Keep Korma & Curry On:

The History of Curry Part II

(How Curry Conquered

the World)

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Curry Part II Notes

In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares the second in a two-part series on things you didn’t know you didn’t know about the history of curry. In this episode, Simon looks at how curry began to spread around the world.

 

So if you want to know about the origins of curry goat, the origin of the word “indentured,” and why an Indian chef was one of the first celebrity chefs in the United States of America, come and join us on this episode of Eat My Globe.

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TRANSCRIPT

EAT MY GLOBE

KEEP KORMA AND CURRY ON: THE HISTORY OF CURRY Part II

(HOW CURRY CONQURED THE WORLD)

 

SIMON:

Hey, April.

 

APRIL:

Yeah.

 

SIMON:

I went to my favorite Indian restaurant the other day, and I, uh, I ordered a “Pelican Curry.”

 

APRIL:

How was it?

 

SIMON:

Oh, it was great, but the bill was massive.

 

[Laughter]

 

APRIL:

[Laughter]

 

SIMON:

Oh.

 

APRIL:

Oh my god.

 

SIMON:

One day, we just need to do a whole episode of just these dad jokes. That’s what . . . I think the world is crying out for it. Or maybe, the world’s just crying.

 

[Laughter]

 

Ah. The bill was massive.

 

Right. Let’s get on with it. Second part of curry.

 

 

INTRO MUSIC

 

SIMON:

Hi everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to a new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.

 

And on today’s episode, we’re going to continue the story we began last week on the history of curry. Now, if you have not yet listened to part one – where we told the story of how curry originated in India and how it came to Great Britain, where it still remains such a national institution – I really do recommend you go and listen to that episode first and then join us back here once you do.

 

Now, today, for those of you who are up to date, we’re going to continue our story by looking at how curry found its way from India, and then Great Britain, to around the world. We will also look at how the notion of curry was adapted into many different cuisines to take on its own unique personality.

 

So let’s begin with a personal story and go back to one of the dishes I mentioned last week that was a creation of one those new forms of Indian restaurants or “curry houses” in Britain.

 

In 2009, while I was writing my book “Eating for Britain,” I found myself in the Scottish city of Glasgow. The reason I was there was because I was following up on the story of a dish that, in 2001, had been declared a national treasure of Great Britain by the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. He gave a now iconic speech about the multi-cultural nature of the country and said – and yes, I will repeat this from last week, because I love this speech, and it’s my podcast, so there –

 

Quote

“Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”

End Quote.

 

At the Glasgow-based restaurant known as the Shish Mahal, I met the owner, a Mr. Ali Ahmed Aslam, who claimed to be the person who had taken a dish of chicken tikka – a truly Indian dish of marinated spiced chicken cooked on a skewer in a tandoor oven, as I’ve previously written about in an article for The Guardian – and we’ll put a link on the website – and added a spicy tomato gravy, made from a can of tomato soup, when a customer complained it was dry. The customer, who may have been a bus driver, then brought his chums back with him and recommended the dish to others. The result was a sensation and created a dish that many people would cite first as a menu staple at any Indian restaurant.

 

Now, whether that story is true or not, it was certainly a fun experience, and I definitely enjoyed eating the end results after Mr. Ali gave me a demonstration of making the dish. However, this experience displayed two things. 

 

One was that this is the perfect example of a dish adapted and created from one cuisine to another, which we shall talk about later. And more importantly was the discussion afterwards with Mr. Ali and his two sons about how the dish went from being an “accidental” dish in a Glasgow curry house to not only becoming a declared British national dish, but also travelled around the world.

 

If I remember correctly, they told me that they believe Chicken Tikka Masala spread as it did  because as soon as the dish became such a success in their own restaurant, other restaurants began to copy it, whether it was their staff leaving to set up their own places who took the dish with them, or restaurants that were run by members of their own extended family. Then, once the dish became well known in the city, it began to spread around the country and around the world. In part, because Glasgow was and is a very well-known university city and also because, until its more recent industrial decline, Glasgow was a major destination through which people from all over the world would pass.

 

As I said before, there is no way of knowing the authenticity of this anecdotal story, but I wanted to share it anyway as a fun experience from my food travels, and partly because I don’t think any one would ever argue with me that Chicken Tikka Masala has traveled around the world. Heck, I have even seen it on menus in India described as “Chicken Tikka Masala – Just like in Britain.”

 

So, let’s take a look at the way that curry began to travel around the world. And, the first thing to reiterate is the point we made at the end of the last episode, in that what we are talking about on this episode is curry, rather than, in quotes, “authentic” Indian food from its many varied states. I also want to point out that this curry began to travel around the globe long before the curry houses of Britain began to open in the 20th century.

 

Also, it’s probably worth saying here that there is no way that I can possibly go through every country where curries have become popular or this would turn into a whole season of Eat My Globe on its own. So, what I have done is to look at some of the countries that have been most influenced by curry’s arrival, and at some of the countries I have visited where I have most enjoyed the curries. So, if a country you have a relationship with is missing, please don’t take that as a personal insult – it’s just the reality of the limits of a podcast episode.

 

Before the War of Independence of the American colonies from Great Britain, which lasted from 1775 to 1783, the rise of the British Empire had been almost unstoppable. Colonies had been established in the 13 colonies of America, in the Caribbean, in India itself, in Africa, and by 1788, in the penal colonies of Australia, and by 1840, in New Zealand.

 

As we’ll discuss in this episode, in all of these colonies, the British administrators took their habits and customs with them, and this included their growing love for curry.

 

In America, during the 18th century, according to Colleen Taylor Sen, author of “Curry: A Global History,” Americans were already familiar with spices and their use in food. They were quite expensive during the early days of settlement as they were imported via the East India Company to England, and only available to the wealthy American colonists. However, when the East India Company no longer had trade monopoly with India in the mid-19th century, they became a lot more affordable and available to more people in the colonies. Taylor Sen reports that on one day, the Boston India Wharf received cargoes from about 80 ships inbound from Calcutta – my late father’s hometown by the way.

 

The first curry recipe, one for an apple curry soup, appeared as early as the late 18th century, in a manuscript written by Catherine Moffat Whipple – whose husband, William, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And Taylor Sen also mentions some more of the other American cookbooks, such as Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook,” which contains a recipe

 

Quote

“To make a dish of curry after the East Indian manner.”

End Quote.

 

A recipe that is remarkably similar to the recipe in Hannah Glasse’s book that we mentioned in part I of this curry story.

 

Quote

“Cut two chickens as for fricassee, wash them clean, and put them in a stew pan with as much water as will cover them; sprinkle them with a large spoonful of salt, and let them boil till tender, covered close all the time, and skim them well; when boiled enough, take up the chickens, and put the liquor of them into a pan, then put half a pound of fresh butter in the pan, and brown it a little; put into it two cloves of garlic, and a large onion sliced, and let these all fry till brown, often shaking the pan; then put in the chickens, and sprinkle over them two or three spoonsful of curry powder; then cover the pan close, and let the chickens do till brown, often shaking the pan; then put in the liquor the chickens were boiled in, and let all stew till tender; if acid is agreeable squeeze the juice of a lemon or orange in it.”

End Quote.

 

This is not terribly surprising as the bestselling books of Hannah Glasse and Mrs. Beeton – both popular cookbook authors in Great Britain whose early recipes for curry we discussed in part I – were brought to the US, and undoubtedly provided inspiration and guidance for the earliest American cookbook authors. Indeed, a lot of recipes in the first American cookbooks were somewhat modified versions of their British equivalents.

 

As well as producing dishes that would have been inspired from British recipes, Americans also began to use curry and spices to create their own dishes. In 1991, New York Times food writer, Molly O’Neill, wrote an article about the origins of a dish known as Country Captain. It’s a dish of chicken cooked with spices, and the name likely referred to a,

 

Quote

“captain of the native troops, (or Sepoys,) in the pay of England; their own country being India, they are there called generally the country troops. Probably this dish was first introduced at English tables by a Sepoy officer.”

End quote.

 

One story goes that this captain brought spices into the port of Charleston and taught the recipe to his hosts as a token of gratitude for their hospitality. The spices were added to a chicken cooked with onions, finely grated coconut and plenty of butter. While this first recipe of the dish may have appeared in a cookbook known as “Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book” in 1857, based on Miss Leslie’s note that it was quote, “first introduced at English tables,” this dish may have been considerably older than that.

 

As well as preparing dishes, we begin to also see the first Indian restaurants appearing in the United States. Which brings us to another one of my favorite people in food history. A person who one magazine described as

 

Quote

“the chef-conman who first made America fall in love with curry.”

End quote.

 

His name was Ranji Smile, although he may have been born Ranji Ismaili. In 1899, New York restauranteur, Louis Sherry, got to know Smile at a famed London dining establishment. Louis Sherry then poached Smile away to come and work at Sherry’s eponymous restaurant in New York City on 44th and 5th Avenue. Smile was an immediate sensation, and seeing the love for all things Asian at the time, declared himself to be

 

Quote

“king of the curry chefs.”

End quote.

 

Smile was also a particular hit with the ladies and he played up to it declaring,

 

Quote

“If the women of America will but eat the food I prepare, they will be more beautiful than they as yet imagine. The eye will grow lustrous, the complexion will be yet so lovely, and the figure like unto those of our beautiful India women.”

End Quote.

 

His menu was an immediate hit and included dishes such as, Kalooh Sherry, Indian Bhagi Topur, Bombay Duck and Curry of Chicken Madras. Later, publications like Harper’s Bazaar and the Los Angeles Times talked about him and his food. In effect, he was one of America’s earliest celebrity chefs.

 

Smile was also unfortunately something of a con man, claiming to be the fourth or fifth son of the Emir of Baluchistan, and adhering the suffix “Prince” to his name. And, he soon came into issues with American immigration officials when he tried to recruit Indian workers to work in the US, which was then unlawful under US labor laws. The police also arrested him for drunkenness. A disgraced Smile later returned to India to open a restaurant in Delhi.

 

It was a colorful introduction to the wonderful world of curry to the United States. However, it would be fair to say that in the last century, while curry and more authentic regional Indian food has become popular in the United States, it has never had the allure for the American population that other imported cuisines have had. Arguably, this is because the United States does not have the same history of South Asian immigration that we find perhaps in Great Britain.

 

The Sylheti – remember them? We talked about them in part I of this episode and, just as a reminder, they were from the region of Sylhet in what is now the country of Bangladesh. They arrived in New York and across America in the 1960s and ‘70s. They copied their cousins in Great Britain and opened restaurants similar to the curry houses of London or Manchester.

 

In more recent years, with increased immigration to the United States, and the American palates’ growing familiarity with spicy food, we have seen more openings of Indian restaurants, which reflect the more regional nature of the cooking of India. However, I think it would be hard to argue that America ever has or ever will develop a true love affair with curry as they have in Britain.

 

This is certainly not true in many other places around the world, particularly those that came under the extended British influence. Wherever the British went, two things often seemed to be the case. The first is that the British passion for curry would travel with the people in the form of cookery books and recipes, and would find its way into the cuisines of those countries. The second is that wherever the British would colonize, they would often bring with them vast numbers of workers from their South Asian territories to facilitate their efforts.

 

At the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, we begin to see a growing movement against the notion of slavery in the British Empire. In part, this was fueled by a changing economic system. And in part, by a fear of slave unrests and rebellions. The Haitian revolution had taken place from 1791 to 1804 ending with the independence of Haiti from France, and other colonial nations feared similar issues in their own slave holding lands. And, in part, this movement was fueled with protests from British anti-Slavery groups who believed that slavery was against the will of God.

 

On March 25th 1807, the British government enacted the Slave Trade Act, which forbid the trading of slaves throughout the British Empire. In 1833, slavery itself was abolished.

 

While the positive moral impact of this was undeniable, it did present the British with a major labor issue due to the loss of slave labor. The biggest question was how to replace the workforce of now freed slaves many of whom chose, unsurprisingly, not to return to their work on the plantations.

 

To counter this, the British began a system of indentured – or bonded – laborers with workers from the South Asian territories. Interestingly, the term “indentured” used here refers to the ways the bonding contracts were originally written. The contract would be written identically twice on both documents which would have an indented edge that would match each other. I think the way that works is if there was a dispute in future, the two identical documents could be put together with their indented edges showing that they match and were therefore the same agreement.

 

This British indentured system ran from the 1830s until it was done away with in 1917. During that time, nearly 1.2 million Indian laborers were sent around the world to 19 colonies. These included Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Malaysia, Suriname, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa, to name a few. The workers – often denoted by derogatory names – worked on plantations, growing sugar, cotton or tea and on the building of railroads. They received a minimal salary, and the promise of land or a return home at the end of their contract. While many returned after their contract ended, many also chose to stay at the end of their time, despite the fact that they were often treated exceptionally poorly, due to the belief that they would not be accepted back by their families.

 

As the UNESCO site puts it,

 

Quote

“The Indian Diaspora had an enormous impact on the local economy, the politics and the socio-cultural make up of the colonies.”

End Quote.

 

And part of that, of course, was their influence on the food.

 

In South Africa, you have two distinct Indian influences on the food. The first actually came via the Dutch. In 1694, the Dutch East India Company brought to their territories – in what is now South Africa – slaves, exiles and political prisoners from their territories in the east, including India.  These people were primarily Muslim, and came from many parts of the Dutch East Indian territories. They all spoke Malay, which was the most important trading language of the time. They became known as the “Cape Malay” and are still very much part of the South African population. They brought with them their own cuisine that they adapted with their new home’s ingredients, which includes many dishes that are still hugely popular in South Africa today, and many of which I tried on my so far only visit to South Africa.

 

These included Sosatie, which are kebabs marinated in curry powder, tamarind and then roasted over an open fire. And, Koeksister, which is a donut like fritter tossed in sugar, ground cardamom and cinnamon. It is what Colleen Taylor Sen describes as

 

Quote

“a combination of an Indian gulab jamun and a European Pastry.”

End Quote.

 

And they are really delicious.

 

The second Indian influence in South Africa came via the British. From 1860 onwards, over 150,000 indentured laborers arrived from India. As in so many other colonies, they were sold a very rosy image of what to expect when they arrived in the new homeland. A statement from the Immigration Department in 1874 laying out their work duties, rations and pay, and declaring,

 

Quote

“You will have a house rent free to live in, with plenty of garden ground to cultivate at your leisure, and care is taken not to separate families and relatives.

The climate is remarkably healthy, and there is an abundance of good water, fruit and vegetables. If you are ill, medical attendance, medicines, and nourishment, are provided free of charge.”

End Quote.

 

All of which sounds understandably alluring to people who were often struggling in India. However, the reality was often quite different. When they arrived, they were poorly paid and often terribly treated with beatings handed out on a pretty regular basis. In fact, it was due to ill treatment such as this at the hands of white settlers during his time in Durban, South Africa, that Indian civil rights hero Mahatma Gandhi began to cement his views on how people of all stations should be treated and developed many of his non-violent theories on how to protest inequality.

 

As well as being poorly paid, the indentured laborers, also found that the rations too were often in short supply. The workers began to develop their own dishes using local ingredients, as well as produce grown from seeds that they had brought with them from India. For example, they split the kernels of Maize into shards to create “Mealie Rice.” This was a substitute for when rice was scarce. In South Africa, Mealie Rice can be found in many of the Indian uses for traditional rice, such as mealie with dahi – or yogurt – or mealie biryani, which is really, really, really lovely.

 

Other ingredients that were a staple back in India were in scarce supply and very expensive if they could be found. Coconuts, for example were very scarce, and usually kept for religious rituals at the temple. Ingredients were replaced by more local ingredients such as dried fish, which were more easily available and produce such as potatoes grown from those seeds that had been brought across by the inbound workers.

 

Seafood, such as crabs, crayfish and prawns were available, but meat was much more expensive and a very rare treat. Dishes using what was known as a “running” chicken – or a hen who could no longer lay eggs – were used, as well as more affordable offal. So, sheep head curry, tripe and even pig trotters found their way into South African Indian cuisine.

 

On top of which, they also began to use equipment, cooking styles and ingredients that were already part of South African cuisine. These included the “Braai,” the South African beloved form of barbecue, and ingredients such as “Biltong,” the dried meat that is similar to a US jerky.

 

Perhaps the most famous dish to come out of this fusion cuisine was the “Durban Curry.” This is a particularly fiery bright red curry that can be made with fish, seafood, chicken or mostly mutton, originating, as the name suggests, in the city of Durban, in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. This is a city that, with an Indian population of over 800,000 people, has the highest density of Indians outside the country itself.

 

Durban Curry is made with a hot spice mix known as masala, which may include cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, fenugreek seeds, chili and cayenne. It can be served over rice, but is often served in what is known as a “bunny chow,” a hollowed out half loaf of white bread that was designed for Black workers who had to eat on the run during a short break and were not allowed to enter certain eating houses. The term “bunny” was a local word given to Indians and a corruption of the word, Banian.

 

The British also sent indentured laborers to the Caribbean. Over the period between 1838 and 1917, when the process of indentured labor was called to a halt, almost 250,000 workers found their way to Guyana, almost 150,000 to Trinidad, and 35,000 to Jamaica, and more workers to other parts of the Caribbean.

 

Just as in South Africa, these Indians both contributed to and drew from the politics and culture of their new communities. In terms of the food, the Indian culinary influence added to food that had already been layered with indigenous cuisines; the ingredients brought by European colonizers; as well as the massive impact of the arrival of slaves from West Africa.

 

As well as in South Africa, the cuisines the Indians developed would have been a balance between the regions of India from which they came, added to the rations they were given – such as lentils, ghee, sugar, salt, dried fish, etcetera – and using replacements for ingredients from local supply.

 

As an example, in Trinidad and Tobago, Indian laborers used leaves from the Callaloo or dasheen plant to replace spinach, and they used fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers to add heat to a dish.

 

As another example, we see thyme – an herb brought by Europeans to the islands – becoming an important ingredient in many of their dishes.

 

You might also see roti – which are flakey, ghee-drenched flatbreads made of flour – that can be used on their own or to mop up curries. You may also see “Doubles,” which are two rotis used as a sandwich stuffed with chickpeas and chutneys. Or, my own particular favorite Trinidadian dish, “Bus up Shut,” a slang term than comes from the term busted up shirt, and refers to the way that the cooked flat breads are broken into pieces with a wooden paddle before being served with a channa or chickpea curry.

 

Perhaps one of the most famous dishes that originated out of the Indian arrival in the Caribbean is Jamaican curry goat. This is also one of my favorite dishes from anywhere in the world. In Jamaica, it’s made with a pre-made curry powder, which as well as some of the expected spices such as cumin, cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric and cinnamon, also includes the “secret” local ingredient, allspice berries. These are dried berries native to the Caribbean and also known as pimenta diocia, and it received its name because explorers thought it tasted like a combination of nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves. As well as the spices, the curry is made with lots of garlic and Scotch bonnet peppers. It really is delicious. And the more I think about it, the more I want to put a recipe of it on the website for this episode. If only it was easy to find a goat near me right now. . . .

 

Other regions too found their cuisine being influenced by the British import of indentured Indian laborers. In the Malay Peninsula, which covers what is now Malaysia, Singapore and parts of what is now Myanmar – but what was then Burma – a great deal of the influence of Indian arrival still remains. This can be seen in the numbers of Indians who still reside in the countries. In Malaysia, in 2017, it was over 2 million people, and about 7% of the country’s population. In Singapore, in 2019, it was about 360,000 people out of 5.7 million. And in Myanmar, as of 2004, it’s estimated that it’s around 2.5 million people and about 4% of the country’s entire population. And this can also be seen in the influence of Indian food in those countries.

 

India and Myanmar had many cultural similarities dating back to prehistoric days. Including the arrival of Buddhism from India along with many shared characteristics of sacred texts and literature. In fact, it is also worth remembering that Myanmar was part of the British Empire of India from 1824 to 1937. And by 1931, Indians were 7% of Myanmar’s entire population and had a tremendous economic impact on the country, for example, contributing almost 55% of the taxes in the capital, Rangoon, now Yangon, in that one year.

 

The food of Myanmar contains strong influences from its two largest neighbors, India and, of course, China.

 

It’s some of my favorite in the world, and on a recent visit there, it was obvious to see the impact that its Indian population has had on it. Myanmar curries are a memorable combination of Chinese and Indian influences. They are known as sipyan, which I am told means “oil returns,” and relates to a style of cooking curry that allows the oil to return to the surface. A pork curry known as – and please forgive my Myanmar pronunciation – Wet That Sipyan, is a particular favorite. Cubes of pork, are cooked with Indian spices such as red chili powder and turmeric alongside some local elements such as tamarind, fish sauce, lemon grass and soy sauce to produce a fragrant curry that is unlike anything else you will ever have tried before. I actually did a cooking demo of this dish, which I referred to as Burmese Pork Curry, during one of my appearances on the show, “Home & Family,” on the Hallmark Channel. I shall put a link to it on the Eat My Globe website if you’d like to check it out.

 

Now, I know this is a podcast on curry but I have to mention that the Myanmar style of biryani, known as Danpauk – again, forgive my pronunciation – is also a notable inclusion in the lexicon. The capital city, Yangon, has dozens of restaurants that serve the dish, and the locals I’ve met seemed to each have their favorite. The one I tried at a restaurant called Nilar was one of the best I have eaten anywhere and trust me I have tried a great deal of biryani in my years on this planet. It came served with a side dish or relish known as balachaung, made with small deep-fried dried shrimp, fried garlic, deep fried shallots or onions, red pepper flakes and tamarind. It is impossibly crunchy, spicy and addictive, and again shows the unique combinations brought together in this wonderful cuisine.

 

In Malaysia and Singapore, where in my humble opinion they have the best street food anywhere on earth, one again can see the combinations of some local, Chinese and Indian culinary influences. Indians have been coming to the region for centuries – back as far as 110 C.E. – and through the pre-British colonial period as merchants and travelers coming in search of trade. It was during the period of British Malaya that the majority of Indians, primarily from Tamil Nadu, came to help fill the labor shortages in British plantations, primarily rubber plantations.

 

As in Myanmar, their impact on the cuisine can be seen, although, what is interesting is because of a very definite “divide and rule” policy by the British, although some fusion dishes were created, there was perhaps not as much interaction between the cuisines as one might expect. That’s likely because native Malays were in villages, the millions of Chinese who came in search of work were in towns, and the Tamils were on the plantations.

 

If you spend time in Malaysia or Singapore, you will find many amazing Indian style dishes to eat. Singapore has its own “Little India.” In the city of Penang and in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, you will find hundreds of Indian stalls known as “Mamaks” where you can buy incredible food at cheap prices. Among the dishes are Nasi Kandar, which is a selection of rich curries on top of white rice, with a main protein such as fried chicken or seafood. The name “kandar” comes from the yokes – pots balanced on the end of bamboo poles and carried on their shoulders – that the original sellers of this type of food used to sell their food. Roti Canai as it’s called in Malaysia, and Roti Prata as it’s called in Singapore, is my favorite way to begin any day when I’m in that area, using my hands to rip apart the paper thin wheat flat bread, which I like with lots of melted ghee on top and using it to mop up a bowl of thin lentil curry or dahl. Um, so good.

 

Likewise, Murtabak – like a sandwich but using the roti flat bread – is best eaten with the hands, tearing into the roti stuffed with curried meats and vegetables and then dipping them in to the accompanying bowls of dahls. And if you’re still hungry, grab a plate of Dosa, a thin pancake made from a fermented batter of ground rice and split black lentils wrapped around a spicy potato curry.

 

Can you tell I’m getting into all of these descriptions of curries? Ooh. I hope you are. Um. I’m getting really hungry right now.

 

Before I move on to my final country in this episode, I do just want to touch on the subject of curries in Thailand. Partly because I love them, and partly, because I know if I don’t, I know someone will write in and ask me why I didn’t give them due attention. The reason I’m not giving them too much attention here is that the dishes that are called curries in Thailand – and I know we’ve probably all tried dishes like green chicken curry or red duck curry – and which the Thai themselves refer to as “Kaeng” or “Gaeng,” do not come out of the British colonial and trading discussion we are looking at today. Unlike Indian curries, which depend primarily on tempering dry spices, Thai Kaeng do not rely on dried spices but instead, depend on pastes using fresh ingredients such as lemon grass and galangal – which is from the ginger family – garlic, shallots and the like, along with fresh chili peppers – that like the Indians, were introduced to them by the Portuguese. So I hope that explains that as much as I love Thai curries, they don’t really have a part in this conversation.

 

Finally then, let’s look at where curry is almost an obsession, but might at first seem like quite an unusual addition to their culinary repertoire. And that is in Japan.

 

BREAK MUSIC

 

SIMON:

Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began almost two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can, get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on the historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the podcast of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep listening.

 

As I said, it might seem odd for a cuisine that we think of for dishes like ramen or sushi to say that curry is an obsession, but according to Japanese food writer, Morieda Takashi,

 

Quote

“The average Japanese eats curry at least once a week – far more often than the dishes commonly associated with Japan – sushi, tempura or sukiyaki.”

End Quote.

 

So, how can this dish with its very Indian history have become so popular in Japan?

 

In this case, it’s not because of Indian workers being brought in by the British and leaving their influence, but because of the British themselves. Until the middle of the 19th century, Japan followed a very isolationist policy when it came to connecting with other nations. In the 1860s, however, at the beginning of the Meiji Period, which ran from 1868 to 1912, a new set of rulers began to open their borders and look westward. British merchant ships began arriving into Japan bringing with them new products and ingredients, which included curry.

 

According to Lizzie Collingham in “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors”

 

Quote

“The curry that the British introduced to Japan was the Anglo-Indian version of Indian food that was commonplace throughout the Raj and that had found its way on to the menus of merchant ships and P&O Steamers.”

End Quote.

 

The wealthy class of Japanese society began to eat curry as a sign that they could afford these imported western goods, and the first curry recipe appeared in 1872, which included “curried beef or mutton” and “curried veal or fowl.” However, it was not in these illustrious circles that the Japanese love of curry really began to take off.

 

The British style of curry, one that had been feeding sailors on the merchant ships, naval vessels and steamers, was adopted by the Japanese military under the belief that the beef in the curry would provide soldiers with extra strength.

 

Even the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force made it a tradition to serve karē raisu every Friday. And the Japanese Army actually used curry in their recruiting campaigns offering potential enlistees the chance to try it.

 

A ready-made powder, a mix of spices and flour became available in the 1920s. In 1954, the first Japanese curry blocks began to appear. They come in mild, medium and hot varieties, although they are still a bit sweet for my British tastes.

 

That being said, the sweet Japanese curry often flecked out with potatoes, onions and carrots, served with rice and pickles has become a dish in its own right. It is a dish which most Japanese have an enduring love affair. I can also testify that it’s bloody good to eat if you had too much to drink the night before. So there.

 

An on that bombshell, I think it’s time for me to go and make a curry. But what should I make? Country Captain from Charleston? South African Durban Curry? Malaysian Nasi Lemak? Jamaican Curry Goat? Or Japanese Sweet Curry? See that’s the problem with curries. So many curries, so little time.

 

See you next week folks.

 

OUTRO MUSIC

 

SIMON:

Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.

 

And, if you like what you hear, please don’t forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider.

 

Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we will speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.

 

CREDITS

The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”

 

[pah-pah-pah-pah-pah sound]

 

and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. And also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.  

Published Date: November 9, 2020

For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.

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