Stand up for curry! It can save your life

As long as you’re not sitting down while eating it

Howard Jacobson@Independent
Friday 08 August 2014 23:01

Here’s the bad news – we are sitting down too much. It would seem that if we want to get to 100 in any state to enjoy it, we have to do so standing up. Since I earn my living sitting down, this is especially unwelcome news. I happened to be standing up when my wife broke it to me. “You’d better sit down for this,” she said.

The good news, that curries are life-savers, thus becomes cruelly ironic. Because who wants to eat a curry standing up? And if you happen to be arthritic – a condition to which curries are thought to offer relief – are you able to eat a curry standing up?

Others to whom curries are said to give relief include sufferers from dementia, strokes and bowel cancer. All this before we include the myriad consolations curries have long been known to bring to men who find themselves alone at midnight with nowhere but the Taj Mahal to go to. I speak as one of the consoled.

In the days when I found it easier to stand up, I was living in a place where for 10 long years I found myself alone at midnight. It isn’t necessary to be geographically specific. Let’s just say it was somewhere in the West Midlands, a little to the south of Stafford and a little to the north of Birmingham. Providentially, there was a Taj Mahal on every corner. If you happened to be a visitor to Wolverhampton in the 1970s – blast, I’ve gone and given it away! – there is a good chance you would have seen me talking to myself in the corner of one or other of those Taj Mahals, just visible against the flock wallpaper whose colour and texture I had grown to resemble.

I had grown to resemble the Taj Mahal intestinally as well. “You don’t appear to have any blood,” the doctor I finally went to see about chronic stomach pains, told me. “Your veins run with vindaloo.”

In those days there was less of a consensus about the benefits of curry. So his advice was to find somewhere else to eat. “At midnight?” He took my point. But what about the hot dog and hamburger stall in the middle of town? I’m glad now, in the absence of any medical evidence to suggest that meat trimmings, saturated fats, sodium nitrate, molten cheese and onions refried in machine oil are good for us, that I stuck with curries. That I survived only goes to show I must have been eating something in the Taj Mahal that agreed with me, whatever the contents of my veins. And we now know what that is. Diferuloylmethane, otherwise known as curcumin, the chemical that makes turmeric the colour of the sun. Diferuloylmethane, the chemical that stops lonely men in a Midlands town from taking their lives.

But I don’t suppose you can just nip into your nearest Taj Mahal – which won’t be called the Taj Mahal any longer anyway – and ask for extra diferuloylmethane. Who’s to say the waiter will even know what it is? And by the time you’ve talked to him about turmeric, what makes it yellow and the latest medical findings in its favour, you will have annoyed the other diners who’ve just come out for a curry. My advice is to carry a drum of turmeric everywhere you go, in the way that some people carry artificial sweeteners. There are parts of the world where it is used to stop bleeding, to disinfect wounds, to heal sores, to cure eczema and scabies. So even if you’re not a curry eater, there’s good reason always to have turmeric about your person.

But if we are healthier standing up, does this mean that turmeric loses its efficacy if we take it sitting down? I am an incorrigible sitter-down to meals, myself. Even in those lonely years when I could have joined the army of midnight peregrinators, crossing and recrossing the ring road eating hot dogs and hamburgers, with scalding onion running down their wrists, I chose to sit in a chair, no matter that a man alone in a chair at midnight waiting for a curry is the saddest of sights.

For of all cuisines, Indian is surely the most intrinsically ceremonial. Only think of the Indian banquets you’ve enjoyed: starting with tandoori grilled paneer and spinach cake, with a taste of someone else’s chicken tikka pie as the sun begins to set, progressing with no hurry to pan roasted Kashmiri chilli halibut, Nepalese bamboo shoot and black-eyed peas, Kadai gosht, a side of gobhi aloo, every kind of nan and roti, plus a small share of the communal biryani, and finishing off, as the moon comes up, with blood orange sorbet. Now try telling me you can enjoy such a meal standing up.

Reader, aside from walking, is there really anything we do that isn’t more pleasurable sitting down? Reading? Listening to music? Drinking wine? Sleeping? I’d add writing to the list were there not a fad at the moment for writing standing up. Philip Roth does it. Virginia Woolf and Nabokov did it. And Nietzsche lambasted Flaubert for telling Maupassant he wrote better from a chair.

There’s an austerity about the idea of writing standing up I don’t much care for, as though writing ought to be a penance. The self-flagellating writer can now buy a treadmill desk, enabling him to write running. Why? To add leanness and sinew to his prose? I see how the argument works the other way: you can tell from the flaccidity of style into which Proust sometimes fell, and from his assumption that readers had as much time to kill as he had, that he wrote in bed. But his marvellous, leisurely, unbroken flights of lucidity were also written prone.

In the end it’s the idea of writing as though at a pulpit that troubles me. The writer as priest. I prefer him down and dirty. Companionable, comfortable and unfit, a man you’d like to share a vindaloo with. And if that means the diferuloylmethane doesn’t kick in and he won’t get to 100, hard cheese.

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