Curry, a food recognized as Asian - and Indian, in particular - has been on a long journey, from East to West and back again several times. As modern society's appetite for authenticity grows, it has shown every sign of being able to evolve, from "cheap nosh," as one author has dubbed it, to "an elegant cuisine, every bit as sophisticated as French cookery."
The word "curry" is an interpretation of the Tamil word kari ("sauce"). Named by the British, curry is indeterminate, if vibrantly recognizable. A meat curry ordered in India might be more likely to contain chicken or lamb cooked on the bone than in Britain, where boneless meat is preferred as it is easier to negotiate with cutlery, on a plate. Yet both are instantly identifiable as curries.
Indeed, writes professor and food consultant Corinne Trang in Curry Cuisine, "Whether broth or paste, dried powder or ground fresh ingredients, packaged or just harvested from the garden, hot-pepper-laden or dominated by pungent herbs, stew or soup, plated, served in a bowl, or served as a sandwich, it is somehow curry just the same."
In Curry - A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham emphasizes that while the curries which we eat today are a product of India's long history, that history has involved many cultural influences.
Coriander, cumin, and turmeric are indigenous to the subcontinent. But chilies were brought to India by the Portuguese, the first Europeans to arrive, when Vasco da Gama in 1498 opened up the sea route to the Indies.
Two decades later, the northern-Indian tandoori would evolve through the use of a specific oven (tandoor), which was brought to India by the Mughals. The Muslim invaders ruled much of India for almost two hundred years. They demanded greater culinary sophistication from their rakabdars, or skilled master chefs. Each ruler aspired to outdo the other, in hospitality and in the dishes his chefs devised.
Perhaps paradoxically, given that many foreigners who travelled to India first set foot in the south, the influence of ancient Ayurvedic (science of life) medicine remained strongest in southern-Indian food. The imaginative use of spices to create a range of flavors, the combination of black pepper with cooling yogurt, the addition of a little tamarind to cut a cloying sauce with a hint of sharpness - all these techniques are derived from the Ayurvedic principles governing the combining of foods.
The founding texts of Ayurveda were two ancient medical treatises, known as the Caraka-samhita and the Susruta-samhita, first written down sometime in the first century BC. These medical texts outlined the principles governing a correct diet. They argued that the body needed to be kept in a state of equilibrium with the topography and climate of its environment.
Hot foods, such as meat and pepper, were pungent, acidic, or salty. They had to be treated with caution as they could induce thirst, exhaustion, sweating, inflammation, and accelerated digestion. Cold foods, such as milk and most fruits, were sweet, astringent, or bitter. They were far less dangerous as they promoted cheerfulness and a calm, contented mind.
During hot weather, when the body needed to conserve energy, the Caraka-samhita advised a diet of cold foods such as milky gruels. In the cold months, when the body could spare the energy to digest a heavy meal, it recommended a greasier diet of fatty meat, accompanied by wine and honey.
The idea of mixing hot and cold foods to achieve a sublime blend of the six essential tastes (rasa) - pungent, acidic, salty, sweet, astringent, and bitter - still lies at the heart of Indian cookery today. But Indian food and its preparation were additionally influenced by central Asian, Persian, and European styles of cookery and ingredients.
Curry, of course, is not unique to India. There is geng in Thailand, where Thai curries delight in expanding the number of ingredients in service of subtly layered flavors, often including rich coconut milks and creams. In Malaysia, one might order gulai.
Salan in Pakistan values a minimalist approach, emphasizing each individual item's intensity. The national cuisine is based on the principle that less is more, and that nothing ruins a curry faster than adding too many ingredients.
The Japanese got curry not from their Asian neighbors but from the British in the mid-nineteenth century. Rejecting traditional South Asian "basmati" rice grains, they favored their own "sushi" short-grain rice. To this day, curries in Japan are referred to as Yo-shoku, meaning "Western food."
Lizzie Collingham's book opens with curry's next journey: from "Curry Row" on East 6th street in New York, with its multitude of Indian restaurants, bright colors, and patchy service, to the uptown "Utsav" on 6th Avenue - a "new breed of Indian restaurant which has replaced more familiar curries with Kashmiri-style shrimp curry, Goan chicken xacutti, and Konkan coconut-flavored fish." This, Collingham identifies as the new trend: to "elevate Indian food from its status as cheap nosh to an elegant cuisine, every bit as sophisticated as French cookery."
When one considers all the influences, however, the questions write themselves. What does authenticity really mean? And is authenticity really the right yardstick by which to judge an Indian meal?
Whatever the answers, curry will remain, writes Corinne Trang in Curry Cuisine, "A link to a historic past; a window onto and virtual map of the host country and its cultural values, trend-setting now and likely a stepping stone to our joyfully globalized culinary future.
"Curry is here to be discovered, tasted, and, in the end, savored."