2 parts memoir, 3 parts literary analysis, and 5 parts entertainment, Naben Ruthnum’s writes with precision, opening the door to introspection, making readers think twice about what they think about “curry”.
Food and literature are the defining elements of the way he sees himself in the Indian diaspora. He’s not wrong. For someone of ethnic origin we are part and parcel of the perception around that culture. For people of South-Asian origin, curry and spices are infused into our identity.
Naben Ruthnum describes how (unlike reading) eating was not something that as a child he had a choice in. Children just ate what the household provided; and that cuisine becomes the norm.
“The introduction of sour cream into a curry, by the way, wouldn’t be entertained in the home I grew up in. Yogourt, sure, but not sour cream.”
For Naben, it also became the baseline for what was acceptable as “authentic” when it came to certain types of curries. For him, other curries, especially in western restaurants, were diluted to some extent to cater to the palettes of white people.
“Mothers are an important and authentic part of the curry genre, both cooked and written: not only a source of accessible cross-cultural nostalgia, but a reminder that there are domestic, comforting aspects to exoticism.”
There is some absurdity (and reliability) to his reference of cooking and recipes as being incredibly personal. The exact ingredients aren’t clear to anyone except the cook he suggests, and sometimes not even to him or her. He uses his own mom as a reference, who seemed to painstakingly avoid writing out the recipe for use afterwards. Personally I can relate to this, both from my mom and my mom-in-law who are both undeniably the best cooks in the world, but who do ignore my persistent requests for their recipes.
“One of the conventions of diasporic food writing dictates that the writer’s identity and self discovery are implicitly linked to tracing-back of culinary roots, a finding-out of who he or she really is in the rich smell of a Keralan masala, finally nailed.
But seriously, why is it that curry is a defined as a marked characteristic for every brown person out there? That is the point of contention that the author has in "Curry". I totally support his strong views.
“Like the English language, curry is a colonial endpoint: everything ended up in it, and it remains infinitely changeable, even its complex colonial roots become disguised as homeland authenticity.”
I enjoyed the slow essay of the history and cultural references of curry. Reading the book felt akin to making a pot of curry, slowly adding the ingredients one by one, stirring, simmering, lowering the heat, then repeating with another wonderful spice.
Making curry takes time, like a slow simmering of the meal, one which needs care in handling and preparing, one which takes patience to perfect, but the destination is worthy of the journey.
Naben Ruthnum refers to other writers who have written essays on this subject. From Australian chef Ragini Dey’s book Spice Kitchen to Meera Sodha’s 2015 Made in India: Recipes from and Indian Family Kitchen, these references just add to the understanding or misunderstanding of why curry is so widely debatable and complex. I also loved that he also shared his mom’s recipes, like Kay’s Madras Prawn Curry, although he goes through a lengthy inquiry and investigative purpose as to the accuracy of this recipe.
This seemingly unlikely yet truly likable book is the result of Ruthnum's style, which he described to the CBC "I'm not a big outliner or plotter. I write and just see where I am going."
Curry is published by Coach House Books.