The Surprising History of Curry Powder

April 15, 2019

One of India’s most popular gastronomic exports tells a tale of empire.

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, the iconic meeting of the film’s lead couple begins with a voiceover as Bridget trudges through the snow down her mother’s driveway: “It all began on New Year’s day, in my 32nd year of being single. Once again I found myself on my own and going to my mother’s annual turkey curry buffet.

Every year she tries to fix me up with some bushy-haired, middle-aged bore, and I feared this year would be no exception.” The presence of turkey curry—a hybrid Indian and British food—as the background to this budding British romance reveals how much curry has become synonymous with British culture.

This love of curry, a dish adopted and adapted after the colonization of India, is a relic of when the sun never set on the British Empire. But the term “curry” reflected a willful ignorance of the diversity of Indian food. Lizzie Collingham, who mentions the Bridget Jones scene in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, writes that curry was something “the Europeans imposed on India’s food culture.” While their Indian cooks served them rogan josh, dopiaza, and qorma, the British “lumped all these together under the heading of curry.”

Domesticating curry also aided in Britain’s colonizing mission. Susan Zlotnick, a professor of English at Vassar College, has written about how the memsahibs of the British Raj were doing the work of empire by incorporating Indian elements into British cooking and making curry, in essence, culturally British. Cookbooks of the time were “self-conscious cultural documents in which we can locate a metaphor for nineteenth-century British imperialism,” writes Zlotnick. “By virtue of their own domesticity, Victorian women could neutralize the threat of the Other by naturalizing the products of foreign lands.” Taking the culinary wisdom of the colonized, and making it their own, was part of the grand imperial project.

Currying things, with fresh or tinned curry powder, became synonymous with British cookery. Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (first published in 1861) and Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery in all its Branches (1845), both bestsellers of their time, with several reprints, contained an abundance of curry recipes that called for curry powder. Some, such as Mrs. Beeton’s “fricasseed kangaroo tails,” revealed the multiple threads of colony in a single dish.

This became an enduring legacy of the British Empire and colonization—it sent native foods between colonies and around the world. Much of Indian cuisine today comprises ingredients from the Americas introduced by colonists, such as chilies, potatoes, and tomatoes. Likewise, the spice trade was formative to European colonial conquest, fostering global connections between continents.

This was at a time when “Europe was clearly not in the center, but on the margins of a world system centered around Asia and the Middle East,” writes anthropologist Akhil Gupta in the book, Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food, and South Asia. And so, curry powder’s popularity in England ensured its journey to America with early settlers.

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