Dishes labeled as curries have long been a gateway into Indian cooking, but too often they are defined simply as recipes with a sauce flavored by “curry powder” — that powder being something British colonialists and traveling Anglo-Indian naval officers created to easily bring the flavors of Indian foods to the United Kingdom. Due to this simplification, the term curry has been misused and misunderstood for decades.
For centuries, spices, recipes and curries traversed the globe with traders, the enslaved, indentured laborers and those homesick naval officers, and cooking techniques and spice blends were adapted to suit local palates across continents.
Iyer, who died March 31 at age 61, spent most of his life educating the world about Indian food and cooking. So his book serves as a final reference to guide us through curry’s global travels.
Rajma, India’s red kidney bean stew, keeps me connected to home
The book spoke to me, especially after I spent years researching regional Indian spice blends for my cookbook, “Masaleydaar,” which is set to publish in June. I was lucky to acquire access to the private library of antique cookbooks belonging to Celia Sack, owner of San Francisco’s Omnivore Books, one of the country’s most comprehensive culinary bookstores.
As I flipped through book after book, all published before 1947, the era when the subcontinent was under British rule, a suspicion was confirmed: The term “curry” was used for virtually all Indian dishes, and the books, written for non-Indian home cooks, rarely acknowledged a recipe’s origin. Instead, the authors wrote that to make curry, one would need many spices, or one of the multiple curry powders or pastes most often named for British administrative units or presidencies, such as Madras curry powder, Calcutta curry powder or Bombay curry powder.
In time, commercial curry powders emerged, capitalizing on this colonial vestige.
Even today, many cookbooks call for “curry powder” — typically a blend of eight or more spices that may or may not be appropriate for that recipe — ignoring that this one-size-fits-all spice blend was never part of Indian cooking.
In “On the Curry Trail,” Iyer takes readers on a journey through the diaspora of curry versions outside India, with chapters devoted to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Europe and Oceania, and the Americas. He explores cuisines as products of the colonial spice trade, spice wars, slave trade and local entrepreneurship. Countries that traded with spice-growing regions eventually put their own spin on uses for those spices. And although each spice influenced local cuisines differently, Iyer shares their intertwined histories, connecting seemingly disparate geographies.
Iyer, who wrote seven books, including “660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking,” observed that Indian cooks rely on unique and regional blends and layer them to build flavor. In “On the Curry Trail,” he shares his recipe for Madras curry powder, as its flavors evoke his own childhood memories, and he explores the complexities of Trinidad and Tobago curry powder, ras el hanout and berbere, as well as a trifecta of Thai curry pastes. He also illustrates how a few spices can alter similar preparations in different parts of the world, comparing niter kibbeh, an Ethiopian spiced clarified butter with Indian ghee, for example.
In his latest book, Iyer, a clever storyteller, highlights his love of flavors and techniques, guiding readers with practical tips to create heartwarming dishes such as Chicken Lemongrass Curry With Potatoes (Vietnam) or Lamb Potato Stew in Bread Bowls (South Africa), He anchors recipes in memorable recollections, acknowledges friends and neighbors who shared their food, advice and recipes, and accepts his shortcomings.
Graphic illustrations across the cookbook, which Iyer wrote while being treated for cancer, liberate readers from the optics of glossy photographs and food styling, letting them indulge their imaginations.
Make the recipe: Ca-ri ga (Chicken Lemongrass Curry With Potatoes)
Iyer, who immigrated to Minnesota from Mumbai in 1982 without knowing how to cook, evolved into a culinary expert who taught home cooks and professionals, led tours in India and created his own line of frozen Indian meals. As an advocate for Indian cooking, he recognized that one oversimplified spice blend labeled “curry powder” could not stand as an authentic representative for a national cuisine.
Ignoring the diversity of spice blends and associated layering techniques mutes regional nuances from the cuisine and neglects their evolution. It also reinforces antiquated cultural tropes that global cuisines are too complex to cook from scratch.
Iyer leaves a robust culinary legacy, replete with instructions and advice, that will continue to educate home cooks and serve as an important historical record. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.
Nandita Godbole writes about Indian cuisine at Currycravings.com.