Mixed spice

Curry: a biography Lizzie Collingham

<em>Chatto & Windus, 318pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0701173351

In later life, he was known for fasting, but that does not mean that Mahatma Gandhi was indifferent to good food. Studying law as a young man in London, Gandhi was appalled by the food that he was forced to endure. Being vegetarian - a concept his British hosts had trouble comprehending - he was given little to eat but stodgy potatoes, butter, bread, cheese and jam. His staple diet was porridge with stewed fruit, a poor substitute for the fragrant dhal and rice of home. Gandhi later described the blandness of English food in his Guide to London, which he wrote for the benefit of other Indian students. "Boiled floury potatoes, raw leaves of lettuce and tomatoes, cold grey and pink, spongy slices of mutton, and thick boiled wads of watery cabbage, all unsalted and unflavoured."

This detail comes halfway through Lizzie Collingham's fine-looking study of Indian food. It calls itself a "biography" of curry, as is fashionable in this particular corner of foodie microhistory, but it might be more accurate to call it a biography of the drab English food encountered by Indians in both colonial and post-colonial times. Cold meat cutlets; fillets of fish in pallid parsley sauce; cold beetroot salad; "foul" roast fowl; overboiled vegetables: Collingham really does make British food sound horrid. She quotes Behramji Malabari, an Indian who, like Gandhi, visited England in the late 19th century. "As a rule the Englishman's dinner is plain and monotonous to a degree. The cook knows nothing of proportion in seasoning his food; knows little of variety, and has a rough, slovenly touch."

Much of the book's narrative is taken up with what happened when this "monotonous" cuisine met the vibrant, spicy food of India, first through the East India Company, then through imperial rule, and at last through the flock-wallpapered curry house with its "inauthentic" pre-prepared sauces, nowadays increasingly replaced by trendy curry houses where the waiters wear Nehru jackets and serve "Indian risotto" with crispy prawns. Collingham recounts the "insensitivity" of the British (like the Portuguese before them) to the regional and other variations of Indian cookery. Where Indian cooks would fry spices to release their aroma, British cooks flung them stupidly into water, which dampened much of their power.

Collingham points out that the very idea of a "curry" is "a concept that the Europeans imposed on India's food culture". Indians referred to each of their dishes under their specific names - Karama, rogan josh, and so on. The British, however, borrowed from the Portuguese the terms caril and carree, being all-purpose words for the spicy broths or sauces of Indian kitchens - sauces that the British themselves made a lot less nice, as they substituted generic curry powders for individually ground spices.

Collingham revisits some of the material used by David Burton in his excellent book The Raj at Table (1993). She shows how Anglo-Indian food was a two-way encounter, in which Indians borrowed the British love of tea (there is a particularly good chapter on "chai", that warming concoction) and adapted British vegetables to their own recipes, and the British adopted their own crude versions of the curry, while also clinging to their bland mince chops as, Collingham thinks, a kind of reinforcement of power. "The Anglo-Indians stuck to their hard bottled peas, tough roasts and slightly metallic pate de foie gras because it was a daily demonstration of their ability to remain civilised and to uphold British standards." (At this, I thought: well, yes; but maybe they also liked their bottled peas.) In later chapters, Collingham traces the conti-nuity between imperial curries and the awful Vesta boxed curries of the 20th century, weird brown dehydrated "meals" made with sultanas.

Sometimes Collingham exaggerates the awfulness of non-currified British food. It is scarcely true to say, as she does in an unattributed quotation, that in the 1950s "rice was something most housewives 'would never have dreamed of serving except as a pudding'". Constance Spry gave recipes for Spanish rice, pilaffs and risottos, as well as curries, rice salads and, all right, rice pudding. In playing up the importance of curry as an influence on British food, Collingham sometimes neglects its many other influences, notably from Europe. And occasionally, she makes statements that are oddly unverifiable - for example, this one: "In the unstable boom and bust of Mrs Thatcher's Britain, curry appealed to a British public which was hungry for stability and tradition." Perhaps there is an argument to be made about curry during the Thatcher era, but this isn't it.

For all that, this is a thoroughly absorbing book, packed with fascinating stories. I have not made any of the recipes yet, but they look appealing, too, especially the mango buttermilk lassi, the green coriander chutney and the Bengali potatoes seasoned with tamarind, a dish that Gandhi might have preferred to his porridge and stewed fruit.

Bee Wilson is writing a book about the history of adulteration

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great