The Curry Controversy: Understanding The Word And Its Connotations
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‘Curry’ has been the subject of controversy within food writing circles for a long time. Last year, when Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten disparaged Indian food and implied curry was a spice, there was an uproar from Indian food writers across the world. “The only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice,” he wrote, referring to Indian food. The Washington Post later published a correction but the insult caused by Weingarten’s ignorance has been etched in the minds of people in India and also the diaspora. 

The word ‘curry’ is an anglicised version of the Tamil word ‘kari’, which refers to gravy dishes eaten with rice. In her book ‘Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors’, Lizzie Collingham has written that Indians would never use the generic term ‘curry’ to refer to their own food. Indians know their dishes by the name of saag paneer, vindaloo and chana masala while the Western world calls the same dishes paneer curry, Goan pork curry, and chickpea curry. Food writers claim that this is laziness, an excuse to not have to remember or use lengthy names and club all Indian food under one category: curry. 

The word curry doesn’t actually exist in any Indian language. It’s entirely the creation of colonial settlers, who supposedly wanted a convenient name to address Indian food by. Last year, a vlogger from California, Chaheti Bansal, expressed that the term ‘curry’ must be cancelled, saying it was used so widely only thanks to British colonialism. “I’m not even gonna bother with the recipe in this voiceover cause I have more important things to discuss like cancelling the word ‘curry,’ ” the vlogger said in one of her posts. “There’s a saying that the food in India changes every 100 kilometres and yet we’re still using this umbrella term popularised by white people who couldn’t be bothered to learn the actual names of our dishes—but we can still unlearn,” she said.

Food historians believe that the word ‘curry’ came into being when the British misheard and mispronounced the Tamil word 'kari'. Some food writers have argued that curry does represent how Indians and other South Asians relate to food, but the larger consensus remains that it is a colonial construct. Perhaps those in the West need to be more careful when they want to say “going for a curry tonight”.