Of Conquerors and Cooks; India's Food and the History It Reveals

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

Of Conquerors and Cooks; India's Food and the History It Reveals


Byline: Claire Hopley, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Lizzie Collingham's "Curry" has quite a few intriguing recipes, but it is not primarily a cookbook. It also has lots of information about the various peoples who have settled in different parts of India, and especially about their responses to the foods they found there. Yet it is not exactly a history of India. Rather, it is a series of essays that ponder Indian foodways, tethering

them to both the religions of the country and to its many invaders.

Among them were the British, who probably did the most to bring Indian cooking to the West. The East India Company arrived in 1600 and the British Empire only folded its banners when India and Pakistan regained their independence in 1947. One effect is that Indian cooking has intimately shaped that of its former rulers.

As early as 1747 Hannah Glasse's "Art of Cookery" had recipes for curry, and since then no cookbook aiming to capture the full range of British food has been without instructions for several curries and at least one pilau. Few tables in Britain lack a selection of sharp sauces and chutneys, most of which derive from Indian models.

The very word "chutney" derives from the Hindi chatni, making the origin of these spicy relishes quite clear. Worcestershire sauce was created by the pharmacists Lea and Perrins of Worcester in an attempt to mimic a favorite sauce brought back from India by Lord Marcus Sandys.Most noticeably, today, no visitor to Britain can miss the numerous Indian restaurants. Indeed, Britons enjoy Indian-style food so much that supermarkets stash their shelves with Indian sauces, Indian ingredients, Indian breads, and ready-to-eat Indian meals. Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, had a point when he said in 2001 that chicken tikka masala was the new national dish of Britain.

A furor erupted. Chicken tikka masala is not "really" Indian: It's an invention of Britain's Indian restaurants designed to make dry tandoori chicken more appealing by slathering it in a spicy tomato sauce. Popular it may be, but sophisticated experts scorned it as a perverted effort of multiculturalism.

Thus is has ever been. When food travels from one country to another it suffers a sea change and emerges as something strange and new. Lizzie Collingham traces such changes, showing how newcomers to the Indian subcontinent contributed their favorite delicacies to the rich array of ingredients and cooking traditions that they found there.

The famed Mughal cooking of northern India dates from the conquest of Hindustan by Babur in 1526. He was Muslim from Uzbekistan, and his was a warrior culture where meat was central to the diet, cooking was a great art, and feasting was a favorite activity. In vegetarian India things were different. "There is no good . . . meat, grapes, melons or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets" he complained.

Over time, however, these mismatched culinary cultures borrowed from each to produce a superb cuisine that synthesized the foods of northern India, Persia, and Central Asia. Delicate Persian pilaus combined with spicy Hindu rice dishes and gave birth to biryani. Aromatic, colorful and artfully spiced, today it's the favorite at Indian weddings.

Later in the hands of the cooks of Lucknow, pilaus were presented as plates of jewels: the rice presoaked in salt to that it has the crystallized look of diamonds or dyed red and green like rubies and emeralds. Cooks from Lucknow also took the Persian habit of marinating meat in spiced yogurt to new heights, adding cream to create quorma dishes.

The Mughals brought their love of fruit to India. So much did they enjoy fruit and other foods that it was de rigueur to send it as gifts. Thomas Roe, James I's ambassador, was somewhat chagrined to receive 20 melons. "The Indians must suppose our felicity lyes in our palate," he complained. …

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