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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”!!
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 recipe, a 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!!!