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How Cookbooks Have Anglicised Indian Cuisine

The first time I frantically came to rely on a food blog for meals was just days before the lockdown began. After a series of mishaps over the stove, I found myself navigating the contents of multiple google-searched food blogs. One of the featured articles had four different images of chana masala. Yet, the unavoidable title in large lettering claimed to provide the most foolproof recipes for using leftover ‘curry‘. I immediately concluded that the blogger was an ignorant white person, clearly misguided in their attempt to diversify their repertoire of cuisines. However, much to my surprise, he was a 35-year-old Indian chef based out of Mumbai.  

The etymology of the word ‘curry’ can be traced back to a colonial mistake from the 1500s. The Tamil word Kari, which essentially meant gravy, was borrowed by the Portuguese who started labelling every Indian dish with it. Later on, the British anglicised this word, giving rise to the term “curry”. The name managed to snake its way through global dictionaries and the daily vocabulary of millions. As a consequence of our residual colonial hangover, this imperialist misdemeanour persists amongst Indian circles today. A look back in time reveals that Victorian cookbooks popularised this fatuous term. These were the first writings on ‘Indian’ food in English that inadvertently gave rise to the ‘Anglo-Indian’ cuisine; a whole new concoction of recipes that were a far cry from the complex flavours of a pre-colonial India. These books. initially meant to be culinary guides for the British memsahibs, soon came to define popular conceptions of Indian cooking for years to come. 

These early written accounts were not solely limited to providing cooking instructions for the British memsahib’s way around the kitchen. These books also laid out extensive chapters on how to manage the Indian kitchen staff, sometimes emphasising managerial techniques by sketching offhand character portraits of the cooks as ‘lazy and unwilling to work‘. Most of these books served as manuals for the newly-arrived English housewives on how to supervise and train their staff to be well-versed with European styles of cooking. It was the subsequent interaction between the English women and the Indian cooks, which led to the emergence of an anglicised Indian cuisine. For instance, what we today know as mulligatawny soup and meat jalfrezi are products of this. 

One of the most quintessential examples of written documentation of this type of cuisine is Henrietta Harvey’s Anglo Indian Cookery at Home‘. The book makes for a meticulously pieced guide for the English community of individuals who had returned from the Indian colonies and deeply reminisced a taste of what they ate while living here. The book details instructions on how to replicate a multitude of preparations such as “Ball curry”, “Kitchery” rice and “Indian mutton cutlets”; which were devoid of any sense of cultural origin or regional specificity and worked towards reproducing a generic patchwork of hybrid cuisines. Cooks reduced a whole range of culturally rich cuisines previously prepared with much precision and rigour came to “curries”, which could now involve mixing water with a paste of onions, garlic and red chillies.

The infamous “curry powder”, which featured in Harvey’s book amongst several others had variations in themselves. The “Madras curry powder” was different from the “Bombay curry powder”, but both involved just different amounts of broadly the same ingredients of dry coriander, cumin, turmeric and fenugreek. Even today, the international prevalence of this as a spice mixture persists. But this only vaguely parallels garam masala, which has a significant domestic ubiquity, and I wonder if there is any grocery store or home in India where one could even find this blend of “curry powder”.    

Historians have downplayed the influence of cookbooks in shaping cultures and identities. This kind of documentation has always been far-removed from the conversations around the politics of spaces and identity, often dismissed as facile writings on step-by-step cooking directions. In the paper, ‘How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India‘ (1988), Arjun Appadurai discusses how cookbooks “tell unusual cultural tales” that embrace moods of all kinds. From mathematical specifications about precise measurements to long-winded stories of table etiquettes, and pragmatic discussions on market values and prices of must-have ingredients, cookbooks capture an understated amount of social, cultural, and economic history. Victorian cookbooks shifted focus from the memsahibs to the middle-class urban women in the early and late 20th century, aiming to produce a standardised national cuisine that would become synonymous with a particular perception of ‘pan-Indian’ food. We owe this development of a homogenised Indian cuisine to the scrutiny of the Western lens, which later came to be embodied by the elite Indians through their widely popular culinary writings.  

There has always been a tendency to codify Indian recipes to make them more palatable in Western culinary circles. One of the slightly recent and well-known examples of this is when Buzzfeed’s renowned food media network Tasty posted a one-minute video on how to make Gulab Jamun on Twitter, inaptly labelling the famous sweet dish as ‘Indian Fried Doughnuts‘. A reasonable, yet quite hilarious backlash by Indian Twitter users was sure to follow. Such culinary shortcomings are varied in number, and instead liberally doled out in whitewashed cookbooks and digital documentation. However, even various writers belonging to Indian culinary circles have been guilty of this.  

We are increasingly witnessing a growing trend towards unearthing regional cuisines and heritage, in what is perhaps a long-overdue attempt to redefine and reclaim the broad and often misconstrued category of ‘authentic Indian cuisine’. But it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves whether this redefinition of ‘authentic’ Indian food by new-age cookbooks is a step towards genuine inclusiveness or just another tokenistic attempt to discover ‘exotic’ cuisines of the country. 

Madhur Jaffery, for instance, has gained international acclaim and traction for her books like ‘An Invitation To Indian Cooking’ (1973) and ‘Curry Easy’ (2010) for introducing western audiences to a range of Indian food. However, what is lost in the process of making these recipes more accessible to the West are their complex cultural contexts, even as these books boast of retaining Indian’ authenticity’. There is also the risk of oversimplifying cuisines for the convenience of a foreign audience. I wouldn’t likely imagine a recipe of ‘stir-fried aubergines’ being cooked anywhere to recreate a sense of an Indian home.

In part, it is perhaps the disproportionate power assigned to the writers of such cookbooks which is to blame. There is always an unspoken craft and knowledge lost in the linguistics of attempting to capture age-old recipes. For example, cookbooks written by the English in colonial India divided their recipes under “soups”, “curries”, “puddings”, “chutneys and pickles”. This structure was widely followed by Indian food writers for really long and has now come to predominantly define the conventions of fleshing out recipes in seemingly good cookbooks. Despite being an unremarkable implication to comment on, it is still largely connotative of how pervasive the effects of anglicised Indian cookbooks are on Indian food writing today. 

On the other hand, there are books like Santha Ram Rau’s ‘Cooking of India’, which stand as great exercises in exploring the intricacies of India’s multiple culinary traditions, taking into account the varied histories, social classes and cultures of the subcontinent. In this travelogue-cum-cookbook, Rau does not try to neatly fit the distinct cuisines from around the country into one overarching theme of ‘true Indian cooking’. Instead, she writes, “there is no major body of dishes and techniques of cooking that one can combine to call a ‘national cuisine'”. 

In contemporary times and before, cookbooks have fed into the individual need to be associated with particular social groups. Whether it’s the class of urban Indian women that cookbooks lend their appeal to, or the exclusive group of anglicised elites; English-language food writing in India has historically served the purpose of cultivating narratives of benevolent sexism and classism. What is needed is perhaps more space for shattering the schematic perceptions of cooking experiences and cultures. An ever-growing digital landscape and its amassing platforms sure provide this space, but even that comes with the risk of stumbling into already present virtual hierarchies. Breaking away from the elitist colonial gaze is a long-drawn-out process since it wears multiple garbs and is continually negotiated. But it’s one of the primary steps towards really understanding the nuances of Indian food histories and its cultures and politics of today.  

Experience Further: Western singers/musicians have often come under fire for plastering colonial imagery over absurdly exoticised versions of Indian landscapes in their music videos. With the precarious debates around cultural appropriation, representation in media becomes an extremely influential tool which holds power to alter collective memories. In Coldplay’s Hymn For The Weekend, Sadhus adorning marigold garlands roam around pensively, and men breathe fire. Simultaneously, the video occasionally jump cuts to completely unrelated footage of kids dressed as Hindu gods. In lending to the orientalist imaginings of what India and its people are, the video carves a short-sighted and narrow idea of its culture. It broadly maps mysticism and the preaching of Hinduism as its basic tenets. The colonial (mis)interpretations of Indian cuisines, and their reflections in Victorian as well as contemporary cookbooks echo a similar sentiment to that expressed in this video; in essence reducing complex cultural realities to fetishised concepts.  

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

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