Eettickal: Curry isn’t what you think it is

Enya Eettickal, Contributing Writer

Sitting in my apartment with my windows open on a Tuesday afternoon, the smells from Indian Flame Restaurant wafted up into my living room. And with the familiar aroma of cardamom and roasted chili peppers, I was reminded of two things: first, that I deeply missed my mom’s cooking—Uptown Cleveland can only keep me happy for so long. But, second, I was taken back to a class discussion I had only a week prior. 

In my HSTY 113: Intro to Modern World History class, we’d been discussing the first of Britain’s colonial exploits in India through the British East India Company (EIC). Through a class reading for this topic, “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” by Lizzie Collingham, I learned a crucial piece of information that changed my understanding of my own culture. Collingham explains how the term curry did not exist when the EIC began to occupy India. Rather, curry was a term invented by Europeans and then “imposed on India’s food culture” to encompass all Indian cuisine. 

Reading that sentence, the fact that “curry” wasn’t an Indian creation shocked me at first. But as I thought about it more, I realized it was a subconscious truth. If I were to ask my relatives in India about what they called any of our cultural dishes, they’d be able to list them off; the names are usually decided based on the key ingredient and the style of preparation. However, the initial response wouldn’t be “curry”; in fact, it’s never “curry.” But as an Indian American, I got so used to hearing the word that I never registered the difference. 

But then, a new realization set in. As a child, my Indian friends and I had all heard we allegedly “smelled like curry.” But because “curry” technically isn’t Indian, I’m just now learning that non-Indians bullied me for smelling like a non-Indian creation? That’s tough.

At 20 years old, I’ve gotten past the microaggressions from my childhood, but I am livid at the new layer of cultural erasure that I was unaware of this whole time. 

While “curry” may seem to be nothing more than just a word, it’s a symbol of a more extensive conversation about cultural misrepresentation and erasure that’s not often had in America—or even anywhere else. By studying the etymology of curry, we can understand why the simplification and caricaturization of Indian food is so damaging and offensive to the nation as a whole.

For those of you who aren’t well versed in Indian cuisine, you might be asking, “if all Indian food isn’t curry, what is it?” And the answer is: a lot of things. I am a Keralite, meaning my family is all from the state of Kerala in India. The food I grew up eating consists of a lot of seafood and vegetables, prepared in various ways, with coconut heavily used; there are even certain Kerala delicacies that I adore prepared in banana leaves. But if I were to ask my Tamilian friends (Tamilians being from a state over, in Tamil Nadu), there’s a chance they’d never heard of or have tried a good number of Keralite dishes. That unfamiliarity increases the further you move away from my home state. Reading through Collingham’s book, I couldn’t recognize a number of the dishes she discusses; that’s because they were North Indian. The difference between North and South India at times is like night and day. Each state has its own lifestyle, food, religion and culture that makes it unique. The diversity of India is one of the nation’s most defining features. 

Reducing India’s diversity into one uniform culture is an insult to the nation and its people. Simplifying each state’s complex, unique food practices into an amalgamation of just one dish for the whole country loses all the nuance involved. It’s so detached from any specific Indian food practice that “curry” has almost become a separate dish entirely. To have that version of curry be the dish that represents India and its culture is a tragedy. 

But the big question that remains is: so what? It’s just food; is it really hurting anyone? 

The answer is yes. India’s food culture is deeply intertwined with its overall culture. And when a culture as complex and rich as Indian culture is simplified, it inevitably becomes a caricature: an exaggerated, one-dimensional, simplistic distortion of reality. That distortion is easy to attack. 

It’s why people like Gene Weingarten, a columnist for the Washington Post, can harmfully misrepresent Indian food culture in an accredited news source and get away with a slap on the wrist. In an article he wrote about foods he’d never eat, he talked about how Indian cuisine is “the only ethnic cuisine insanely based on one spice,” among other statements that were bigoted and inaccurate. 

There are layers to why Weingarten is wrong. For one, no Indian dish relies on a single spice, ever. While certain aromatics are recurring, Indian dishes use multiple spices, and every dish has unique combinations. And as mentioned earlier, the dishes between states and regions aren’t consistent. Indian cuisine might be one of the most diverse in the world, if not the most diverse. The fact that someone could so confidently say the exact opposite blows my mind. 

What’s more upsetting to me than the act of bashing Indian culture is that there was little backlash to Weingarten’s statements. Layers of misinformation don’t come about unless there’s no education or clarification on the topic. There are people out there who are content to believe that all Indians eat curry and use a singular spice, and the number might be higher than I may want to accept. The fact is that there are also plenty of Indian Americans who don’t fully understand or care to involve themselves with their culture because of its ill-formed reputation.  But without these conversations, there’s no way for us to change a perception that needs to be rectified. 

Which is to say, I was very grateful to have a discussion in class be the start of this question and argument. The fact that our classes are touching on these often overlooked topics is quite comforting. It’s now a matter of continuing these conversations to bigger platforms and seeing if any progress can be made. 

So while Indian Flame’s familiar smells may remind me of home, I’m aware that their dishes can’t be my mom’s cooking. And while fixing the issues surrounding the misnomer of “curry” is beyond my ability, I’ll definitely be able to address my cravings for authentic Kerala food when I go home for fall break.