chapter  2
21 Pages

The colonial appropriation of curry

Curry, a dish wholeheartedly embraced by the British both during and after the colonial era, evolved and mutated in both temporal and geographical terms. Its popularity peaked in the days of the East India Company when its employees embraced all things Indian. Even in its colonial heyday, curry was a dish that was the perfect example of food appropriation: it leapt from presidency to presidency in the sub-continent and across the colonies in the British Empire. Just as Anglo-Indian cookery was seen as the first pan-Indian cuisine,2 curry is the single most important dish that defines the culinary history of British imperialism. Specious claims of ownership and the authenticity of curry are contested and questioned by different communities. Curries were created, adapted and modified through the input of indigenous cooks, by the availability of ingredients in particular regions, by the social mores of the time

and also by health and nutritional thinking of the nineteenth century. Drawing from Anglo-Indian, Malayan and Singaporean cookbooks, memoirs, diaries, travelogues and other primary sources I demonstrate in this chapter that curry evolved as a hybrid, practical dish that could be made from leftover meat and poultry and which incorporated spice ingredients specifically selected for their preservative and nutritious qualities. The diverse range of curries that were created, along with the commercialization of curry powders in the nineteenth century, has made this food a stubborn relic of the Raj and a defining dish that helped to form culinary links between British colonies. This chapter expands on one of the central arguments in this book, namely

that the British in India and Malaya and Singapore consumed local foods far more frequently than the existing literature suggests. In particular, it focuses on curry, the ubiquitous dish that appeared daily in most colonial households. Furthermore, this chapter takes issue with existing interpretations that simply characterize ‘curry’ as a colonial fabrication and the argument that the British deliberately set out to appropriate curry in order to domesticate the colonial environment. I argue in contrast that although curry was adopted and adapted by colonizers it was not invented by them. Essentially, curry figured prominently in the colonial imagination, its culinary creation was a collective but haphazard effort of both the colonizer and the colonized. I will demonstrate that imperial ‘appropriation’, in particular of foodways, is a slippery concept. In the collaboration between memsahib and cook there was respect for Indian and Southeast Asian foodways. Undoubtedly curry has left its long-lasting taste, a legacy that survives into the postcolonial present. The popularity of curry today is a primary reason why the study of its history is significant.