In Curry, Naben Ruthnum grapples with novels, recipes, travelogues, pop culture, and his own upbringing and depicts how the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity. Curry is a dish that doesn’t quite exist, but, as this wildly funny and sharp essay points out, a dish that doesn’t properly exist can have infinite, equally authentic variations.
Get a taste of Curry in the following excerpt, and read Naben’s thoughts on the passage below.
The second curry of note I’ll mention is Homecoming Shrimp Curry, which has become the staple meal I associate with Christmas in the Ruthnum household. It’s shouldered aside kleftiko and a Persian fish dish with a walnut stuffing as the go-to son-pleaser for my annual returns home, and my parents like it just as much as I do. It’s a deep greenish-brown, a shade you don’t often see in Indian restaurants outside of perhaps a saag: while Westerners may like brown food, they don’t like it to actually be brown. The sauce has a density earned by its ingredients and process: Mom makes the masala with large, motherfuckering onion chunks that would be the star of the dish if the sauce didn’t take a midmorning whirl through the food processor before being returned to the pan. The huge shrimp, decanted frozen into a colander from a frozen bag, like chilled practical effects from a 1980s alien-invasion movie before the sauce catches up to them and they’re subsumed into the curry, white and pink peaks in the murky simmer.
Time and varying heat are key to this dish’s success, a daylong process of heating, settling, cooling, and boiling whose alchemy seems beyond science. That’s often part of curry narra- tives, too: the ineffable, inexplicable Eastern magic performed on electric Western stoves. Top British chef Heston Blumenthal, on his television show In Search of Perfection, where he sought to make perfected versions of classic dishes such as hamburger and steak by seeking out their ur-versions and distilling histor- ically successful processes into a measured, modern method, had scientists do a study on the use of yogourt in the marinade for chicken cooked in a tandoor for his tikka masala episode.
While it was proven that yogourt vastly aided the marinade’s absorption, they couldn’t figure out why. It just did. While this made for an irresistible y[ moment, and I don’t doubt Mr. Blumenthal’s standards or the BBC’s scientist-hiring resources, it strikes me as odd that what seems like a simple matter of chemistry and biology should be insoluble.
There’s no magic or formula involved in the time and heat factors of Homecoming Shrimp Curry, but there is particularity. As in many immigrant households, one of my parents prepared food in the morning and reheated it throughout the day, the knobs on the stove and eventually the button on the microwave enduring twists and pokes as mealtimes came around. In the case of this curry, the multiple simmerings are what elevate it to Christmas dinner and my first off-the-plane meal. The basics are simple, and as I can’t think of a good reason not to include the recipe, I’ll give it to you. Here’s a direct paste of the email that Mom sent me so I could botch the making of the dish:
I called to inquire about the accuracy of this recipe, and it turns out my recall was wrong: Mom does food-process the onions before the cooking starts, not after. The pureeing-of- the-completed-sauce thing comes, I realize, from a Gordon Ramsay chicken tikka masala recipe I used to make all the time when I lived in Montreal, with a roommate who had a Cuisinart. Mom also leaves out the bit about time lapses and reheating throughout the day, but that’s hard to quantify on the page. I don’t follow the turmeric-fry step of the recipe-seems to me that the shrimp cook so fast, they should do it in the gravy where they belong. Then again, my dish somehow isn’t a patch to Mom’s: this is a trope, yes, but it remains true here – I know I can fix it if I master the timing.
There are some moments in this recipe that an Indian- cuisine purist would find harrowing. For example, the ‘fish curry powder from Superstore.’ At the popular food blog Foodàó, Bay Area food writer Annada Rathi rails against these concoctions: ‘That’s when I feel like screaming from the rooftops, “Curry is not Indian!”; “Curry powder is not Indian!”; and “You will not find curry powder in Indian kitchens!”’ She’s certainly been in more kitchens in India than the zero I’ve entered, so I’ll take her word, but I’ll tell you this: every dias- poric kitchen I’ve opened cupboards in contains curry powder, even if it is a home blend of dry spices tipped into an old Patak’s screw-on glass jar. Rathi isn’t a hardliner – she goes on to note that ‘in the course of this article, it has dawned on me that “curry” is the most ambiguous and therefore the most flexible word, a broad term that conveys the idea of cooked, spiced, saucy or dry, vegetable, meat, or vegetable and meat dish in the most appropriate manner available.’ The spectacular imprecision of the term speaks to its ability to encompass centuries of food history, cooking, misinterpretation, and rein- vention: it’s truly the diasporic meal, even when it stays at home. Curry is only definably Indian because India is a country that has the world in it.
There is a truth to the tropes of cooking and homeland and curry, but it can’t possibly contain the entire truth: the overlaps in this conversation between writers like Lahiri, Koul, and me are vast, covering our relationships to our parents and a land we barely know compared to the countries where we wake up every day. In the details, the distinct efforts to set personal experience apart – my insistence that Mom has no kitchen secrets and that cooking was never meant to be a key to the exotic but a passage to adulthood, Koul’s universal reflections on whether there is a point when one ever stops needing one’s mom, Lahiri’s foray into cookbook learning – are there, but I wonder if they are present for readers who are drawn to and receive these pieces. Are the brown, diasporic readers looking for commiseration? And are the non-brown ones looking for an exotic, nostalgic tour of a foreigner’s unknowable kitchen? The short answer, I believe, is yep.
This recipe comes at the end of a section of Curry where I discuss the homeland-authentic-magic of the cooking of brown mothers, in reality and in writing. I recall having a tough time with this part, in that I was pointing to a repetitive trope that I found confining, but with the awareness that I was also talking about the lived truth of many diasporic eaters and writers.
That’s why I chose to discuss a curry that had a particular significance to the patterns of my life and to my literal homecomings–home for me being not India, not Mauritius, but rather unexciting Kelowna, B.C. The recipe, pasted verbatim from an email of my mother’s, gave me a chance to talk about curry powder, which is commonly targeted in food writing as being inauthentic and something that no real Indian would ever use. If that’s true, then my family is even further from India than time and geography would suggest, and I’m fine with that. The movements of diaspora and food culture, and the different labels that are appended to spice mixtures ground in Indian factories to be placed on Western grocery shelves are more interesting to me than enacting an authenticity that may have little to do with me, a Mauritian-Canadian whose family cooked with what we could access.
There is an accidental mother’s-magic-trope in here that I’m embarrassed to have missed at every stage of publication, except when I was asked to excerpt this recipe section for a magazine: Mom didn’t include any amounts next to the ingredients. This is a recipe you have to freehand and make several times before you can get it exactly right.
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Naben Ruthnum won the Journey Prize for his short fiction, has been a National Post books columnist, and has written books and cultural criticism for the Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and the Walrus. His crime fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Joyland, and his pseudonym Nathan Ripley’s first novel appeared in 2018. Ruthnum lives in Toronto.