India, a land of thousands of languages and dialects and vibrant cultures and fashion, and yet just one term to describe the from the country: curry? Indeed, an anglicised version for the native jhol, korma, salan, kari, kodi, amongst others. It is no wonder that this “curry” categorisation of Indian food overseas was yet again at the centre of a major social media war of words.
UK-based award-winning food writer and historian Chef Monisha Bharadwaj explicitly clarifies the definition of a curry: “Basically, a curry is understood as a savoury dish that has a spiced sauce (called gravy in India) and a main ingredient like meat, poultry, fish, vegetables or paneer.
“The word is far more used outside of India and often in a way that refers to a foreign cuisine rather than a particular dish. In some parts of India, you’d say curry when speaking in English but in the 800 or so Indian languages that are spoken, each dish has a unique name.”
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Recently, California-based food blogger Chaheti Bansal took to her gram to express her rage on the “umbrella term” of curry, which she pointed out was “popularised by white people who couldn’t be bothered to learn the actual name of our dishes”.
Speaking as an amateur food connoisseur, for me personally, curry solely refers to my mum’s delicately spiced prawn curry or ‘hooman’, locally called so in Goa. And quite frankly that’s the only time I ever use the word. Otherwise, it’s simply a Vindaloo, Cafreal or Xacuti. Nevertheless, does simplifying the term for the non-desis to easily remember hurt that much?
The social media frenzy has reignited an age-old debate creating an internet divide in the culinary world. Twitteratis further argue that “curry dates back to the pre-colonial era”. While some drew similarities with the stereotyping of Italian cuisine others wanted to stick with this “British invention”.
London’s leading chef Shilpa Dandekar believes the word curry is a “big obstacle” for Indian cuisine.
“I hate this word when it comes to Indian food because many of them still see Indian restaurants as ‘curry houses’. But it is also our duty to educate them about real Indian food as compared to curry house food. It is a slow and long process towards achieving our goal,” she notes.
In Chaheti Bansal’s viral clip, the 27-year-old demanded an embargo on the use of the word “curry” and asked people to “unlearn it”.
Monisha Bharadwaj’s take: “I’m not opposed to the use of the word curry in itself. What I emphasise constantly through my work is its context.
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“Colonialism created a generalisation of Indian food which is deeply uncomfortable to everyone who appreciates its diversity. As Indian chefs, we work hard at educating people about what is curry and what it is clearly not.”
She accepts that withdrawing the word curry from our vocabulary due to its colonial association may be a point to debate, but “we may also create a situation where we cut our nose to spite our face, as it’s so ingrained in international parlance”.
True to what the influencer mentions, Indian cuisine is much more than just curries. The top-notch Indian chefs in the UK have been working relentlessly to revolutionise popular dishes and to introduce the world to newer recipes from the land of spices.
At Pure Indian Cooking, Dandekar reflects: “We have managed to distinguish ourselves because of our food and also by educating others through our service.
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“Travelling to different places in India has created an awareness among a lot of people about authentic Indian food. There are guests who have eaten at old curry houses in the UK who still see all Indian restaurants as the same. On the other hand, there are many guests who have been to India and can differentiate between good Indian food and curry house food.”
So, while the age-old debate over terminology can rage on, Indian cuisine’s march on the global landscape is clearly unstoppable.