According to Raghavan Iyer, “The sophistication of Indian cuisine, balancing six taste elements: hot, sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and astringent (umami was a much later discovery), is deeply embedded in the annals of ayurvedic medicine, from around the first century BCE, a science that dictated the role of spices, herbs, and other flavorings to regulate various body types for a sense of equilibrium. Temperature contrasts, colors, aromas, and textures were under consideration as well, as practitioners of ayurveda combined seemingly disparate ingredients with highly nuanced results, balancing the therapeutic qualities inherent in food. Every dish had a specific spicing technique, every stew and sauce a particular name. The word curry was nonexistent in any of the languages spoken in India for thousands of years until the British set deep colonial roots in this subcontinent.”
Throughout the centuries, all manner of tangible goods have traveled and/or been traded across continents because of refugees, conquerors, conflicts, wars, politics, economics and colonizers. Iyer makes special note of the British colonizers, who were in India for over 300 years, and what influence they had over curry and other Indian foodstuffs. “It was under the British Raj … that Indian stews and saucy dishes were bastardized into monochromatic Anglo-Indian cuisine. This muted the vibrant complexity of Indian foods …” Curry powders, pastes and recipes are found all over the globe, as evidenced in four of the book’s chapters (Asia; Africa & The Middle East; Europe & Oceania; The Americas).
The 50 recipes, “ … are broken down by nation within continents.” And Iyer states, “I have never been a fan of using words like authentic, classic, and traditional to describe recipes from different parts of the world.” In his very concise and captivating history of curry, curry powder, and curry dishes, he says,“ food is dynamic and is a reflection of the fluidity of cultures that accommodate new ingredients and techniques, or adjusts when ingredients are or techniques fall out of favor.” That is why I love to read this type of cookbook because it provides histories of foods, foodstuffs, ingredients, recipes and marvelous analysis and insights about people and food.
The recipes are clearly printed, and each one is preceded by a brief historical comment or anecdote, followed by cooking tips. For those of us (I am one) who can never consistently cook any type of rice correctly, on pages 192-194, Iyer presents three methods for preparing basmati rice: My Steeped Basmati Rice; Absorption/Steeping Method; Open-Pot Pasta Method. There are conversion tables; an abridged bibliography; an index. As if any type of discussion about curry needed added intensity, there are vibrant illustrations from four artists: Neethi, Anisa Makhoul, Jenny Bowers, and Marisol Ortega.
This is Raghavan Iyer’s last book. After many years of fighting cancer, he died on March 31, 2023, but his sense of purpose and humor never left him as displayed in this interview with Ari Shapiro on NPR. Other books by Mr. Iyer can be found here.