The Great British Curry Appropriation
- Nirmalya Dutta
Updated : August 05, 2022 10:08 IST
Ironically, the British use the term curry muncher as a racial slur for people of South Asian descent because it literally is a British invention and a deeply troubling one at that, as it blurs the line between different dishes.
For example, in Brit terms, everything, from chicken dak bungalow to rogan josh to macher jhaal would qualify as a “curry”. Every dish of note from the subcontinent can be contained in this blanket term. As celebrated chef Madhur Jaffrey wrote: “What you don’t need is curry powder. To me the word ‘curry’ is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term ‘chop suey’ was to China’s.”
In fact, the word doesn’t even have an English origin. While the Tamil word ‘kari’ means sauce or relish, in Kannada and Malayalam “karil” refers to spices for seasoning. It was the Portuguese who picked up the term from the Dravidian languages, which the British anglicised to “caril” or “caree”, which eventually become curry.
The Gourmet Glutton Food blog notes: “The word “curry powder” does not exist in the culinary lexicon of Indians, except for that annoying Indian guy pretending to be a white person trying out Indian food. Indian cooks use spices from scratch to make their dishes, the choice, and proportion of spices depends on the dish. Even back then, Anglo-Indian households employed a masalchi, who would grind fresh spices for the day on a heavy flat grindstone with a stone shaped like a rolling pin.”
While the term was first used in 1598, it first made it to cookbooks exactly two centuries before India's independence, in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse.
One of the reasons it became widely popular in Britain was because it was terribly expensive to ship spices from the colonies to Britain. Secondly, while Brits in the colonies had servants to grind their spices, the average housewife in London didn’t have that luxury, thus depending on curry powders.
In fact, it was one of the earliest instances of cultural appropriation. Susan Zlotnick, a professor of English at Vassar College, New York notes: “By virtue of their own domesticity, Victorian women could neutralize the threat of the Other by naturalizing the products of foreign lands.”