire pudding. In Britain, kedgeree, the British version of pilau rice, became a staple of the aristocratic breakfast.

This is a sensuous subject, and Collingwood gives it a sensuous treatment, taking an exquisite but never gluttonous delight in describing Mughal banquets, and a sympathetic approach to the disappointments bad food brings to people who are a long way from home. She doesn't leave everything to the reader's imagination: the book is peppered with recipes from old cookbooks, so we can experiment with 19th-century British curries, and each chapter closes with her own recipes so we can recreate the contemporary restaurant experience at home.

Her recipe for chicken tikka masala betrays her own caste prejudices. She eschews food colouring altogether, and is squeamish about salt. Table salt is the principal spice found in high street tandooris, and it is the salt rather than the chillis which makes you reach for the water jug. These minor modifications put her firmly in the curry tradition. The book shows that there is no such thing as an authentic curry experience. Curry has always been a product of compromised ingredients and cultural misunderstandings, and most of the familiar dishes are the result of a failure to recreate something else.

The Mughals adopted aubergines as a poor substitute for peaches and plums, nostalgic Anglo-Indians returning to Britain substituted apples for aubergines. Collingham mistakenly speaks of Vesta Curries, the powdered convenience which first brought the dish into many British kitchens, in the past tense, but they are still on the market and bought via the internet by British ex-pats who miss home. How appropriate that so many Bangladeshi tandooris are named after the Taj Mahal, that useful symbol of India which was designed and built by an Albanian architect.