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The Curry Chronicles, Part 1

Rustum Kozain dishes up some definitives on the many incarnations of curry and the art, or science, of making it real.

The world of curry is confusing. The root of the word, “curry”, is from the Tamil ka’ri, which means sauce/ gravy/ relish – a generic term. And so even a stew (the South African bredie, say) is a curry of sorts. But “curry” has come to mean a dish or dishes with a particular, erm, spice profile. And it has itself become a generic term for a range of dishes – of meat, fish, vegetables, pulses – that broadly fall within that spice profile. Within that profile, curry can be as various as the millions of personal recipes based on years of experience of roasting and blending the spices in the curry tradition – in that spice profile – and the millions of hapless homecooks messing it up with Rajah’s or whomever’s curry powder.

And so the quest for the perfect curry – my quest – is ontologically and etymologically impossible. There are far too many different ‘curries’ – that is, again, different dishes that we may call curry – far too many to ever gather enough experience across the range. Think about it: from the first time someone in India thought to mix some ground cumin and coriander into their braising onions, how many millions of cooks have been born, in different parts of that place, cooking with what’s available in a region, going through how many ‘encounters’ (invasions), taking on influences from invaders and traders. And that’s before anyone decides to add a little bit more of this or that to their recipe. In its historical context, curries have been subject to manifold variation; but in its composition it can also be tweaked ad infinitum. It’s science and art. But it’s terrible because I will never know all the actually existing curries, let alone be able to cook them.

Yes, I obsess about curry. It was my favourite food as a child and now it is a dish I am most readily prepared to cook. It’s easy to make: chop-chop, braise away, mix-mix, add the meat, and two hours later (for lamb) you can zone out on endorphins.

Authenticity critics pooh-pooh the idea of ready-mixed spices, the nadir of which is best known as curry powder. In South Africa, the popular one is Rajah curry powder, a very flat blend of spices used by couldn’t-care-less cooks, but nevertheless put to good use in two enduring South African dishes, bobotie and pickled fish (dishes I don’t admit to the curry pantheon however).


This article appeared in print in Chronic 2 (August 2013)

Basically, curry powder is a masala (a mixture of spices) that colonial Brits brought back  home to remind them of the hallucinogenic qualities of the food they ate back in the Raj. And it’s part of that universal story of how vocabulary from one language gets taken up and mutates in another language, and is then flattened by mass-produced commercial product. So curry was made with curry powder and from there on it was curried beans and curried bockwurst, worlds away from Tikka or Rogan Josh or Korma or Keema or Pasanda or Saag, proper. Each of these latter dishes depend on different blends of spices (recognisably in the curry spectrum), on which of these spices in the mix are roasted or raw, on what stage of the cooking process they are added, and how the dish is cooked (pan, pot, oven, coals, tandoori). Forms of curry powder I have known just don’t cut the mustard.

Yes, I have used Rajah curry powder, in student days, when I was still learning to cook, and there was nothing but onions, salt and curry powder in the cupboard. But a curry powder doesn’t have to be terrible. In The Art of British Cooking (1965), for example, Theodora Fitzgibbon advises against commercial curry powder and provides a recipe for blending your own, the recipe reportedly from the 18th century. Surprise! It’s a basic garam masala, a sort of foundation for further elaboration in some curry traditions, in others, added as the final tweak five or ten minutes before a dish is done cooking.

But you can get excellent ready-mixed curry powder/ masala. Travellers from Cape Town to Durban or Johannesburg often suffer the burden of having to bring back kilograms of masala from a particular emporium. It’s lamb masala and fish masala and wet masala and chicken korma masala. But there are also some mass-produced masalas from India and Pakistan now available in South Africa. Shan, a Pakistani company, produces more than 20 different blends and I use them without shame. These mixes are so remarkable that I don’t even follow the recipes for the dishes that are more or less stew-based: I just cook the curry as I had learnt and add the Shan. (No, I don’t work for them.)

Recently, a contact introduced me to Shalimar masalas, a commercial Kenyan product. I’ve only tried the Nyama curry so far and found it a bit flat compared to the complexity of Shan’s mixes, but still with a distinctive profile. And that’s the great thing about curry: whichever recipe becomes a default will have originated in a specific home region, by a specific cook or family, travelled abroad, mutating perhaps by use of substitutes or the absence of  ingredients in a new environment, and tweaked for commercial production. Curry evolves in response to regional contexts and, in different regions, will have distinct identities while maintaining its original genetic stamp. Authenticists may have a problem with this; I don’t. I’ve tasted a great little curry in France, not in an ‘Indian’ restaurant, but in a local bar in a small town frequented by, erm, blanc Français. It had almost nothing to do with what I know of curry (limited as it is), and yet it was unmistakably a curry – very mild but properly aromatic.

Given the variation that curry allows in its very epistemology, curry migrates, mutates and not only survives, but counter-colonises: the curry strikes back. Some form of curry, for instance, is considered the national dish of England, having displaced fish and chips.

The first curries in South Africa came here via the Malayan archipelago when rebels and slaves from there were brought to the Cape by the Dutch. Remember, this all happens while European colonial powers are fighting over access to spices in India and Malaya. Sumatra and Java in Indonesia, in their turn, have a deep Hindu history, stretching back to the 7th century, from whence surely curry in Indonesia. I have tasted Sumatran beef rendang in Indonesia, a hot curry and one, by god, I have tasted in some Cape Town homes. But it’s the milder Javanese curry – less hot, almost sweet – that gives us one broad historical branch of South African curry. I call it “Western Cape Curry”. Of course it’s not isolated from its sister branch – which I call “Durban Curry”. People, after all, have sex across all sorts of divisions, especially after curry. Chilli is an aphrodisiac. But Western Cape Curry has its own origins, traditions and mutations, and tends to be milder and yellow (more turmeric?).

Reddish Durban Curry of course arrives in South Africa with the indentured labourers and “passenger Indians” from various parts of India in the 19th century (Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh). One branch of this curry tree was canonised by a women’s collective, the Women’s Cultural Group in Durban, in the now famous, classic and ubiquitous Indian Delights. I follow their biryani recipe, doubling the spice ask and thereby intensifying the flavour of the overall dish. Better than my mother’s. But biryani is a labour-intensive dish, and a rice dish, a branch of south Asian cooking reaching back to the Mughals and, by extension to then Persia. It calls for more research.

I leave you instead with a most basic curry recipe from Indian Delights:

– 2 onions, finely sliced or chopped or grated or liquidised (the finer your onion, the more viscous your eventual gravy)

– 2 tomatoes chopped, grated or liquidised

– 1 teaspoon salt

– 1 teaspoon chilli (chopped, dry or fresh, or chilli powder)

– 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

– ¾ teaspoon dry turmeric

– ¾ teaspoon minced ginger and garlic

– some oil

Cook onions in oil at medium heat until translucent, not brown nor crispy. Add tomato and spices, stir. Add some water if necessary. Simmer.

There’s your curry base. Add meat or vegetables, etc. and cook as required for it to be soft. Serve with rice. Basmati preferred.


CHRONIC ISSUE 2This article was originally published in the Chronic (August 2013).

In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states. To read the article in full get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.

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