At our first Bombay Cook Club: Book Club lunch two weeks ago we cooked up a menu inspired by the food eaten in India over the last 5,000 years, beginning with an eggplant curry recipe from the Indus Valley civilisation. Yesterday, at our second book club, our menu was inspired by one of my favourite books, Lizzie Collingham’s wonderful Curry: a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, which traces the history of Indian food over the last 500 years.
The book describes the profound impact of the age of spices, which triggered the greatest wave of globalisation the world had ever seen, as Europe and Britain set sail to discover and dominate trade in these most valuable commodities from India and South East Asia.
These global events had a dramatic and permanent influence on Indian food, through the introduction of new ingredients and new techniques to the Indian population, leading to the birth of a more modern cuisine and many Indian dishes that we are familiar with today.
Of most significance and impact were the new ingredients the Portuguese brought with them when they landed in Goa in 1498. Tomatoes, potatoes and chillies, so ubiquitous in Indian cooking, had only recently been discovered in the Americas, and became quickly popular in India.
Our spicy lamb vindaloo was based on a traditional Goan recipe that in turn took its inspiration from a traditional Portuguese meat, garlic and vinegar stew called Vinho de Alhos. It’s such a global dish, vindaloo: a Portuguese history, ingredients from the Americas combined with the fragrant spices that had lured the Portuguese so far from home… cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and pepper, now easily available from your local Indian restaurant, no matter where in the world you live.
We served our vindaloo alongside a chicken tikka masala, a concoction so popular it was once referred to as Britain’s national dish. Its origins are slightly unclear, but one thing is certain: it is a very foreign invention; basically chicken kebabs in a curry sauce thickened with ground almonds and cream.
The British, who followed the Portuguese and Dutch to India, had the greatest impact on the evolution of Indian food. It was in England that the modern Indian restaurant was born, with its standard menu of curry dishes: vindaloo, madras, butter chicken, chicken tikka masala.
The British just loved curry, and in fact coined the word, as a broad description of the numerous, infinitely more subtle gravy dishes cooked by Indians, and for the Anglo-Indian cuisine that developed as they amalgamated the flavours into their own foods.
The first to blend and sell curry powders, they found a way to package up and take the flavours of India home to England with them. Instead of roasting, grinding and tempering fresh spices, these curry powders served as the basis for generations of really terrible English curries, made with a roux like sauce and a crazy medley of ingredients that could easily include dried fruit, apples and bananas.
The curry powder my grandmother and her family made, bottle masala, was no doubt inspired by the fashion, but made in the traditional Indian way. We roast each spice for the perfect amount of time, before cooling it and grinding it with others. Lizzie Collingham refers to this process as follows:
“There are good reasons why Indians rarely use pre-prepared masalas as the main flavouring for their dishes. Spices take different lengths of time to release their flavour. Thus it is better to add slow-releasing coriander to the cooking oil before adding turmeric, which is apt to burn. Spices thrown into hot oil simultaneously tend to cook unevenly… The Christian communities of Bombay and Bassein get around this problem when they make curry powder by roasting each spice for the necessary amount of time before grinding it and mixing it with the others. Their spice mix is known as ‘bottled masala’ as they store it in long green bottles.”
We paired our curries with Bombay potatoes and served them with pilau rice, two more dishes with a very global history. Potatoes were also introduced to the Indians by the Portuguese, and the British were well known for their bland potato and vegetable dishes during their rule of the country. Indians, speaking from personal experience, have little taste for bland food, and made several adaptations to the way such vegetables were cooked. Fried in oil with curry leaves, mustard seeds, green chilli and turmeric, they could taste very good indeed and soon became a vital part of the Indian diet.
Pilau served with fried onions and boiled eggs is another of those cross-cultural dishes. Spiced rices, originally brought from central Asia to India by the Moghuls, became biryanis and comforting rice and lentil khichris in India, in turn adopted by the British who added ingredients like peas, eggs and famously fish, to get kedgeree, and several spin-off Anglo-Indian pilaus.
We finished our meal with masala chai, and recounted how the Indian love of tea was yet another result of colonial rule. The British began growing tea in India and created a Tea Marketing Association that employed people to demonstrate the art of making tea to Indian in cities and village throughout the country. The Indians took a lot of convincing; no one really liked tea; but this changed in the twentieth century. As they curried their potatoes, they curried their tea: adding spices like cardamom and pepper made the tea much more palatable!
One of the things I love most about Indian food is that in its history you can see so much, the wide sweep of global events from the Neanderthal Revolution to the present. Indian food has changed and evolved, as new peoples brought new ingredients and ways of eating to the country; and similarly, Indian influences had an impact on other cuisines, as those who came to India took recipes and ways of cooking home with them.
Next time you’re at an Indian Restaurant, think about where each dish has come from, about the story that it can tell you. Food is such a great way of learning about our past, not just an Indian past, but the history of the whole world.