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By Dave DeWitt
"Curry is India's greatest contribution to mankind," claims Norman Douglas, a British novelist and travel writer. I assume that Douglas's tongue was firmly planted in his cheek when he wrote this assessment, but his comment hints at a wide range of opinion about the subject, from those people who believe, like cookbook author Manju Shivraj Singh, that "the tongue becomes a slave to the flavor of curry--it is an addiction," to critics who view curry as an insipid yellow powder that is turned into a floury, yellow cream sauce.
The never-ending arguments about curry begin with its origin.
One of the most intriguing theories about the ancestry of curry was advanced by Captain Basil Hall, a traveler in India, Ceylon, and Borneo. "It will surprise most people--old Indians inclusive," he wrote in 1930, "to learn that the dish we call curry is not of India, nor, indeed, of Asiatic origin at all. There is reason to believe that curries were first introduced into India by the Portuguese." Hall reasoned that since Portuguese traders had introduced chile peppers into India, and since chiles are a main ingredient in curries, ergo, the traders must have introduced curries as well.
Hall was dead wrong, of course. Curry-like spice mixtures date back to at least 4,000 B.C. In excavations of the ancient cities of Harpatta and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan, grinding stones were found that contained traces of mustard seed, cumin, saffron, fennel, and tamarind. Since all of these spices appear in curries, it is not unreasonable to assume that the ancient Indus Valley people were cooking with curry spices 6,000 years ago--although no recipes survive.
"Many people consider them (inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro, called the Harappan Culture) the world's first gourmets and creative cooks," wrote Willam Laas in Cuisines of the Western World. "Their achievements may be measured by the fact that their seasonings were adopted by all who came after them."
<Harrappan Bull Seal
One of the first written mentions of curry-style cookery is attributed to Athenaeus, a Greek miscellanist who lived about A.D. 200. In his Deiponosophistai, "The Gastronomers," a fascinating survey of classical food and dining habits, he quotes Megasthenes, the third century B.C. author of Indica: "Among the Indians at a banquet a table is set before each individual...and on the table is placed a golden dish, in which they first throw boiled rice...and then they add many sorts of meat dressed after the Indian fashion."
"The Indian fashion," as mentioned by Athenaeus, has sparked most of the curry controversies because some writers and cooks believe that the "Indian fashion" of curry has been stolen and ruined by the rest of the world, especially by the English. Other writers think that notion is nonsense, and they believe that cookery continues to evolve as the world shrinks. In fact, there are multitudinous definitions and beliefs about curry, and rarely do two writers agree on precisely what curry is.
<Athenian Vase Painting Portraying "The Indian Fashion" Feast
"Curry in its twentieth century manifestation--a meat or occasionally vegetable stew flavoured with commercial curry powder--is essentially a British dish," wrote John Ayto, author of The Glutton's Glossary. He was taking the oversimplified stance that all curries are made with commercial curry powder, which simply is not true, despite an abundance of commercial curry powders and other products.
M.F.K. Fisher, the famous gastronome, disagreed with the curry powder-stew concept, believing the preparation of curries to be a high art: "Books about curries, for instance," she wrote, "are published continually, with the success of a well-ticking clock. Special restaurants all over the world serve nothing but curries. Spice merchants grow rich on making their regional and private blends of curry powder. In other words, reputations can and do depend upon the authenticity of the recipe first and then of the powder that goes with the sauce, the skill with which the sauce is made, and in many cases the atmosphere in which the whole is served."