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24 july 2011

I first ate curry at an Indian restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ in 1980. I was 21, and I'd grown up in foodways where the spiciest items available were Oscar Mayer Smokie Links, so the experience of curry (in this case, a vindaloo) was fairly traumatic. I associated curry with the broadening of my culinary horizons from a few square blocks of the north side of Chicago to a global exchange of sensations. But my own personal history with curry intersects in far more complicated ways with its global history, as charted by Colleen Taylor Sen in Curry.

For one thing, after I'd left the north side of Chicago in the late 1960s, a stretch of Devon Avenue not far from my old elementary school transformed into one of the most curry-rich streets in America. The shops where my mother bought mayonnaise and white bread turned into outlets for garam masala and naan. Had I but stayed put, the world would have come to me.

And for another, curry was a popular element of American cuisine long before Chicago was built. The British experience in India, Sen relates, spread curry-based cookery throughout the Empire, including the pre-revolutionary South. Country Captain Chicken is as Southern as collard greens and cornbread, and was devoured on many a table of the Old South where actual Indian people were semi-mythical, and the takeaway tandoori houses of modern Atlanta still in a fairly unimaginable future.

Reaktion Books' Edible series have ranged between cultural contemplations (Chocolate) and mere lists of stuff from around the world (Hot Dog). Curry is in the mere-list category. Once Sen establishes in a few pages how curry originated in, and then spread from, Indian traditions, she pretty much lists every known country with its own variety of curry, which is pretty much every known country. From the aforementioned vindaloo (which comes from Goa and has a Portuguese etymology: vin d'alho, "wine with garlic") to Currywurst, Sen names them all, and includes some very intriguing recipes at the same time.

So I should probably join in the spirit of the book by including here my own household-staple curry recipe. This is Madhur Jaffrey's famous curried-chickpea recipe, somewhat adapted for the contemporary Texan kitchen. An everyday dinner – really a piatto di poveri – good with brown basmati rice:


3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 tsp. whole cumin
1 medium onion chopped
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground coriander
2 cloves garlic minced
grated ginger
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
20-oz. can chickpeas (reserve liquid)
amchoor or lemon juice

Heat oil; add cumin. Fry onions till golden brown.

Add cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander. Mix.

Add garlic & ginger. Saute briefly. Add tomato paste.

Add chickpeas & 2 Tbsp. of their liquid. Add salt, cayenne, and amchoor or lemon juice. Cover and cook gently for 10 minutes.
Fix this a few times and you'll find yourself dispensing with measurements: just throw stuff in till it looks OK. It will be a little different, but more than OK to the taste, every time you make it.

Sen, Colleen Taylor. Curry: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2009.