Ferocious Foodie and Freelance Copywriter Babu Basu, begs us all to stop using the offensive ‘C’ Word.
The offensive ‘C’ Word.
Curry, curry, curry. There, I have said it. Forgive me Madhur Jaffrey for I have sinned.
The awful C word has been bandied about for decades by the great and the not so good.
The word is lazy, inaccurate, misleading and sends a shudder down my culinary spine whenever I hear it.
As Indian food has become ever more popular, so has use of the awful C word. I’m not sure who to blame or how it came about, but here’s a few theories for you. (Forgive my temporary and wanton use of the C word).
How the bad language started.
If you do your research online (always a dangerous thing), some articles suggest that ‘Curries’, are so called because
1) They all have curry powder in them. They don’t. Only a few Indian dishes do.
Most recipes are be based upon a type of ‘Garam Masala’ – a blend of roasted and ground spices used to make a dish aromatic and flavoursome.
2) Some people have suggested that ‘Curries’ are made with Curry Leaves. Not usually.
3) I have even heard it suggested that Curry comes from the word ‘Korai’ a two handled bowl-shaped cast iron pan in which the food is cooked. Oh dear me no.
However the term was started, it was probably helpful for the Brits who at the time, were occupying India. India was (and is) a land of immense diversity. Bewildered Brits needed a way to simplify life in an unruly India. Bringing law and order was more important than learning about the local food.
Brits of today no longer rule India, but they are a lot savvier about Indian food. They’ve embraced the cuisine of the sub continent in most impressive way. Pubs, restaurants and even supermarkets are offering a range of dishes – from the sublime and authentic right down to the silly and unpleasant.
When is Curry not a bad word?
In the Far East, the term ‘curry’ has its place. If for example I saw on the menu, ‘Thai Red Curry’, or “Thai Green Curry’ I would know what was being offered and the type of taste it would provide. Curry can be descriptive in the right context. But to use it to describe an entire cuisine is unhelpful.
C is for Changeable.
India is a vast country. Her people are as diverse as the dishes they produce. No one word can do justice to the variety of food on offer.
Traditionally, where you lived affected the type of dish you cooked. Generally, the further down south you travelled, the hotter the food got.
The availability of local ingredients also had a big impact on the type of food you produced.For example, coastal areas developed fish and seafood dishes, whilst regions with coconut trees would feature coconut in much of their cooking. Religion would also influence what people could eat. In predominantly Hindu areas, it was much harder to find beef dishes, whilst in predominantly Muslim areas you wouldn’t find pork.
Some branches of Hinduism and Buddhism discouraged their followers to eat meat or fish altogether. One sect even went as far as banning the use of root vegetables, lest any insects be harmed whilst digging.
As in any other country, recipes in India can vary from family to family. Differing blends of Masala, differing ingredients and different techniques create food that is sometimes subtle and sophisticated. Sometimes it’s powerful and pungent. And sometimes it’s sweet and smooth.
Indian food is often accused of being too hot. Without doubt, some of it is. But it doesn’t have to be. The word ‘spicy’ is misused when describing food with ‘heat’. It is not the spice that packs the punch – well not usually. It’s the chilli.
I recently visited Goa, on the west coast of India. When asking for dishes that were described as ‘not hot’ I was served food that had my eyes running and my head burning. A trip to Domino’s Pizza (yes they have them there too) revealed a whole host of pizza ingredients including an officially not so hot (read hot) mincemeat and a volcanic tandoori chicken as hot as the tandoor oven from whence it cam.
Bengali food (originating from the province of West Bengal in India and from what is now Bangladesh) is, on the whole a more subtle affair. Their flavours tend to be well balanced, often making great use of their fantastically fresh seafood. Bengalis also eat a lot of lamb and chicken, whilst their ‘Mishti’, (a selection of handmade desserts) can break the will of even the most disciplined dieter.
Cooked in many parts of India, Moglai food is an even more lavish affair. Based upon the cooking that came from the court of the Moghuls. The Moghuls, a hugely wealthy and influential dynasty who amongst other things, were responsible for building the Taj Mahal required food that reflected their status. Moglai food is the food of celebration and excess. Their rich, heady dishes are the Indian equivalent of classical French cuisine.
Nowadays, Indians live in a whirling mass of religious, linguistic and cultural diversity. Economic migration, Partition and the real term fall in the price of travelling has meant that all kinds of ingredients are found in all manner of places. Because of farming practices, widely used ingredients in India like chicken and fish, are often better tasting then equivalent products in the UK.
The quality of beef and pork however, (not traditionally consumed in most of India) still has a long way go.
Bad food, bad language. Who else is responsible?
Bad Indian takeaways. based in the UK (often guilty of using the C word), have done Indian food a huge disservice. Because of their second rate output, UK residents were introduced to food that was greasy, flat tasting and often vividly coloured. Many of Indian takeaways were also guilty of misusing the C word.
Such venues would be better served (and patroned) if they took the time to describe their dishes with more meaningful words. A well written menu should be educational as well as a vehicle to stimulate the senses and motivate expenditure.
Secondly, they should only produce a quality of food that they themselves would be happy to eat. At present, some restaurants create fare that is not fit for consumption.
Whether you are cooking for one or one hundred, Indian should not be inch deep in oil and grease. And when I see bland Indian food with unidentifiable ingredients, it makes me mad. Indian food is many things but bland it ain’t.
Just to make it clear, I am not criticizing all restaurants and takeaways. Some restaurants do their utmost to promote fantastic Indian food. Award winning venues like Saffron in Birmingham and Bombay Brasserie and Tamarind in London are constantly pushing boundaries and changing opinions.
But it’s not just the big places that are courtiers of quality. Small places like Babu’s in Southall (nothing to do with me I am afraid), or Prashad of Bradford are packed with Asian punters eager to eat. If you see a restaurant where most of the diners are the same ethnicity as the food being produced, you’re generally onto a good thing.
C is for Cantankerous
You may accept what I’ve said. You may even agree with me. But for those of you who like to label things, you probably won’t me to ‘take away’ the C word. What word could you use instead?
Well I’m going to be brave. I’m not going to give you an alternative. You don’t need one.
When talking about English food, not everything is referred to as ‘stew’ and not every dish in Spain is Paella. We also have to stop being as ill informed about Japanese food. Not everything is sushi. Infact even the term sushi is often misused when people really mean Sashimi – raw fish.
So go out there, enjoy your Indian Food. Enjoy your Japanese food. Hell, enjoy it all. I only ask two things of you.
1) You eat in restaurants that care about the food they produce
2) You use the C word with care.
Going for an English – Classic skit by Goodness Gracious Me