Freedom from the curry tag
How Indian-origin chefs liberated Indian food from the anglicised spicy gravy narrative
Chef Vineet Bhatia believes the word “curry" is derogatory. “What is a curry? My mother would never say she cooked aloo or chicken curry. It would be rasewala aloo or tariwala chicken," he says. Bhatia grew up in Mumbai and started his professional culinary journey at the Oberoi in the late 1980s. When non-Indian guests would ask for a curry, he would feel offended—because India’s diverse gravy-based dishes cannot be categorized into an umbrella term. Any self-respecting chef who specializes in Indian cuisine is bound to react like him. The word “curry" was probably coined by the British when they were confronted by the variety of gravies and sauce-based dishes in India; tellingly, the word does not exist in any of India’s 22 official languages. And yet, it has become synonymous with Indian food globally. The Curry Chronicles, the podcast on gastropod.com, provides a detailed history of how “curry" took birth in the kitchens of the British in India and travelled to culinary hot spots like London and New York. Packaged curry masala—usually a blend of turmeric, chilli and coriander powders— is sold in Indian stores and supermarkets abroad, though you would find it tough to locate “curry powder" in a supermarket in India. When a dish becomes a hot-seller on the streets, it is a sure-shot mark of its mass appeal. This is what happened in the bustling curry houses of London run by Bangladeshi immigrants. When Bhatia left for London in 1993, he was appalled by what they were selling as Indian food. Knowledge of Indian food was scarce, he recalls. The easy-on-the-pocket eateries, which served frightfully spicy dishes, were late Friday-night haunts for pub-goers, who would stumble in, too inebriated to tell the flavours apart, and ask for “curry". “This kind of cuisine adoption is akin to Indian-Chinese. You will never find paneer manchurian in China," says Bhatia. India’s food was both misrepresented and misunderstood. To appease the palates of a Western audience, flavours and even colours had been altered completely. They were habituated to “curries" or gravies with chunks of onion and tomato with half-an-inch of oil on top, garnished with capsicum. These were loaded with turmeric because yellow gravies had an Indian association. Even chicken butter masala had pieces of deep-fried chicken in a yellow gravy, says Bhatia. If he served the butter chicken sold in India, it would be rejected. So, he described it as “chicken tikka morsels in creamy tomato sauce with fenugreek leaves".
Once, he served a classic rogan josh and guests complained there was no capsicum. Thereafter, rogan josh became “slow-cooked shank of lamb with north Indian spices" and gajar ka halwa turned into “slow-cooked caramelized carrot fudge with dry fruits". He says, “The descriptions demanded that the food is plated and served in a different manner, like contemporary European food. I was doing it purely to survive but it broke boundaries too. It came to be known as modern Indian cuisine." By the noughties, the internet had created an information boom. With the proliferation of bloggers, YouTubers and even TV shows, the conversation about food turned to authenticity. In 2001, Zaika, the London restaurant Bhatia started in 1999, earned a Michelin star. He ventured out, to Geneva, Dubai—and India. In 2009, Rasoi, his restaurant in Geneva, earned him a second Michelin star. Bhatia is not the only chef who has helped shape a more evolved understanding of Indian cuisine globally. By 2017, Gaggan Anand had earned two Michelin stars for his restaurant, Gaggan, in Bangkok, which served progressive Indian cuisine. In 2019, Netflix catapulted London-based chef Asma Khan to fame. She runs Darjeeling Express, with a menu offering home-style food from Kolkata.
With these chefs leading the way, Indian cuisine is a far cry from its anglicized curry identity. “Think pairing a Sabyasachi sari with Tiffany’s jewellery or A.R. Rahman’s music in Slumdog Millionaire. That is my food. It’s modern global Indian," says Bhatia.