Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Lizzie Collingham - Curry, a biography

Anti-capitalist protesters like to rage at the practices of Starbucks. The US coffee chain that seemingly pops up everywhere, drowning out independent shops and forcing it's wares onto a public who have no choice but to visit its venues.

Surprisingly, this isn't a new practice. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Indian Tea Association practically forced it's wares onto an Indian public unused to the drink. They used all the best capitalist practices, giving away free samples, chasing out those who would try to compete and above all, swamping an area with tea. A market needed to be created for a crop that could grow well in India. England had adopted Chinese tea and now was selling it to the Empire. Now, the Indian tea market is huge and millions around Britain believe that tea originated there.

I tell this particular story from this book on the history of Curry, because it illustrates an important fact about that food. Curry, is not a single dish. It's a food that has been adapted, changed and adopted. A food that has been changed sometimes so many times in other countries that it would be unrecognisable to an Indian. But it is also a food that means different things to different people in diverse parts of India.

The author shows how over the centuries, various invaders have come to India, bringing their own traditions and tastes. Not least the Portuguese, who brought chiles from South America, radically altering the taste of India's food. The English of course, most famously took curry back home, though the experiments with Indian food that involved curry powder and sultanas probably are best forgotten.

Curry is a food recognisable by name from America to Japan (where it is particularly popular as a fast easy to prepare food), but it's taste is radically different.

I'm not enough of a curry connoisseur to fully appreciate some of Collingham's finer points about spices and tastes (nor good enough to attempt her recipes). I most enjoyed the sections of social history that she brings into the tale - the Bengali sailors who took over East London Fish and Chip shops in the 1950s, leading to the curry houses that every Eastender considers there own for instance.

This is a book that is really about globalisation, but it also shows us how a global market economy, doesn't automatically lead to identical blandness everywhere, but how each community interacts with others, often (except in the case of Sultanas) making something new and better!


carolwilliams said...

This sounds a fascinating book. Although I've tasted curries from Ladypool Rd to Brick Lane, this review leaves me thirsting for more.

Carol Williams said...

This sounds a fascinating book. Although I've tasted curries from Ladypool Rd to Brick Lane, this review leaves me thirsting for more.

Dark Orpheus said...

I've been wanting to read this book for the longest time. Your review is a very timely reminder of how I really have to push it higher up my TBR pile.