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1.2 billion people, 5 regions, 32 states, 14 official languages, 100s of styles of cooking, and just one dish called CURRY!!!

How is it that this huge country called India, with such a long history and so many cultures, can end up being known for just one dish – “CURRY”?

How is it that this country, which exports besides so many other things the ‘brains’ for the rest of the world, has only one dish to offer to the world – “CURRY”?

How is it that a country with at least 32 states called Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Assam, Megahalaya, Rajasthan . . . and so many more, each with its different culture, different language, and more importantly, unique style of cooking ends up being mashed together and cooked in a pot like its invented cousin, with a few spices added, and it’s called simply, wrongly, only!  “CURRY”?

The answer is, to tell you the truth, “I don’t know.”

But what I do know is that it is time to clarify this. To put an end to this myth.

We must start somewhere. Let us acknowledge the land that gave us cricket, the civil service and ‘curry’.

Well, we’d love to keep the first and the second but, and with due respect to all my English friends, I don’t want the curry!!

And why is it that I don’t want the curry?

Here are my reasons:

1. It is a term that is derived from, and is a corruption of, the Tamil word kari meaning a pepper-flavoured ‘sauce’, or ‘gravy’.

2. Not all Indian dishes come  with a gravy, or a sauce, and they are not always cooked in the same way.

3. For example, some are slow cooked and then tempered, or given a tadka or a chonk or a baghar or a vagharne [all are different words for tempering] to preserve the dish and also to enhance the flavours, like phodni cha varan [slow-cooked lentils] from Maharashtra.

4. Some are fried [tali hui] like the tali hui machchi [fried fish] from Hyderabad and machchi Amritsari from the Punjab, of course.

fried prawns

5. Yet other dishes are bhunaoed and are sukha, like the slow-cooked bhuna gosht [slow-cooked, dry lamb or goat with crushed coriander seeds] from Bhopal and kandya cha jhunka [tossed green onions with mustard and curry leaves] from Maharahatra.

slow cooked gosht nahari

6. Some are steamed, like the idli [steamed rice cakes] from AP, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, or like the patra ni machchi [fish wrapped in banana leaves in  a green herb chatni] from Gujarat.

Steaming patra ni mach chi (fish wrapped in banana leaf)

7. And then we have those that are pan grilled, like the dosai [pancakes] from TN or the adai from Karnataka or the pesaruttu from AP.

pan grilled dosai

8. And let’s not forget the oven! Some dishes are oven cooked, like the tandoori chicken, ah, that’s a familiar one to you all, from the Punjab.

Oven cooked tandoori chicken

9. Some are baked as well, like the double ka meetha [bread and butter pudding laced with dried fruits and nuts] from Hyderabad.

10. Yet other dishes are cooked in their own juices like dum ka murgh [slow cooked chicken in its own juices].

There are so many more dishes and styles of cooking that exist in this vast land but we can’t sit here all day thinking of them and I’ve got to get a move on with what I want to do.

And so, what is it that I want?

Firstly, I would like every dish to be written in its own script, e.g. kozhi varuval [fried chicken] or yerra varuval [spiced and fried prawns] from TN, and etc.

Secondly, every dish that is written down should describe its unique style of cooking, e.g. paththar ka gosht [stone-cooked lamb with cassia and black peppercorns].

Third. Every dish that belongs to a certain area in India must be acknowledged where it comes from such as a Bengali-style macher jhol [fish cooked in mustard oil with five spices] and etc.

And lastly, whilst we’re acknowledging where the dish comes from, let’s also nod our heads to the creator of the dish, e.g. Imtiazi dal bukhara, should be known that it exists in honour of the great Imtiaz Qureshi who revived the art of dum cooking [where a a double-glazed pot is used to keep the dish piping hot].

And so, what will all this reverential head-nodding and acknowledgement achieve?

Lots!

First of all it will bring a sense of discipline amongst us chefs as we will follow a certain style of cooking when creating a dish e.g. for patra ni machchi we will steam the fish in a banana leaf that has been tempered to retain its colour!!

Secondly, it will give us a sense of  direction as we will have something to compare and contrast our dish with, so for example, we will know that a thakkali rasam should look and taste a certain way.

3. It will also bring out lots of creativity and twists on established traditions. For example, imagine cooking a lamb shank nahari using the dum style of cooking!!

How do we go about achieving this?

Well, primarily we need people who can talk knowledgeably about the different styles of cooking in India through the social media, through cooking classes, at food festivals, and etc.

Let’s call them the ‘Brand Ambassadors’. And here they are:

Satish Arora. This man is an absolute champion, and my hero, and would fit into this league of Brand Ambassador perfectly. Unfortunately, age may be against him today.

Arvind Sarawast. This is the man who was responsible for planting the seed in my mind some 25 years ago with his book Prashad. Unfortunately, again like Arora saab, age is probably against him.

Imtiaz Qureshi. This is the man who single-handedly revived an ancient art of cooking from the region of Awadh, and took the Bukhara Restaurant, at the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi, to the top 50 in the world! A big Salaam to this master. In his prime, and with that impressive moustache, he would have been the one. It’s just a bit late in the day for this master who’s well into his seventh decade on this plant, but hopefully still going strong.

Atul Kochhar. This guy is probably the most awarded Indian Chef in the world with a few Michelin stars under his belt. I’m not sure if he would have the time to take up this role as he’s got restaurants springing up all over Europe!

A V Sriram. A highly-charged and innovative chef who won a Michelin star last year for his restaurant, Quilon, in London. I have known Sriram for nearly 23 years when we started the Karavalli in Bangalore. Though I’m no longer in touch with him I have kept a track of his progress and rise to stardom. Like Atul, Sriram may be too busy with his commitments to be able to devote time to being a Brand Ambassador!

So, where does that leave us?

Well, it brings me to the two British chefs who I consider ‘geniuses’ in their fields, namely Heston Blumenthal and Gary Rhodes.

Blumenthal is the man behind the Fat Duck Restaurant in England who’s a very intelligent and creative chef who has always strived for ‘perfection‘ and brought a TV series with that very title: In Search of Perfection. With a busy schedule and commitments around the world, I’m really not sure if Heston would be able to give us the time!

And secondly, Gary Rhodes. Now, here‘s a chef with an easy style of presentation and a very friendly face. This is my ‘man’. My Ambassador. His show Rhodes Across India was, and still is, one of the best ‘feel good’ TV shows that portrayed Indian food in its true form. The show was aired on Australian TV a few years back. I watch it every time it makes a reappearance. His style is unobtrusive so the focus is not the presenter but the food! He is my ideal Brand Ambassador, first and foremost for refuting the myth that Indian cuisine is “just a curry”!!

Gary Rhodes

And what role do Indian chefs play here in Sydney (where my restaurant is)?

Well, as passionate chefs who think Indian cuisine is the best bl..dy cuisine on planet earth we have a big part to play.

If he had the time, I would like to have Gary do a food promotion in my restaurant showcasing cuisines from the different parts of India. This promotion could be held, say, over a week with each day given to different dishes. Just imagine what an impact this would have on nilgiri’s chefs who could show off their particular cuisine with pride (my  chefs each specialise in the regional cuisine where they come from).

I am sure other chefs would do the same in their establishments. Indian diners would also be proud to have the food from their area showcased (just as much as a Scot is as proud of his cuisine as is, say, an Italian from Piedmont!).

To further educate people about our food, I’d like to see Indians living in different parts of the world (from Silicon Valley to Sans Souci) invite an Anglo Saxon family (at least once a month) over for a meal and cook dishes which bring back memories of their childhood, just like a French person or an Italian does who has a story to tell about his or her favourite dish!

This way people would learn about the intricacies and diversity of our cuisine. We could all become Marcel Prousts eating our own versions of those infamous madeleines but in place of that delicacy would be a gulab. . .

And you know what people will realise? That there is a link between all cuisines whether it be French or Italian or Chinese or Indian. Here is the  gosht nahari recipea classic dish from Hyderabad eaten along with a bread called sheermal. The dish is cooked using a 400-year-old technique called dum pukht. The French call it confit!!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!!

gosht nahari

About Ajoy Joshi

i've been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i've owned nilgiri's indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i'm on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a 'curry in a hurry'! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i'm enjoying exploring the new social media and as well as having published cookery books i'm now moving into videos. simple and easy to follow that don't go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

10 responses »

  1. Horse! No offense to you- but the Gujjus ar 99% veggie(or so they’d like outsiders to believe.The rats eat most anything if there’s cheese on it!!! hehehe-that apart,the vPatrani ni Machchi ,to my limited knowledge, I think finds its origins in Parsi food from -well!-Mumbai /Persia- or wherever the blokes got in from!
    Its definitely completely un-Gujju,mate!-:)
    Cheers!
    Nicky
    P.S.: could u mail me “Quilon’s website, da,pl;ease!!

    Reply
    • Hi Nicky, thanks for your feedback. You are right it is not a Gujju dish, but has its origins in Gujarat ( where the parsees made their entry). Levta and Levti , large and small lake fish are popular amongst the parsees of this region. Patra ni machchi being the the most popular dish of the parsees is used as reference.

      Reply
  2. Fantastic! I completely agree with your philosophy on this and am constantly steering friends away from the usual suspects in Indian restaurants and at home. And I think Nilgiris does its part in being a brand ambassador for Indian food in Sydney – please don’t ever stop doing your regional menus!

    Reply
  3. I can see where your coming from with the whole ‘give credit where it’s due’ theme. But then, what about mum (or dad) who spent a life-time lovingly preparing and serving, without complaint (mostly), all of us as kids, and yet, never giving a thought to accolades of any sort other than their offsprings gratitude shown by our love and affection in later life? (And doing the washing up at times).
    There’s an awful lot of good water flowing under the bridge of life without others knowing of it, or wanting plaudits for it.
    I did enjoy Gary’s Indian debut too. However, why did he on several occassions question the chef’s directions? Giving an almost arrogant look as if to say: ‘Are you sure about the ingredients’?
    Hats of to Blumenthal though.Very creative.
    I I didn’t live in the UK I’d be straight round with my kids for a lesson or two.

    Tim

    Reply
  4. what are the ingredients of the poultry garam masala?

    Reply
    • Hi Cat,
      thanks for the email.
      the blog I wrote on the 1st of Feb this year talks about the garam masala for ‘poultry’.
      the blog is titled’This dish is a work of art, …I call it Dum Ka Murgh’!!
      Happy cooking !!!

      Reply
  5. Thank you for a wonderful eye-opening piece. It’s so good to have this knowledge all in a nutshell!

    I grew up in South Africa – where Indian food (and Indian-inspired cooking) is part of life. Everyone ate Indian food, and bought Indian snacks (samosas, Bhajjis, rotis) at the corner shop much like folks here in the U.S. buy a hot dog at 7-Eleven. But even there we were not educated as to the variety you describe – and pretty much everything Indian was referred to as “a curry”.

    Now I live in Los Angeles and I have yet to find a restaurant that departs from the tried-and-tested lamb, chicken or fish curry. Whether it is a Bhuna, Madras, Pasanda, Vindaloo, Rogan Josh or Korma – everything is referred to as “curry.” What a tremendous pity – because it is truly one of the great cuisines of the world! Look, for example, how much flavorful diversity is afforded a vegetarian!

    Because the Indian kitchen is one of our favorites – I read a lot about its recipes and cooking techniques. I hunt through my local Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi shops to find spices and shop online for unusual ingredients. I have amassed quite a lovely spice collection! I was absolutely thrilled to find your website Ajoy – and it is my mission to cook through all your recipes. When people tell me that they don’t like Indian food – I ask why – and it is always the same response, “I don’t like spicy curries!” That’s all I need to switch into my “well-let-me-enlighten-you” mode, and explain that “curry” does not encompass that vast culinary delight that is Indian food!!

    Reply
  6. Hi There Ajoy,
    For almost 18 years of the existence of Bombay Curry Company, we had the following on the back cover of our menu 🙂

    A CURRY STORY

    Most people in the US think of ‘ curry’ as a spice/ powder- usually yellow-or a blend of Indian spices or generally food that Indians eat, or something so hot it will burn your palate.

    To me , with my Indian heritage, curry means simply’ something in a sauce or gravy’. It may be meat, vegetables or lentils. Some degree of seasoning is taken for granted but it may or may not be hot. Some like Korma can be exceptionally mild and delicately seasoned while others like Vindaloo, Chettinad, Kadai etc.will definitely leave an impact. Some are thin and saucy , to the extent of being soupy, while others like ‘ Bhunna and Masalla ‘ may be thick… Variations of the method of cooking, blends of spices, ingredients and of course a chef’s personal touch can produce innumerable flavors and nuances.

    Looking for a scapegoat for this ‘ curry confusion’ I zero in the British for misleading the world. Imagine,the English Sahib conquers India and gets his first taste of curry. Memsahib( the wife) wants to send home the recipe for this ” amazing dish ” and asks the Khansama( her Indian cook) what he puts in his chicken curry. She jots down all the Spices he tells her and behold the Curry Powder(as the West knows it ) is born !

    Simple? well not quite, or we would not be here selling you the stuff. We look forward to serving you some.

    Reply

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