Sakshi Venkatraman, NBC News, August 4, 2021
Desi American families hold their recipes close; they’re a tangible reminder of home and the generations it took to perfect them. But a step outside into the food landscape of the white west often reveals a culture that disregards, oversimplifies and stereotypes their meals.
“‘Your food must be really spicy. It must be stinky. It’s curry,’” Instagram food blogger Nisha Vedi Pawar, 36, told NBC Asian America. “And I was like, ‘What the hell is curry?’”
Desi chefs and home cooks grew up watching their parents make chawals, sambars, subzis and bajjis, an array of dry and gravied dishes from all over South Asia. But the British colonial word “curry” erased the distinction between them. “Curry” has long been used by white people to lump all dishes with stew or gravy into one category. But it’s a made-up word, and some brown cooks say it’s time for it to go. Or at least to be scrapped as a catch-all term for food from the Indian subcontinent.
“Curry shouldn’t be all that you think about when you think about South Asian food,” said Chaheti Bansal, 27, who posts her home-cooking videos online. In June, Bansal posted a recipe where she called on people to “cancel the word ‘curry.’” It’s since amassed over 3.6 million views after being reposted by BuzzFeed’s Tasty. She told NBC Asian America it’s not about fully canceling the word, just ending its use by people who don’t know what it means.
South Asian American cooks say they’ve spent their lives untangling shame and misconceptions when it comes to their foods, and now, they just want to celebrate it.
As South Asians across the diaspora know too well, generations of white people have misunderstood their cuisines. The way Desi food was characterized by the British during occupation has given way to the modern dismissal of thousands of distinct dishes as smelly, messy and unrefined, said Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Vermont whose work focuses on South Asia.
When it comes to “curry,” there are several theories.
“The word curry does not exist in any South Asian language to my knowledge,” said Morgenstein Fuerst. “Curry is one of these words that most historians attribute to the British bad ear.”
There are a few different schools of thought about which word British colonizers got “curry” from, Morgenstein Fuerst said. The most popular suggests that the British misheard the Tamil word “kari,” which itself means different things from region to region, ranging from “blackened” to “side dish.”
British officers in India adopted the word and spread it throughout the region as a loose description for pretty much any food they encountered, Morgenstein Fuerst said. It was a way for the British to avoid learning the names of extremely specific regional dishes and lump them all into one category — spicy, fragrant curry.
Europe has a long history of coveting South Asia for its spices, starting as early as the 1400s.
“There’s a long history of imagining what we would call Indian food as exotic and sought after,” she said. But despite white cravings for South Asian food, there was an expectation that cooks would appeal to the European palate. They wanted food that was spiced, Morgenstein Fuerst said, but not too much. Fragrant, but not smelly.
“And that lack of temperance, in our food, or in our emotionality, is a problem,” she said. “That’s one of the things that is rooted in white, Christian supremacy.”
So when the British came in the 1850s and started calling everything “curry,” Morgenstein Fuerst said, it was shifting power systems that made South Asians start using the word, too.
Colloquialisms are hard to undo, she said, so the word “curry” remains in the names of specific dishes. It’s used often in South India, sometimes to describe dishes in a gravy, dishes with meat, dishes with vegetables or side dishes, depending on the region.
With their online food videos and social media influence, Pawar and Bansal feel they’ve been chipping away at some of the assumptions and oversimplifications that exist in the Indian food arena. Overuse of “curry” is certainly one of them, but it’s the tip of the iceberg, they say.
They know that language doesn’t change overnight, and there are power systems in place that keep even some South Asian cooks from expanding beyond butter chicken and naan. But they encourage people to be intentional with their wording, learn about what they’re eating and recognize that “Indian food” is an umbrella term that contains hundreds of completely distinct cultures and cuisines.