The modern concept of ‘fusion’ as applied to food often implies such recent innovations as Korean tacos or Chino Latino. But when you delve deeper into history, you realize that fusion is the way of the world and has been going on since time immemorial. Whenever and wherever different cultures come into contact with one another, and ideas and ingredients are exchanged, something new and delicious is inevitably born. Such is the premise of Lizzie Collingham’s fascinating study on what has become England’s national dish—Curry, A Tale Of Cooks & Conquerers.
European colonialism—driven by, among other things, the lucrative spice trade– obviously changed the face of the modern world, and brought about the first great cultural collision between East and West. But concurrent events such as India’s invasion by the Mughals of Central Asia, were just as important as far as food is concerned. Consider, for example, the popular dish biriyani—chunks of meat slow-cooked in fragrant rice with yogurt and spices, which ranks as one of the Persian empires great contributions to the cuisine of India.
Collingham begins with the Portuguese, the first Europeans to open up sea routes to the east—specifically India’s Malabar coast. In addition to reaping the benefits of direct trade with the East, they introduced a new crop that went on to revolutionize the various cuisines of Asia. Without the chili pepper, a plant of South American origin, Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Chinese food would lack the ‘bite’ for which they are known. The Portuguese also brought other New World crops like potatoes and tomatoes with them, while taking a treasure trove of eastern spices back to Europe, where they were virtually worth their weight in gold. A dish like vindaloo (a corruption of the Portuguese “vin de alho,” meaning ‘wine and garlic’) represents one of the first east-west fusion dishes, the combination of European cooking techniques and Asian spices.
You’ll find other tasty tidbits in this book as well. The popular English condiment Worchestershire sauce, for example, originated from a recipe provided by Lord Marcus Sandys, the former governor of Bengal in the 1830s. In an attempt to recreate his favorite Indian sauce, Sandys brought a recipe on a scrap of paper to his local chemist, Lea & Perrins, based in Worchester, England. Originally considered too piquant, a little aging mellowed the flavor, and this sauce became a huge hit, even back in India.
Implicit in Collingham’s detailed and scrupulously documented survey is the fact that as vast and regionally diverse a country as India is today, the western idea of ‘Indian food,’ really represents the preferred dishes of the British ruling class. In fact, even the term curry, she observes is, “a concept that the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture,” because no Indian would have referred to their food as curry prior to the time of the British Raj.
Curry, A Tale Of Cooks & Conqueres, provides a deliciously insightful look into the often ignored history of food. But as we are what we eat, and are influenced by who we meet, the exploration of food offers a very unique insight into a culture. This book more than validates the idea that when it comes to food, fusion is the rule rather than the exception.